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Posts Tagged ‘Abraham Cowley’

By now I expect most of you know how the mayor’s representation meeting went – just as I predicted, I’m afraid.  I sat there dutifully through the whole performance, but it left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I’ve put off writing this until now, ten days later. What kind of democracy is this where one man can totally over-rule the views of  our locally-elected council members and MP like this?

Sadly,  it seems to me that wily Boris used a largely feigned show of interest in the two local heritage projects (Sayes Court Garden and Build the Lenox) as a smoke-screen behind which to calmly wave through the atrocious development proposals.  What’s more, despite paying lavish lip-service to them,  the two projects were in reality left with not much more than the offer of feasibility studies and negotiations, rather than any firm commitments. The serious  concerns of the local community about the height of the towers, the scale and position of the buildings, inadequate transport, social exclusion, and so on were simply brushed aside time and again, in such a facile and formulaic fashion (“the G.L.A. is of the opinion that the proposal would enhance the value of the Master Shipwright’s House; “the G.L.A. is of the opinion that the proposal would enhance the value of Deptford High St”, and so on, ad nauseam) that it led to frequent gasps and outbreaks of incredulous laughter among the audience.

As for Sayes Court Garden: Boris showed his true level of interest several times by referring to it as “Sayes Park”. He is not unique in confounding the modern park with Sayes Court Garden, but he took it a step further by raising the suggestion of incorporating part of the park into the proposed Sayes Court Garden project. Why? Because the project needs more land to be viable, at least one hectare according to the National Trust’s Mike Buffin,  but the developers have so far offered just a measly half hectare. Boris thought he’d found a solution which would mean Hutchison Whampoa didn’t have to cede any more land – i.e., grab some of the existing park (outside the boundary of the development) instead. Understandably, the Lewisham Council contingent were not impressed by this ploy.

But to put all this in perspective: Evelyn’s Sayes Court Garden extended over an area of 100 acres – that’s over forty hectares! So, how could a project confined to such a tiny area as half, or at most one hectare possibly “express the John Evelyn legacy”, as the GLA spokesman put it?

By contrast, the developers appear to have latched onto the idea of a  “John Evelyn centre” – i.e. allocating part of one of the blocks they intend building, over the site of the manor house, in which a horticultural training institute  would be based. For this they said they were earmarking over two million pounds. I have two observations to make on this.

Firstly, I’m afraid it came as no surprise to me when Boris commented that he couldn’t really “see the merit of seeing the foundations of a workhouse” and even that he thought “that chunk of territory was of negligible interest” (!)  Had I been able to respond, (and I wonder why the developer’s archaeologist didn’t say this?) I would have pointed out that the archaeology done so far has only exposed the topmost layers of remains on (only part of) the site of the manor – so what would be on view to the public is mostly the nineteenth century workhouse and emigration depot. To explore deeper would have meant extending the area of the trench and removing these late levels; something I suppose they felt went beyond the remit of an “evaluation” dig. But if the remains are to be displayed in future  as those of Sayes Court Manor House,  surely this demands further excavation work to locate as much as possible of what has survived of the manor house itself?

Secondly, it seems to me that  a disproportionate amount of emphasis – and potentially, money – is being given to the delivery of a building, and within that the setting up of an organisation, as opposed to the creation of an actual garden which would be worthy of  Evelyn’s desire to create a Deptford Elysium.

As his friend Abraham Cowley said in his poem “The Wish” : “May I a small house and large garden have”…

 

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“Lads! Run away ! There’s a snake in the grass!”

An alarming welcome to a garden, you might think!  But so translates the Latin quotation that heads John Evelyn’s handwritten list of  classical mottoes displayed around Sayes Court Garden: “O pueri fugite hinc, latet anguis in herba.”  I can only speculate why he chose to use this particular line.  Was it a serious warning about the darker side of nature?  Or was it perhaps meant as a joke,  and the snake a harmless painted or sculpted one, a bit like this lovely one I spotted recently at Hampton Court Palace Flower show?

Anguis in herba

The quote is a line from Virgil’s Eclogues (3.93), uttered in an enigmatic singing match between two shepherds.  In the seventeenth century, anyone with a good education would have known where most of Evelyn’s quotations came from, and been able to appreciate their aptness for the situation in which he had placed them.  A walk around Sayes Court garden would therefore have been not just a horticultural experience but also a carefully thought-through literary, philosophical, and even spiritual one.

Alas!  There’s no sign of any such depth in the  latest tweaks to the masterplan for Convoys Wharf.  I listened with dismay to the smooth talk on their website about a “contemporary interpretation” of Sayes Court garden, which seems to translate as – wait for it – a couple of lines of trees leading out of the present park, and a few  lines in the pavement.  All this so-called “consultation,” but no-one among the developers actually listens.  So I’ll spell it out in simple terms. We want  an authentic SEVENTEENTH CENTURY RESTORATION of  Sayes Court Garden, not a minimalist 21st century “interpretation”  for goodness’ sake – there are plenty of those around already!

If, against the odds, my dream of a restoration were actually to happen, Evelyn’s mottoes would be part of it – with English translations to hand, perhaps on the backs.  The original mottoes would probably have been painted on wood, and I imagine them hanging from branches or perhaps mounted on walls or fences.  Their reincarnations could be combined with statues, particular planting, and so on.  Plenty of scope for ingenuity and art…

Here, in the order Evelyn wrote them, are some of the rest of the garden mottoes, with their references as I’ve managed to trace them, translations, and a few comments of my own in square brackets.

Perpetual spring

2. Hic ver perpetuum, varios hic flumina

circumfundit humus flores

(Virgil, Eclogue IX)

“Here is shining spring,

Here amid streams blow many-coloured flowers.”

[Now, this is more the sort of message one would expect to read!

This eclogue continues: “Here poplars hoary-tressed droop o’er the cave,

And lo! the limber vine plaits leafy bowers.

Hither! and let mad billows beat the strand.”

The mad billows of the nearby Deptford Strand?]

Spring by her flowers he knows

3.  Ver sibi flore notat

(Claudian, carmina minora 20)

“Spring by flowers he knows.”

This poem is about an old man who stayed close to home throughout his life.  Evelyn’s friend Abraham Cowley translated it and included it in his essay, “The dangers of an honest man in much company.”  The meaning of the line is that the wise person marks the passage of time by the changes in nature, not by man-made events (or contraptions, for that matter). The poem continues:

“He measures time by landmarks, and has found

For the whole day the dial of his ground.”

Since “dial” could mean a sundial, my bet is that this motto was on or near a sundial in the garden. We know there was one at the centre of the parterre.

17th c. Garden Party

4. Inter gestantium complexus, inter adorantium oscula, inter plausus admirantium: hic [?] vis quidem, at [?] gloriosa vita! – Nosegay.

(Claudius Batholomaeus Morisotus: Peruviana, published 1645)

“Among the embraces of  joyful people, among the kisses of the adoring, among the applause of admirers – this is violence indeed, but a famous life!”

The above translation is my own.  It’s provisional,  especially where I’m not sure of his handwriting. Evelyn has apparently adapted a passage from p. 319 of the above book, a Latin novel nominally set in Peru but actually, it seems, referring to political figures in France.  The second half of the motto recalls the last words of Julius Caesar as his assassins plunged at him: “Ista quidem vis est” “This is violence!”

“Nosegay”, written right after the motto, probably means that this motto was in his private garden, part of whose function was to provide flowers for making nosegays or posies.  If I read this right, it offers us an interesting insight into how he saw his own and his garden’s celebrity.

More garden mottoes next time.

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Many thanks to Frances Harris for kindly sending me photocopies of Evelyn’s motto lists.

Anyone who knows any more about 17th c. house and garden mottoes, or knows of any surviving examples or images of them, I’d love to hear from you.  Also from those whose Latin is less rusty than mine.

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Our walk-through of Sayes Court garden in spring 1658 didn’t include Evelyn’s private garden “of choice flowers and simples”, (that is, plants with medicinal use) lying along the western side of the manor house. Although called “private”, we can be sure that Evelyn would welcome us, because he loved to show people around his garden. As his friend the poet Abraham Cowley wrote:

“I know no body that possesses more private Happiness than you do in your Garden; and yet no Man who makes his Happiness more publick, by a free communication of the Art and Knowledge of it to others”

Door through mount

So let’s go back to 1658, to early September, and take a brief look at the delights sheltered inside the Private Garden’s ten-foot high brick wall. Here we are at the entrance-door, with steps climbing to the top of the mount-walk that overlooks the oval garden parterre behind us, and a small door to a passageway through the mount and into the nursery on our left.

Amaranthus

As we push open the door, the rich tang of herbs and ripening fruits greets us. The near (southern) half of the garden is bathed in the afternoon sunshine. In the long rectangular beds that run down the centre of each of the four hexagonal grassed areas arranged around the central fountain there are vivid mounds of flowers, among them the dramatic dark red tails of amaranthus and vigorous violet clumps of stock gillyflowers, (the secret of their vigour is that they are sown on a hot-bed in February, and only planted out around now).

Old elm

Beckoning to us from the far north-western corner is a shady arbour underneath two tall elms, which have obviously been there for a very long time, as have the others that we can see towering over the other side of the garden wall beyond them – a row of seven ancient half-hollow elms in all.

Pigeons flap to and fro from a purpose-built pigeon house on top of Evelyn’s laboratory on our left. A new building that proclaims Evelyn’s scientific curiosity (what future member of the Royal Society could be without one?), the laboratory is fronted by a twenty-foot long colonnaded portico dotted with citrus, myrtle, and other prized plants in pots and cases.

The private or fountain garden

Opposite, in the area between the two main westward-facing wings of the house, and overlooked by the grand new gabled windows of the withdrawing room to the parlour, is an aviary stocked with colourful caged birds. Its parrots add the occasional exotic squawk to the cooing of the pigeons, the soft trickle of water in the fountain, and the murmur of bees coming and going from the intriguing ornamental glass apiary placed against the north wall, a prized gift from Dr Wilkins of Waddum in 1654.

The garden’s basic layout, an intimate enclosed space arranged in four geometric beds around the central fountain, with intersecting and surrounding gravel paths, owes, we
suspect, quite a bit to Evelyn’s father-in-law, Richard Browne, and to his Elizabethan and medieval predecessors.

Espalier fruit tree

But Evelyn himself has planted and tended it since he moved to Sayes Court in 1652. It is he, we feel sure, who has planted the six cypresses that circle the fountain area, and has lined the walls with peach trees, vines, cherries and grapes.

He has edged the beds not with box, (because of its tendency to drain the goodness from the soil and out-compete the choice flowers), but with wooden boards as well as with shrubs of lavender cotton, kept carefully clipped to about a foot high. We also spot rosemary, which he distils to make “Hungary water,” the first alcohol-based perfume to be widely-used in Europe, which was also thought to be medicinal.

Flower bed

As we stroll towards the elm arbour we pass a wealth of herbs, shrubs and flowers – among them thyme, sedum, tragacantha, night-scented pelargoniums, Martagon lily, marvel of Peru, snapdragons, Canterbury bells, sunflowers, nasturtium, and too many others to name.

Martagon lily

We take a curious peek into the tool shed and fruit store at the end of the laboratory, from where potent ripening scents are emanating. Spades, shovels, mattocks we are familiar with, but there are also wooden tubs, cases, and boxes, pottery watering “cans”, scythes, woven baskets, metal, stone and wooden rollers, bundles of stakes, and many other mysterious objects. And then, our eyes light on the enticing stacks of apples, pears and plums on the shelves…

Most tantalizingly of all, there is a notebook lying on one shelf in which everything that is planted, when and where, and how it prospers, is meticulously recorded. Unfortunately, this precious document is too humble to have been preserved up to our own time. Which is where we must now think about returning – after one last moment of quiet enjoyment and reflection in the beautiful arbour of thickly-intertwining elm boughs.

Arbour

Abraham Cowley’s preface-poem to Evelyn’s “Sylva” comes to mind:

“Oh! who would change these soft, yet solid Joys,
For empty Shows and senseless Noise;
And all which rank Ambition breeds,
Which seem such beauteous Flowers, and are such poisonous Weeds?”


 

Main sources: Evelyn’s gardening Calendar (“Calendarium hortense”) under the month of September; his “Directions for the Gardiner at Says Court” (list of fruit trees planted in the Fountaine-Garden; notes for rarer simples and exotics; notes for the coronary garden; notes for coronary flowers rarer; tools and instruments necessary for a gardiner); Evelyn’s 1653 map of Sayes Court (see earlier posts); Prudence Leith-Ross, “The Garden of John Evelyn at Deptford” (Garden History vol. 25, no.2).; Mark Laird, “Parterre, grove and flower garden” in “John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum and European Gardening”. Abraham Cowley’s poem can be read in full in the Project Gutenberg ebook of Sylva. The garden photos are from Groombridge Place, Ham House, and the Restoration House at Rochester.

Postscript:
So far, the only reference to the actual fountain I have come across in Evelyn’s writing is a warning to others to be sure to lag their water pipes in cold weather, or suffer, as he did,  the expense of repairing the damage when they burst!  However, my guess is the basin might have looked something like the one at Drummond Castle, shown below (the central pillar-fountain has been edited out).

Fountain base, Drummond Castle

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