Elegant Evelyn

John Evelyn is my favourite diarist of the 17th century. Why? He calmly noted things that happened, what he observed, with none of the high marital drama that Pervy Pepys recounted in his diary. Also, he was far more prolific in his writing than the far more popular Pepys – he travelled extensively for man of his time, and his travels to Italy make for entertaining and informative reading.

My favourite portrait of Evelyn:

John Evelyn, by Robert Walker. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

John Evelyn was born on the 31st of October, 1620, to a family whose wealth came from the manufacturing of gunpowder. He observed some of the major events of English history – from the horrors of the English Civil War to the execution of Charles I, through the Interregnum period under Oliver Cromwell, to the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, the Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of London of 1666, he wrote of Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth’s beheading at Tower Hill on the same year, the Glorious Revolution…the list goes on, and he was there, observing, recording it all for us.

Evelyn eventually was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1663. In his personal life, Evelyn was married to Mary, and they had eight children together.

John Evelyn wax seal impression. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Evelyn wrote with a certain elegance, a refinement, that becomes someone as erudite as he was. This is the exact copy I own of Evelyn’s Diary, and I absolutely love it. It is a thick volume, but chock full of his observations that I think it’s worth its weight in gold.

Something less well-known is that Evelyn was a devoted gardener and garden designer.

The gardener’s work is never at end; it begins with the year, and continues to the next: he prepares the ground, and then he sows it; after that he plants, and then he gathers the fruits. . . .

He looked after his holly bushes for around twenty years and was devastated to find they had been ruined following a stay by Czar Peter the Great (who had utterly destroyed his house whilst he stayed there – gunshot holes were in Evelyn’s prized paintings, the wooden staircase had been wrenched up and burned, and the list went on…)

Evelyn was also one of the first to write a book about SALADS! Yes! As someone who usually eats two salads a day, and have made some salads according to Evelyn’s recipes- they’re rather nice.

So, he was a writer of various subjects, a keen gardener, a cook, a member of the esteemed Royal Society, a good husband (from what we can gather – he doesn’t mention fondling servants like a certain you-know-who).

“Friendship is the golden thread that ties the heart of all the world.”

Evelyn is also the man who is reputed to have discovered the amazing woodcarver Grinling Gibbons, whose breathtaking woodcarvings still adorn Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace.

Border is by Grinling Gibbons. Photo: Andrea Zuvich.

Border is by Grinling Gibbons. Photo: Andrea Zuvich.

You can now read a letter from Gibbons to Evelyn.

Evelyn was also a proponent of re-forestation, which he wrote in his “Sylva, Or a Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions:

John Evelyn died on the 27th of February, 1706, after having had a truly well-lived life. His wife, Mary, followed him to the grave only three years later. They were interred in the Evelyn Monument at St John the Evangelist Church in Wooton.

Remember, Evelyn’s motto meliora retinete (from I Thessalonians 5, 21.):

Keep what is better

Which is said to have been inspirational to the cosmetic company Crabtree & Evelyn, who take their Evelyn from our John. Read more:

1) The British Library’s Evelyn Archive.
2) Dorking Museum‘s biography of Evelyn

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Hear ye! 4 thoughts — so far — on “Elegant Evelyn”:

  1. Jackie aka Prince Rupert's secret wife

    I agree with your assessment of Evelyn – he was the interested observer and recorder of the world around him and we owe so much of our knowledge of this wonderful period of history to him. And to think he was into salads while everybody elese was heaving colossal sides of beef and bucketloads of cream and oysters into their creaking bodies! He is such a refreshing read after the claustrophobia of creepy little Pepys.

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