This broadside prospectus for a book which would cover theoretical and histor ical aspects of gardening, garden design, and horticulture was circulated by Evelyn to his friends before 1660. The copy described here was endorsed by Samuel Pepys, to whom Evelyn read sections from the manuscript of the Elysium in November 1665. Although the publication of Evelyn’s work was announced in 1669, the completed book never extricated itself from the vast and incoherent mass of Evelyn’s Elysium manuscript.
John Evelyn (1620–1706) spent most of the 1640s travelling on the Continent, living in exile in Paris for three years from 1649. On his return to England in 1652, he had little chance of the public employment for which his education and rank had fitted him, because of his Royalist sympathies. Instead, he retired to Sayes Court at Deptford, where he planted a garden of trees and indulged his interests and tastes as a virtuoso.
Evelyn first came to the attention of Samuel Hartlib in 1653, when he was engaged on collecting material for a history of trades, a project which he would pursue later in his life, particularly as a Fellow of the Royal Society in the 1660s. Despite his Baconian interests, Evelyn’s political and religious sympathies kept him at a distance from many of the schemes of the Hartlib circle. He visited Hartlib for the first time in December 1655, to discuss beekeeping, but his most productive contact among Hartlib’s friends was John Beale (see catalogue no.17 ). In 1658, Evelyn had produced a translation of Nicholas de Bonnefons’ The French Gardiner (an idea first mooted by Arnold Boate, see catalogue nos. 63 and 79 ), and, by 1659, he had drawn up a synopsis for his own book on gardening, which he circulated in Oxford and elsewhere. Writing to John Worthington on 30th January 1660, Hartlib remarked that ‘when Mr. Evelyn’s Book conc.[erning] Gardens will be finished, he will like it far better than his Garden near London’ (Diary and Correspondence, vol.1, p.174).
A copy of the synopsis also reached Beale in Herefordshire, who remarked on the extent of Evelyn’s knowledge of modern ideas about horticulture. He suggested that Evelyn should extend his proposed book by a further six or seven chapters, on topics such as garden entertainments, the hybridization of flowers, and, in particular, mounts and prospects. Beale’s response to Evelyn’s synopsis included a lengthy discussion (subsequently interpolated into Evelyn’s Elysium manuscript) of his plans to create a garden around the site of an ancient British settlement on Backbury Hill, near Ledbury, Herefordshire, inspired by Evelyn’s proposals and by his own conviction that the true, ancient gardening had made use of natural, rather than man-made, features, such as the prospects available from the tops of hills.
Both Beale and Evelyn believed that the proper art of gardening involved a return to biblical and ancient practices. In his extensive correspondence with Evelyn, Beale regularly drew attention to the works of classical authors on gardens, and to historical examples drawn from the Bible. He looked forward confidently to the location of the true site of paradise, and the rediscovery of the original language of Eden (which he thought might be Chinese). For his part, Evelyn began his Elysium manuscript with a discussion of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden and of their subsequent rediscovery of gardening and husbandry, arguing that ‘God had destin’d them this employment for a sweete & most agreable punition of their sinns’ (Evelyn Papers Ms.45, facing p.1). Evelyn was confident that human ingenuity and labour could return the earth to its pristine fertility and beauty, and restore paradise in a garden designed according to ancient precepts (Evelyn Papers Ms. 45, p.1):
Adam instructed his Posteritie how to handle the Spade so dextrously, that, in processe of tyme, men began, with the indulgence of heaven, to recover that by Arte and Industrie, which was before produced to them spontaneously; and to improve the Fruites of the Earth, to gratifie as well their pleasures and contemplations, as their necessities and daily foode.
Like others of Hartlib’s acquaintance, Evelyn hoped that new and rediscovered techniques of gardening and husbandry might restore the fertility of the earth, which had been lost at the Fall. However, Evelyn placed less stress on the mater ial benefits which might result from such a restoration, and more on the spiritual advantages of gardens, calling attention to the perfect knowledge of Adam in Eden, and arguing that the gardener might be ‘an absolute Philosopher’ (Evelyn Papers Ms.45, p.4).