John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum

Wax impression of John Evelyn’s seal,    National Portrait Gallery

John Evelyn is, like his friend Samuel Pepys, best known for his diary,  detailing life in the second half of the 17thc. He was a landed gentleman, government official and a high Anglican of uncompromising piety but also a man beset by curiosity.

As a result he investigated and wrote about a huge range of subjects, but particularly gardening. He not only translated and commented on several  major French texts  on gardening but also wrote several key ones of his own.  

Method for propagating plants by layering into a pot full of earth

Evelyn saw horticulture as the form of knowledge and expression that by its very nature could include all other arts and sciences, and developed  a pious understanding of the workings of Nature, so revealing God’s infinite wisdom. Indeed so convinced of this was he that he spent much of his life from the 1650s onwards working on a book intended to cover every aspect of the subject that he could. He’d already written about 1000 pages when he died in 1706.

Instructions for grafting rare fruit trees

Now in the British Library and catalogued as Add MS  78432 it’s better known as Elysium Britannicum or The Royal Gardens.  It remained virtually unknown until 2001 when it was finally transcribed and published. 

From one of the supplementary manuscripts.

In fact Elysium is not a single manuscript, but a  whole series of papers, including bits of  autograph fair copy, from different times, with  many insertions on paper slips and even with letters from friends and  foreign correspondents etc. There are also lots of  crossings out, damaged and missing pages.

From one of the supplementary manuscripts.

Evelyn had begun writing it in the 1650s, after designing his own garden at Sayes Court in Deptford, and was still working on it in the early 1700s, when he was in his eighties. That’s not because he was a slow worker- far from it – even given the obvious constraints of manuscript writing –  but because the later 17th century was a time of scientific ferment and horticultural innovation, and being something of a  perfectionist Evelyn tried to keep up, and this meant constant revisions.

The main manuscript is classified by the BL as “special material” and so no photography is allowed. The images, unless otherwise stated,  come from John Ingram’s 2001 transcription.

Evelyn is of course probably best-known for Sylva, his book on trees, but he was also the author of other garden-related texts – notably Acetaria – his discourse on salads, and  Kalendarium Hortense – a monthly list of tasks for the gardener. Originally these were not intended to be separate publications but part of Elysium.  But when he recognized they’d never see the light of day if he waited until the great work was finished they were extracted and published independently. 

So what was this great unfinished book about?  It was quite simply nothing less than an attempt to instruct the British elite on how to recreate Eden within the confines of their gardens and estates.  For Evelyn, a garden was ‘of all terrestrial enjoyments the most resembling Heaven, and the best representation of our lost felicitie’, and of course, no 17thc reader would have needed to be reminded that Paradise had been lost. 

He intended to cover every aspect of the garden including the scientific, yet religious nature of its various  elements, the practicalities of choosing a site and constructing it, and the intellectual, artistic, and moral benefits of devoting one’s time to the study of such a place. The garden could gratify all the senses, but would do so virtuously.

Seeds in their skins

Everything that took place in the garden had religious symbolism. For example natural processes, such as  the germination of seeds and the return of spring, were seen to emblematic of the Resurrection. But of course it is more than that.    It is a place for the garden owner/maker to display their wealth wisdom taste and knowledge but also crucially to learn and improve their mind alongside improving their souls.  

Sketch in section covering the planting of seeds

Hygrascope “to detect the degrees of wett & dry or any change of Weather”

Book 1 of Elysium Britannicum is short – just some 40 pages spread over 12 very short chapters – and it’s devoted to the physical foundations of horticulture.  In it Evelyn attempts, sometimes with questionable success, to reconcile ancient philosophies with alchemy, cosmology, and contemporary scientific views of Nature.

Another hygrascope

In these early chapters  Evelyn examines the forces of Nature which act upon a garden and affect its climate and environment. He covers the four elements – earth, air, fire & water -and their related humours, the heavenly bodies of the sun and moon, and the climate &  the four seasons.  There are marginal drawings of hygrascopes.

The section on water shows him trying to balance old established supposed-truths, myths and scientific experiment.  For example after a lengthy description of the virtues of clean and the vices of stagnant or corrupt water he describes how water’s purity can be tested with a filtration experiment in good scientific method, before adding that water is “liable to be purer if it comes from a source that runs east and south and is exposed to air and sun”.  Later he stresses that while rainwater is the best for the gardeners use “that which has a seminal viscosity to it , especially that which hath been reserved at the equinoxes… is above all to be esteemed & indeed the proper aliment of vegetables as being the most impregnated with the universal spirit.”  He then concludes the section with an extract from Robert Sharrock’s experiments about growing plants in water.

Design for a water cistern

So there’s a real mix . Effectively old wives tales combined with the latest contemporary experimental science and all overlain with a desire to fit it all into a universal theological framework. Nevertheless in the end Evelyn clearly was dissatisfied with his efforts because  most of  Book 1 is crossed out,  presumably with the intention of rewriting it later.

Instructions for grafting rare fruit trees

A Turning Spade

Book 2 is about 10 times as long and gets into the realms of practicality.  We’ll come back to that shortly after I’ve talked about Book 3. And in case that sounds a bit bizarre its because Book 3 is missing in its entirety, apart from the chapter titles. This is a huge pity since Evelyn was going to cover such high-powered subjects as “conserving, propagating, retarding, multiplying, transmuting, and altering the species forms and substantial qualities of plants and flowers”  where we might have been able to really see him wrestling his religious sensibilities with what we might call “experimental science” that was to really to come into prominence just a few years after his death with Fairchild’s Mule.  

Evelyn had also intend to cover  “hortulan entertainments, divine moral and natural, to show the riches, beauty,wonder, plenty, delight and universal use of a garden” [meaning garden burials etc]   down to how to make a hortus siccus or herbarium, and  how  “to paint flowers or enamel them in wax, silk and gum.”

An infant blowing bellows into a furnace; allegory of the role of Nicais Lefevre in chemistry. Wellcome Collection

Much of this work would have been carried out  in his Gardeners Elaboratory.  He may have got the idea for this from his time in  Paris where he attended lectures in chemistry given by Nicais Lefebvre, of  the Jardin du Roi.  Lefevre was a Huguenot and later fled to England becoming a lecturer at Cambridge but also a member of the Royal Society.  Evelyn almost certainly would have seen his elaboratory in the Jardin du Roi – and would of course have known of others owned by other members of  the Royal Society.

So back to Book 2. Its 400 pages are divided into 18 chapters.  It begins by enumerating the gardener’s tools [and includes the famous image of them] then moves on to plant propagation where it’s clear that Evelyn knows what he’s talking about.

Evelyn’s pen-and-ink drawing of garden tools. British Library Add. MS 78342, f.58

Next he sets out the ideal situation and extent of a garden and what it will contain.   He is not writing for suburban gardeners, whose ‘cockney plantations’, with their ‘starch’t and affected designes’, he elsewhere despises as smelling ‘more of paint then of flowers’. Nor does he address mere ‘cabbage-planters’, who garden in order to subsist. His intended audience is ‘the best refined of our nation’, ‘princes, noble-men and greate persons’, whose concerns will be aesthetic intellectual and he would hope spiritual rather than utilitarian.

“A garden of simples” or medicinal plants – the scale can be judged not only from the dimensions given but also from the size of the lodges and the mount.

Such an Elysium will be extensive: he suggests at least 70 acres. The overall effect is to be ‘noble’, ‘generous’, ‘stately’, ‘gracious’, ‘polite’, ‘civilising’, ‘masculine’ and ‘extremely refined’ with  “no room for ‘the more vulgar sort of flower’.  That’s probably not surprising as he thought the Elysium should be a miniature version of the whole world with as many of its physical features and attributes included as possible.  There follows an immensely detailed exposition of everything necessary to achieve this goal. The components of garden layout – are carefully discussed: fences and enclosures; knots, parterres and borders; walks, alleys, terraces and bowling greens; groves, labyrinths and pavilions. As the sections  succeed one another, Evelyn’s conception becomes ever wider and more ambitious.  Some of the components are natural but others need to be “contrived” and I’ll look at those next week.

The transparent beehive

A rabbit warren

But it is not just the layout, terrain, buildings and ornaments which he covers. There will also be a menagerie, silk worms, a rabbit warren and an  aviary (‘it is incredible … what a concert fifty or sixty birds will produce’) and Evelyn discusses at length the most suitable size – suggesting one that held 500-600 songbirds for   “natural music” in the garden.

A horizontal segmented beehive

There will be bees too, partly for their ‘music’, partly for their honey but also partly because Evelyn regards the study of insects as  fascinating in itself – and talks of watching his glass hives for half an hour a day. To a generation that grew up with the Civil War bees make a political point too because they are  ‘the most affected to Monarchy, & the most Loyall, reading a Lecture of obedience to Rebells in every mans garden’.

“The forme of an Aviary”, which is based on a description from the classical writer Varro copied into the manuscript.

A gentleman should use  his garden for science too. He could, for example, observe the webs and predatory antics of spiders and compare them  with those in a cabinet of curiosities. Evelyn talks of spiders in Hispaniola as big as tennis balls and ones in Brazil which have claws like great birds and “which make excellent toothpickers – as we can shew”. Perhaps he had specimens in his own cabinet.


Music for “antidotum tarntella”

Whether he had a tarantula I don’t know but he certainly describes them – perhaps he saw them in Italy. He knew the effects of their bites – and he includes drawings both of the spiders themselves and the music for a tarantella – and he definitely knew about Hooke’s microscope because this is copied from Micrographia.

A Fly’s eye based on Robert Hooke’s Microgarphia


A furnace to heat silkworm cods as they are wound off

Ants can be moral instructions too, for although  “infinitely noxious to our gardens, yet they are a wonderful insect & one of those to whom the wise king send us for instructions.” It’s clear that he has spent time observing them, and even disassembling a nest which is described in great detail. Again they are also a model for society – since they work together in harmony.

A vertical segmented beehive

And there is plenty more on other miniature garden life including grasshoppers, worms, greenfly and fleas.  So “it is worth the Industry of our Gardiner to study ways of preserving them being dead that he might make a collection of them, to be reserved in one of the rarest cabinet pieces” and this is followed by instructions on drying, embalming or preserving specimens.

When Evelyn uses ‘Gardener’ here he does not mean, of course, the ordinary labourer, but the enlightened owner or intellectual horticulturist. He even suggest alongside statues of    “the Patriarchs,  Kings, and Heros which we find in the sacred stories” there should be statues of gardeners like “our Parkinson, Johnson & Gerard, Clusius, Tabernae Montanus, Lobel, & above all our Cowley.” They were “worthy of eternal memories both for their writings,  inventions, & affectations to Gardens” and they’d be more appropriate than “those fained and impure Deities which did formerly prophane the Gardens of the superstitious Ethnick.”

More on Evelyn’s slightly wackier and more creative ways of making an elysium garden in a couple of weeks…





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