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Posts Tagged ‘Convoys wharf development’

Braving cold and squelchy weather and choppy waters on the Thames ferry, garden history enthusiasts packed the hall at the Linnaean Society and afterwards at the Master Shipwright’s house in Deptford yesterday to hear some enthralling talks on John Evelyn’s Sayes Court garden and discuss ideas for its restoration.

Eminent speakers included such experts as Gillian Darley, author of Evelyn biography “Living for ingenuity”, Frances Harris, who curated the Evelyn archive at the British Library and has written “Transformations of Love”, a fascinating account of Evelyn’s life and spiritual friendship with Margaret Godolphin; Professor Michael Hunter from Birkbeck College; Jan Woudstra from Sheffield University, Jonathan Lovie from the Garden History Society, and a recorded slide talk by Mark Laird of Harvard.

To mention just a few of the things that were discussed:  Gillian Darley introduced the day with an enjoyable overview of “Evelyn’s villa on the Thames”. Given Evelyn’s scientific interests and pioneering writings on the importance of clean air and earth, a disembodied but eloquent Mark Laird suggested that Sayes Court could be the home of an institute dedicated to exploring sustainable solutions to the social and ecological problems of modern urban life.   Jan Woudstra talked about the planting, and brought home to me just how densely Evelyn planted his grove – with five hundred odd trees there, he calculates they would only be about four or five feet apart.  Add to that the underplanting of bushes such as hazel, various fruits, and other greens, and this meant that after they grew to about three and a half metres high, they’d need to be thinned or else start to die off.  He described the garden as one primarily for horticultural experimentation rather than “showing off”.  He then raised the question of where exactly Evelyn had built the greenhouse that we know he had in later years.

Frances Harris thinks it was most probably adjoining the manor house. In my recent poring over the 1692 Gascoyne map (see my previous post) I noticed an extension at the back (north) end of the house, fronting onto the walled private/fountain garden, which we agreed in later conversation was the most likely candidate.  A greenhouse at that time was not what we mean by the term today (a glasshouse). It was more like a cross between an orangery and a gallery, somewhere to stroll in company, while admiring the exotic plants.

In her talk Frances showed some wonderful images she’s unearthed from the BL Evelyn archive, including a lovely sketch of the inside of his “elaboratorie” by Evelyn himself, as well as pages of intriguing mottoes drawn from classical literature, which once hung around the house and the garden. These seemed to be meant to help inspire a contemplative state of mind in the reader. Probably originally painted on wood, and mostly in Latin; I think something similar would be great to include a literary and artistic aspect in the potential restoration.

After milling around in the Queen’s wake for some time near the newly re-opened Cutty Sark at Greenwich, we made our slightly bedraggled way to Sayes Court Park, and then on to the Master Shipwright’s, where Tim Richardson of the GHS, garden columnist and writer, summed up the day’s talks and opened a discussion on possible directions for the restoration of the garden.

An exciting and thought-provoking day, and very well-attended thanks to the hard work of the organizers in the GHS, LPGT, and Deptford is…

When I first aired my idea of restoring Sayes Court garden three years ago, very few people seemed to be really aware of the importance of the place, and I could hardly foresee the tide of enthusiastic support that now seems to be rising in favour of the proposal.  This looks like it really might  become – to borrow a nice phrase originally describing the garden of John Beale, with whom Evelyn corresponded,  “no phantastical utopia, but a real place”.

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Evelyn's plan of an artificial echo

I  gave a little talk two weekends back about the history of Sayes Court to a group of people who had gathered to air alternative, grass-root visions for the redevelopment of Convoys Wharf, including the restoration of John Evelyn’s seventeenth century garden

In it I tried to summarize Evelyn’s influence on some other contemporary gardens – though by no means all of the ones he had a hand in.  This is something I have already begun to explore here under the category “echoes of Evelyn”, starting with Groombridge Place.  When next spring comes, I’ll hopefully get the chance to get out and visit a few of these gardens, and post about them here in more depth

For now, though, here’s a snippet to whet the appetite!


1653 view of Wotton -click to enlarge

Evelyn directly influenced the design of numerous important seventeenth century gardens, beginning with his family’s ancestral home at Wotton.

Albury Park Terrace

Today the best visible example of his work, inspired in particular by the huge terraces of Palestrina outside Rome, is Albury Park in Surrey, where from 1662 he redesigned the Italianate garden for Henry Howard, to include a Yew Walk and fine terraces a quarter of a mile long, with a tunnel through the hill under Silver Wood. 

Howard also received his advice in 1663/4 on the design of a riverside public “spring garden” in Norwich, with many walks, a bowling green, pond, and of course, a “wilderness”.

Euston Hall

Evelyn also took an active role at Euston Hall in Suffolk, where in 1671 he designed a garden with a canal, straight rides and long avenues of elms and limes, and at Groombridge Place in Kent, where the central avenue of clipped yews has survived as well as most of the basic seventeenth century layout.  He also advised many other leading garden-owners of his day.

Groombridge Place

Sayes Court was, however, his greatest horticultural achievement, where he demonstrated the benefits of tree planting as prescribed in his best-known book “Sylva”, and experimented with innovative designs, plants, and  techniques such as growing on hotbeds and in greenhouses.

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A second stage of excavation has now been underway on the site since the summer, and last week the Museum of London archaeologists acting on behalf of the developers of Convoys Wharf stated on the MOL website that they had “unearthed the remains of Sayes Court, a building with rich historical associations”, and “identified the plan of Sayes Court, as modified in the course of its history”.

Given these claims, those who attended the long-overdue site visit on Saturday hoping to actually see any evidence of Sayes Court will have been, as I was, very disappointed.  Both of the trenches have been completely backfilled. Indeed, had a group of concerned visitors not spontaneously gathered on top of the nearby spoil heap to discuss Sayes Court after the end of the official tour, it would have received not a single mention.

Why was no real opportunity given to the public to visit the site during the course of the actual excavation of the Manor House?  I say “real” opportunity, because I’ve since found out that one lucky person somehow heard of a chance to visit, and got to see the exposed building, in the company of Lewisham’s Archaeology officer.  Hardly a turn-out that reflects the level of concern and interest in the site.

Sketch of Sayes Court Manor House by John Evelyn.

Take a look at this sketch by John Evelyn of the Manor house in the seventeenth century.  This is the only known extant drawing of the original Sayes Court, and was added by him (sometime between 1698 and 1706) to a 1623 map of the dockyards and town of Deptford “Strond”. It shows the front of the Manor House, with three gables and a central entrance porch which we know from his writing Evelyn modified to include fashionable Doric columns.

Detail from 1753 plan of Deptford Dockyard.

To the right is a detail from Thomas Milton’s 1753 plan of the dockyard, which fortuitously also includes the footprint of the manor  house, proving that it must still have survived at that date, even though it was already being used as a poor house, as it was for almost a century afterwards.

Pension Office in 1869

Almshouses about 1900

Now take a look at this etching and photograph of the building that succeeded Sayes Court Manor House, used as the Pension Office, and then in 1869 (after the dockyard closed and W J Evelyn managed to buy back the site), turned into almshouses.  This is obviously quite a  different building, with a plan much altered from that of the original Manor House.  Most of the rear part of the house has vanished.   It would have been great to have seen what archaeological evidence there may have been for the last stages of the manor house, but all there is now is an almighty spoil-heap.

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Light railway formerly in use at Deptford Dockyard

Recently an archaeologist contracted by the developer to excavate the Convoys wharf site claimed that the ground level around Sayes Court was lowered by a metre and a half when light railways were constructed during the First World War. This was described as “catastrophic” for the remains of  Evelyn’s gardens, of which “not a trace” was to be found.

Recreated 16th century garden at Kenilworth

If this were true, it would of course be very disappointing. However, even if few or no archaeological traces remained of the gardens, it would still be possible to restore them with a high level of authenticity using the detailed plans and planting lists that Evelyn has left us. If you look at the case of the Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth “restored” by English Heritage in 2009, this was achieved despite an almost total lack of archaeological remains.

The Kenilworth layout is based on only a verbal description, not an accurate plan, and the garden in question, a swift if lavish makeover for the queen’s visit, only existed for a very brief time – mere months. In comparison, Sayes Court garden, which existed for over half a century, holds a much stronger potential for actual restoration, rather than just “recreation” or “representation”. It is also far more significant in terms of its influence on garden design.

Segment from 1938 War Department plan.

On the other hand, I have yet to see any evidence to support this claim that no trace survives of the garden because of ground level reduction for railway lines. Take a look at this War Department plan from 1938. (Click on it to open up a larger version). The hachures show that the ground level is actually higher in the area of the light railway lines than the remnant adjoining eastern portions of the park, given to the public  by Evelyn’s descendant W J Evelyn in 1886. What’s more, the light railway lines themselves seem to follow the line of Evelyn’s long north-south gravelled walkway, which would make sense, as it would have provided a firm, ready-made foundation for them.  They skirt the western edges of his Grove, and they barely encroach on the northern part of the parterre.  So it makes no sense, as far as I can tell, to claim that the railways obliterated all evidence of Evelyn’s garden.


The segment of the 1938 War Department plan can be downloaded from https://productforums.google.com/forum/#!msg/gec-history-illustrated/SKQRekFJGqY/3D1jZ2tOg5sJ It will take a moment or two to download, then double click on it to open it in Google Earth (which must already be installed).

By dragging the slider on the left you can view the 1938 War Department plan superimposed over the modern landscape, and all degrees of transparency in between.

If you don’t have Google Earth, you can download it free at earth.google.co.uk

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