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Posts Tagged ‘John Evelyn’

Because we still have John Evelyn’s notes of the inscriptions or mottoes that he put up around Sayes Court, (see previous post) it is as if we can still hear him suggesting to us how to “read” his garden. Given the disappearance of the garden itself, and the long-deceased status of its maker, I find this wonderful, if slightly eerie! But, to continue…

Dendrologia frontispiece

5. “Neque is qui rigat, neque is qui plantat est aliquid, sed deus qui dat incrementum.” “Neither he who waters nor he who plants is anything, but [only] god who gives growth.” Who really creates the glory of a garden? How absurd is the egotistical designer’s notion that the credit is all theirs, when the reality of birth and development is far more complex, interdependent, and mysterious?

This quote from the New Testament (1 Corinthians,3) features in the frontispiece illustration to “Dendrologia, Dodona’s Grove or the Vocall Forrest” by the Anglo-Welsh writer James Howell, published in 1640.

Hydra

6. “Saepe etiam [etenim] occuluit picta sese Hydra sub herba.” “Often has the serpent [=hydra] lain hid beneath the coloured grass.” Originally from one of Horace’s epistles (15?), this is quoted in Robert Burton’s (1638) “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, in a passage on jealousy and deceit. Similar to the snake in the grass (see previous post), does it perhaps hint that Evelyn had learnt, the hard way, to look deeper than fair appearances in choosing who to trust?

7. “Quis non Epicurum suspicit, exigui laetum plantaribus horti?” “Who does not admire Epicurus, happy with the young saplings of his tiny garden?” Juvenal (13, 123). Epicurus bought a piece of land on the outskirts of Athens where he created a renowned garden in which for many years he contemplated and discussed philosophy. Evelyn quotes this line in his “Directions for the Gardener” (1686), and it’s also found in a piece (sermon xv) by Jeremy Taylor, Evelyn’s spiritual mentor. My guess is this motto relates to the Grove, which seems to have been very densely-planted for such a modest area.

Garden of Loreius Tiburtinus, Pompeii

8. “Redimitur floribus annus.” “The year is encircled with flowers.” This motto is seen in the title-page illustration to G.B. Ferrari’s De florum cultura libri iv, published c. 1633, that depicts Flora and maidens garlanding and crowning a herm with flowers.

Flora

9. “Hic ver assiduum, meliusquam carmina, flores/ inscribant oculis tu lege, non manibus.” “Here the busy spring inscribes her flowers, better than songs – read them with your eyes, not your hands!” “The Compleat Florist”, an English translation of the seventeenth century book “Le Jardinier Solitaire” by Louis Liger d’Auxerre, p. 145, says that the gardener should courteously satisfy the curiosity of those who wish to see his flowers, but advises that he ought to have these two verses engraved over his garden door, in order to discourage visitors from roughly handling or even stealing his plants. Interesting to know that Evelyn felt this advice was apt. Perhaps it was sited near the parterre, which would have been full of expensive blooms, especially in spring? In any case, I think it is much nicer than peremptory modern “Keep off” or “Do not touch” signs.

10. “Cui hortus renidet floribus dotatus, animumque nullis dotibus/Excultum squalere tenet (?), praepostere facit.” “He acts preposterously, who has a splendid garden endowed with flowers but whose mind neglects to cultivate any gifts.” This echoes a passage of Erasmus (in his Colloques) that was paraphrased in verse as: ” whose garden is all grac’d with flowers sweet, His soul meanwhile being impolite, is far from doing what is meet.” This I view as a kind of “note-to-self” that was perhaps also meant to impress devout Anglican visitors such as Jeremy Taylor. It hints at Evelyn’s niggling sense of unease at putting so much of his energy into his garden instead of more conventional Christian self-improvement. Subtly solicited though they may have been, I think his guests’ responses to this motto would have been heart-felt and genuine. Here, Evelyn invites his thinking visitor into a dialogue. Is time spent working or walking in gardens, less useful than study? Is there any psychological or spiritual benefit in gardening?

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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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Wotton was the first on my list of Evelyn-related places to visit this year, and last weekend I spent my birthday there.  The house is now a hotel and conference centre owned by the Principal Hayley group.

ImageIn Evelyn’s time the house was timber-framed, with a main block flanked by two wings projecting to the north enclosing a u-shaped court. The garden lay to the south, and this is where John Evelyn first experimented with Italian-style design from the 1640’s onwards. There he created a parterre with a central fountain and viewing terraces to either side.

Portico, grotto and mound

To the rear the natural hillside was terraced and fronted by a classical portico and grotto. The grotto was adorned with statues, of which only the Venus now remains.

Interior of grotto

The walls of the niches were encrusted with corals and shells that glittered behind gushing fountain-jets.  All of this was achieved thanks to a system of ingenious conduits that diverted the flow of the natural streams that run through the grounds.

The mound was planted with beech trees which have since vanished, along with apparently all other vestiges of the seventeenth century planting.

Winter

There is some uncertainty about the date of the statues of the four seasons that flank the central access stairway. They would certainly fit in with Evelyn’s theme here, derived from Epicurean philosophy, of the powers of nature (represented principally by Venus).  At any rate, all four seasons apart from Winter are now headless, which is rather sad.

I have to say that the evidence of these and other broken statues, fountains and benches and the detritus of wedding revels leave one feeling that this rare survival of seventeenth century garden design is not being properly cherished by the current owners.

Careful archaeological investigation might be able to recover the plan of the parterre. That area as well as the former orchard and kitchen garden to the east of the house are now just grassed over. If the neglected water features were  repaired, and the garden replanted in period style, the result would be truly stunning.  It would also, of course, attract many visitors.

Doorway to room where John Evelyn was probably born

The house itself has been much altered since the seventeenth century. Refaced in brick and extended in Victorian Gothic style, when it passed out of the family’s hands all its original furnishings and fittings went too.There remain a few beautiful Jacobean and Elizabethan doors, and interesting nooks and crannies.   However, all the old heart of the house is reserved for corporate training and conference events, as well as  wedding parties. Hotel guests stay in a modern accommodation wing, where the rooms are, frankly, bland and overpriced. It was next to impossible even to get to see any of the older rooms, as they were nearly all declared to be either in use or off-limits. Here, nevertheless, is a glimpse of the room where John Evelyn may have been born –  or could it be the one next to it?!

Room where John Evelyn may have been born

The best part of my brief time at Wotton was the midsummer dawn chorus, the like of which I’ve honestly never heard before in my life. Thanks no doubt to the lush woods behind the mound and the many trees and streams in the garden, the  variety, volume and sheer virtuosity of the birdsong was breath-taking. Looking out then from the first floor window onto the mound in the half-light, it seemed like one of those numinous fairy-hills in which legends tell that Arthur sleeps – except in this case, it must surely be the local equivalent of Venus…

The mound from the west

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All photos by the author except for the Evelyn sketch scanned by Jacqueline Banerjee, from http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/homes/33c.html For more information on the garden, see Small A. & Small C., John Evelyn and the Garden of Epicurus, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 60 (1997) pp. 194-214. For the basic historical facts on the house, see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wotton_House,_Surrey and for details of the architectural features, see here http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1189814.

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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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On 15th November local residents hereabouts received a letter from Lewisham Council informing us that we had barely a month in which to send in our comments on the development plans for Convoys Wharf.  Hutchison-Whampoa have also belatedly posted a mass of documentation on their PR website, including a report of the archaeological excavations carried out this spring, (on which see my earlier posts). 

Trenches 33 and 34 from the archaeology report.

The report states that two trenches (nos. 33 and 34) were aimed “to refine and fix the position of the mansion house of Sayes Court”, and yet it’s obvious even from their own overlay plans (part of one, fig.71, is shown on the left) that neither of them were positioned anywhere near the marked site of the house.  Small wonder, then, that they didn’t find it! 

As for the actual garden, the report says (p.80) that they “failed to reveal any significant evidence” for it, apart from a “possible terrace” and part of a ditch in trench 38.  Although not stated in the report, this appears to be situated over part of the Evelyn’s “grove” or thickly-wooded area, described in my second Garden Walk-through post.   There was a layer of dark soil up to two metres thick sealing these features, and just underlying the modern concrete surface.   Was this deep soil not likely to be connected with the woodland planted here? 

The scattergun siting of the trenches over the Sayes Court area bears very little apparent relation to the detailed plans of the garden and manor-house as they have come down us.  (See The key to the garden post)  How then can they accurately evaluate the potential for their survival?  Such evaluation was the stated purpose of the dig – and the outcome will be used to decide what further archaeology should be done (and supposedly taken into account in the detailed development design and construction).

Why, as I’ve asked before, was no specialist in garden archaeology involved in the excavation?  The excavators claim to have been in close liason with English Heritage, and yet when a friend called EH this week, they made it clear that their garden archaeology consultant was completely unaware of the present situation.  How shocking!

It takes interest and motivation  as well as experience  to identify garden archaeology.

Yet, out of  a total of 52 trenches excavated across the site, only five were located on the Sayes Court garden area.  If you share my concern that this is a paltry way to treat the remains of one of the most important historic gardens in the country, please write to Lewisham Council and tell them so.  And if you would support the idea of restoring part of Evelyn’s garden, please mention this in your letter.  The deadline for them to receive comments that will be taken into account in considering the planning application is 20th December, so we have to be quick!  Here’s the address to write to: Emma Talbot, Planning Service, 5th floor Laurence House, 1 Catford Rd., Catford, London SE6 4SW.  Or email planning@lewisham.gov.uk

Here, in summary, is what I think:-

1) Sayes Court is a site of national historical importance.  Its archaeology has yet to be properly investigated and recorded.

2) Informed by a thorough archaeological excavation, the development proposals should include a historically-accurate restoration of a substantial part of the garden as a valuable local amenity,  an economically-significant visitor attraction, and  a worthy memorial to John Evelyn.

Lastly, if you like the idea of an exciting garden restoration project, and especially if you have experience of the planning process,  garden history or design expertise,  please do get in touch. My email address is on the “About” page.

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John Evelyn’s motto was “Explore everything; keep the best”. (Omnia explorate, meliora retinete) This says so much about the man and his epoch – the excitement of the seventeenth century’s expanding intellectual horizons, along with the confidence that the totality of knowledge could still be encompassed and meaningfully evaluated by an educated person. Such an attitude, in our age of exponential change and information overload, might seem at best infeasible, and at worst dangerously naive. While honestly acknowledging our limitations, however, it seems to me that we owe it to ourselves not to simply give up on the quest for the best – otherwise there’s a risk of just allowing our intelligence to gradually atrophy and our judgement to wither away under the blight of relativity and indecision.

Now, personally, I feel sure that since Evelyn’s time, Sayes Court has gone into a steep downward spiral, and that the current plans to build high-density housing over it are the absolute nadir for the site.

However, to those whose baseline for evaluation is the present appearance and condition of the place, or even its state in any recent decade back to about the 1950s, it might seem that any development would be preferable to the closed-off, creeping dereliction of what I suspect developers and planners alike both regard as a mere “brownfield”, with some awkward scraps of archaeology that have been given a token treatment (on which, see my earlier posts) to meet legal requirements.

View towards Deptford Strand 1620 to 1630

But I, and I hope the regular readers of this blog, now realise how different – how much more vital, diverse, stimulating and beautiful – this place has been in the past. How much better  than what we see today, and what is threatening to happen to it in the future. Our baseline doesn’t have to be the sterile and semi- derelict present – we can see how it looked in Evelyn’s time, and even get an idea of what baseline he himself encountered, as shown in landscape paintings such as the above, and as I intend to post more about soon.

Convoys Wharf in February 2010

Shifting baseline syndrome, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shifting_baseline where significant changes to a system are measured only against recent baselines (rather than against earlier or original baseline states) allows standards and expectations to progressively fall. For example, recent studies have shown that local people can lose all knowledge and memory of the wealth of species that once inhabited their neighbourhood ecosystems surprisingly fast, once they have gone. Similarly, once visible remains of an earlier landscape have totally gone, the public memory of what it was like can quickly fade, and the new status quo comes to seem normal.

Architects' model of proposed Convoys Wharf development

Such an unconscious loss of perspective can also help to explain why low-grade proposals for so-called “development”, such as those for Convoys Wharf, can be submitted without the kind of adverse reaction and protest that would have met them had they been measured against earlier baselines. I’m not arguing for no-change, or for “turning back the clock”, by the way, but for development that really responds to the unique spirit of place here and creates something in sympathy with it.

If we have the courage to try to apply Evelyn’s motto to our choices for the future, I’m convinced we can envision something far more enriching. In particular, I am not alone in wishing to see a historically-accurate restoration of at least part of Sayes Court gardens. As a recreational and educational amenity to residents and local people, a haven for wildlife and plants, not to mention a sure-fire magnet for tourists, it would bring back real character and significance to this place.

But can we persuade the planners and those who hold the purse-strings to back such an exciting restoration project?

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Plaque mentioning Evelyn

Scots pine reputed to have been planted by Evelyn

Sayes Court was not the only garden that John Evelyn had a hand in. His advice was sought on garden design by numerous landowners, including his friend Philip Packer, who lived at Groombridge Place in Kent.

Fortunately, the gardens at Groombridge Place escaped both the ravages of the landscape movement, and the neglect that has afflicted Sayes Court. The original seventeenth century layout that Evelyn was consulted on is still visible, and although most of the actual planting has altered, there are still fascinating remnants of it here and there. This is a good place to visit to get a general feel for how Sayes Court might have been, and, feeling in need of a little inspiration, last Sunday I spent a very enjoyable afternoon there drinking in the atmosphere and taking photos.

House and gateway, Groombridge

As you approach the house, to the right of the bridge over the moat you see a soaring Scots pine, said to be the remaining one of a pair that Evelyn planted in the 1670s. Although the house itself is sadly not open to the public, the outside looks not too dissimilar to what we know from the few surviving depictions of Sayes Court – two main storeys, and classical columns in the porch. Perhaps it is a little grander, but not much – both places started off as mediaeval manor houses, after all.

Main axis looking south, Groombridge

The paths, walls, gateways and main divisions or rooms of the garden are still much as they were originally set out in the seventeenth century. The central axis pathway is called “The Apostle Walk”, because it is bordered on each side by twelve yews clipped into drum shapes, believed to have survived from the 1674 planting.

"Twelve Apostles" yew tree avenue

Another seventeenth century feature which Groombridge Place had in common with Sayes Court was a banqueting house in which the Packers and their guests would have enjoyed light refreshments, more like picnics than what we would call a banquet today, of cakes, fruit ,wine, or tea, still an exotic luxury then. This building, subsequently altered and enlarged into a cottage, leads onto a raised grass walk described in the guidebook as a bowling alley, although it seems rather narrow, and its position leads me to wonder if it might not originally have been a raised terrace perhaps for viewing a parterre below, as at Sayes Court?

The narrow canal that crosses the garden is also part of the original design, although the colourfully-planted “Knot Garden” was only laid out in 1994. I do suspect that (proper!) archaeological investigation might find very interesting evidence for the earlier planting layout in this area and in the adjacent “Draughtsman’s Lawn”, named after Peter Greenaway’s entrancing film “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, filmed here in 1982. A more recently-filmed version of “Pride and Prejudice” allows a tantalising view inside the house itself.

19th century plan of 17th century Groombridge Place

On the wall in the visitors’ restaurant, and rather awkwardly situated to photo (my apologies for the poor quality shot) there is a picture of a nineteenth century plan that purports to show the gardens as they would have appeared in the seventeenth century. What this is based on, I don’t know – was there an earlier painting or drawing available to the artist? If anyone reading this can enlighten me about it, I’d be very grateful.

300 year old apple tree, Groombridge Place

There are three ancient apple trees in the “White rose garden” that remain from the orchard that existed there in the seventeenth century. The one in the photo still apparently produces fruit, despite its great age and the mistletoe growing on it! I wonder what variety it is?

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