Sir Hugh Plat (1552–1608) was the son of a wealthy London brewer and devoted himself to mechanical inventions, agriculture, and distilling during a long career of projects for the public good. He conducted horticultural trials on his estate at Bethnal Green, and corresponded extensively with farmers and gardeners. He also carried out chemical experiments, and collected recipes and novelties. He compiled a number of books of secrets (see catalogue no. 64 ), containing both practical and curious information. Plat was knighted in 1605, but despite this he had difficulty winning wider support for his schemes for improvement. In 1608, a work of his on gardening, entitled Floraes Paradise, was published. It clearly did not sell well, since the sheets were reissued with a cancel title-page in 1653. This prompted the owner of Plat’s manuscript, Charles Bellingham, to publish a new edition of the work, now called The Garden of Eden, including material which had been omitted from the first printing. The Garden of Eden was reprinted in 1655 and 1659, and reissued with a previously unpublished second part in 1660.
Both Floraes Paradise and The Garden of Eden consist largely of an analysis of the different sorts of fruit, flowers, herbs, and trees which may be grown by the assiduous gardener. They both give instructions on how to grow and propagate different types of plants. In addition, The Garden of Eden also includes Plat’s discussion of a ‘philosophical garden’. This draws on the work of occult writers like Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim and Joseph Duchesne, and depicts the plants of the garden in mystical, possibly alchemical, imagery.
The re-publication of Plat’s work in the 1650s demonstrate the hunger for ways of achieving agricultural improvement at that time, and underline the difficulty of diffusing new ideas and establishing new practices in the early seventeenth century. Plat’s writings were valued for their compendiousness, and also for their accuracy, brevity, and clarity. The fact that Plat had himself tried many of his horticultural suggestions experimentally made his advice particularly valuable. John Beale, the Herefordshire agricultural improver and enthusiast for the virtues of cider (see catalogue no.17 ), told Hartlib that: ‘Sir H. Plats garden of Eden is written without pompe. I would I could see another like collection of later discoveryes. Sometimes from five lines in him, I could deduce hundreds of pretty experiments’ (Beale to Hartlib, 15th November 1659, Hartlib Papers, 62/25/1A–4B). However, although some of Hartlib’s correspondents were intrigued by the chemical learning displayed in Plat’s ‘philosophical garden’, others derided it as ‘a meere Sphinx not to bee understood without a Oedipus’ (Henry Jenney to Hartlib, 28th September 1657, Hartlib Papers, 53/35/3A–4B). The imagery of the Garden of Eden was primarily an inspiration for agricultural labour and improvement to the members of the Hartlib circle, rather than a device encoding occult knowledge. They read the story of Genesis in literal and historical terms, rather than in those of mystery and allegory.