Making Mountains and Music in Elysium…

frontispiece to the English translation of Abbe de Vallemont, Curiosities of nature and art in husbandry and gardening, London: 1707.

As I hope I showed in a recent post John Evelyn the 17thc diarist and garden writer spent much of his life designing the perfect garden: Elysium Britannicum.  It was to be an Eden encompassing a complete miniaturized version of the world including almost every kind of landscape feature that he could imagine.

But what was a garden owner to do if they didn’t have  natural waterfalls or cascades, mountains or “Groves and Wildernesses” in their back yard?


Quite simple said Evelyn:  “if in the originall disposure of the plott, we find them not already planted by Nature” they must, quite simply, “be contrived”. This insistence creates an artificiality that is the very opposite of the great 18thc cry of “the genius of the place”.  So how does Evelyn propose the gardener should go about it?

A figure representing Mount Imolus, from Salomon de Caus, Les raisons de forces mouvantes, 1626

Perhaps the first question should be  “why do it all?”   To take just one example – why would anyone want mountains in their garden?  Evelyn’s answer is very simple it’s because, like all the other physical features he proposes,  they have strong religious connections.  ‘The sight of vast objects, as rocks & Mounts, [&] wild Prospects, and the attentive consideration of some naturall object in a solitary place, dos dispose some men to Ecstasie.’ Christ had ascended from the Mount of Olives, ‘and here ‘tis likely he will first appeare againe’. Evelyn  talks of biblical sites like Mount Tabor, and the mountains where Moses and Abraham encounter God.

Design for a mountain in a garden, with several grottos or caves inside, from De Caus, Les raisons de forces mouvants, 1626

Accepting that not many of his readers will have their own mountains  he then offers a very lengthy account of how precisely to make artificial rocks to build them.  Now while we might think this slightly crazy its clear that it was not.  The charter of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners of 1606 theoretically gave them exclusive rights over “mounting” and “rocking”, and Evelyn is clear that these faux rocks  must not be “built so small and trifling, stiff and regular as we usually find them even in greate mens gardens.”

The mount of philosophers, or Mount Parnassus, Stefano della Bella c1655-62,    British Museum

Previous posts on mounds and mounts show that there was often a desire to build prospect points, even if only sometimes to use up waste building material.  Whilst Evelyn doesn’t describe the precise mix or formula for making artificial rocks the methods and materials were largely easily available stuff  or industrial waste and byproducts: “they may well be counterfeited with stucco and plaster in moulds, others cutt in stone mixing them with shells and forming niches, festoons, frezes etc: also glazed brick maybe used and the refuse of glass workes and furnaces.”  Its worth remembering that glass manufacturing was a new industry in London in the late 17thc so this is quite an up-to-date suggestion.

frontispiece to George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes, 1635, British Museum

Clearly others were attempting to build similar features but, in Evelyn’s opinion they were doing it badly because they were using “brick and Tarris, [or]  other mortar.” This meant “it will not be so easie to form… irregularities ” or fix “protuberances and other extravagances… [such as]  pendulous stones … shells and such other naturall ornaments.”

The more Evelyn describes his mountains the more you realise that he is probably drawing on the books of Salomon de Caus- particularly  Les Raisons des forces mouvantes, 1615, even though he doesn’t say so!

from John Danes, Paralipomena Orthographiæ, 1639, British Museum

Once built the  mountains now needed cascades, grottos, gorges and caves. They also required  “ventiducts”. These were tunnels designed to create a range of sounds as the wind blows through them, and  which direct air into the grottos and caves to keep them constantly refreshed. “These may be fitted with a stopcock to be graduated and governed like water – as the ancient Romans did, although they did it with hot air/steam in the baths.”

A design for a grotto of Orpheus, from Salomon de Caus, Les raisons des forces mouvantes, 1626

from Histoire Physique de la Mer, by  Marsigli 1725

Next he specifies how the mountain, its caves, grottos and gorges  are to be ornamented mainly with minerals and crystals. “The chiefe materialls … are the hard hony-comb millstone, Sea Rock, Talkes of all Colours, Coarse Coralls, black, white, red petrified Issickles of which there is a sort in Ireland which is yellow and transparent like Amber: the petrification of our Knarsburow in Yorke-shire and Oky-hole in Summersetshire, in the Peake and divers other places: All the varieties of Marcasite and Media Mineralia… vitriolique stones, Thunderbolt Iron-Cinders…Above all the grosser materialls, the Spars of Lead, serpentines, Coarse Amethists and Crystalls, most sorts of variegated marbles… the dross that is found at the bottome of the crucibles wherein the Glassmen melt their metall, transparent pibbles are most excellent ingredients, and indeed whatsoever is irregular and best resist the continuall tricklings and cadence of waters and penetration of Frosts.”

from Histoire Physique de la Mer by Marsigli, 1725

And if you can’t get real coral then make some yourself, which is precisely the sort of thing a gentleman could do in his elaboratory – one can almost imagine Evelyn saying to his wife “I’m just nipping down to the shed dear” before setting to work to grind up some goats horn  and “steep it in lie with ashwood ash” for 15 days before colouring it with vermillion  and moulding it into shape.

What he doesn’t tell his readers is that he had borrowed his “recipe” almost word for word from an earlier writer – in this case Giralamo Ruscelli, a 16thc Italian Alchemist – and his Secretes of the reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemont  which first appeared in English in 1562. However Evelyn is not a total fraud and he adapts Ruscelli’s ideas, recognizing  the differences in climate for example.  “We have reason to suspect either of these receipts when the frost and water shall come to invade it… so… it will prove the most infallible way to caste  lead into branches and to plant them red… these, though are not so polite as the other; yet being continually wet they appear so, remaine forever and are easily refreshed.”

Evelyn’s sketch of the echoing hedge in the Tuileries Gardens from John Ingram’s 2001 transcription.

Evelyn’s sketch of a polyphone echo chamber from John Ingram’s 2001 transcription.

More contrivance follows as Evelyn moves on to consider “artificial echoes and music”.  Perhaps he had first experienced this on a trip to the Netherlands in 1641 when he noted in his diary that he had visited “the Hoff or Princes Court” in The Hague, “with the adjoining gardens full of ornament, close walks, statues, marbles, grots, fountains, and artificial music.”

In Elysium he draws on his own experience in exile during the Civil War when he was in Paris and Italy.  In Paris there was, in the Tuileries garden a hedge that supposedly acted as an artificial echo chamber  and there are detailed calculations about how and why it worked and how it could be replicated in what Evelyn calls “a polyphone chamber”.

from Athanasius Kircher ,
Musurgia Universalis 1650

I thought his diagrams and explanations were original and  showed him thinking the possibilities through, until I discovered Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis published in 1650 and probably bought when Evelyn was on the continent.

Evelyn’s travels in Italy and France, especially his visits to Tivoli and Frascati, also underpinned his plan for the garden to have a “hydraulic automat” or  “autophone organ.”  This was to supply music  to accompany  Echo, the nymph who was the spirit behind the echo chamber/hedge, and to supplement the natural noises of the birds, bees and the wind sounds produced by the ventiducts.

Design for a nymph playing a water organ, for Echo to copy, from Salomon de Caus

Water organs of various kinds have been known from classical times and its strange that Evelyn doesn’t mention any of those known to have been in London, such as those built for Prince Henry of Wales at Richmond by De Caus, or the one that Nell Gwynn apparently had at her house in Clerkenwell.

Evelyn also illustrated another hydraulic automata which was designed to mimic or enhance  birdsong.

from the section On “how to build another sort of wind chest for the Animation of Birds” ,from John Ingram’s 2001 transcription.




Such contrivances for “noise” came in many forms, and Evelyn makes reference back to a famous one from antiquity: the statue of Memnon in Egypt which was said to sing.

Evelyn’s sketch of the statue of Memnon, from John Ingram’s 2001 transcription.

In fact there are a pair  colossal figures of Pharoah Amenhotep III, dating from the 14thc BC, one of which was badly damaged and cracked during an earthquake in 27BC, and which soon afterwards was reported as “singing”.  Evelyn cites classical writers including Strabo, Pausanius and Pliny who gave accounts of it and sets out a complicated mechanical way of reproducing the musical  effects in the Elysian Garden.

I discovered only last week that, once again this was not Evelyn’s own work, but once again that of Athanasius Kircher.   We should probably not be too surprised. Kircher was a real polymath and the leading scientific theorist of  sound [including music] in his day, and its perhaps more surprising that Evelyn didn’t suggest including some of Kircher’s other inventions – such as the one below  in Elysium.

A plan for a piazza-listening device: the noise from the piazza below are taken by the horn up through the mouth of the statue in the room above. From Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis 



A depiction of Kircher’s ideal of musical harmony from Musurgia Universalis:

Elysium Britannicum contains many other contrivances which I’ll return to in another post soon but in the meantime how seriously should we take all this? 

Some of my comments might have given you the impression that Evelyn was  bit of a fraud, borrowing without attribution from others and so on, and that he merely copied without thinking.  I think that underestimates his vast achievement.  It’s true that he collected and synthesised the work of others but, over the course of 40 or 50 years, he also developed it into  a coherent underlying theory of gardening, showing how the garden served to showcase all human endeavour and knowledge. His view may have been coloured in our eyes by the strong overtones of religion but that, as we know, underlay all of 17thc life, and somehow he managed to rationalise it with the reality of the world around him.

So let’s conclude by asking whether this was all imagined or theoretical ? Evelyn although he describes every element of his Elysium garden never offers any hint of a layout or plan.  He almost certainly assumed his intended audience would be educated enough to design the garden for themselves, in the same way they could, as gentlemen-architects design their own houses. But its also clear that he had a solid foundation in contemporary knowledge, experimental and   practical hortiulture to go alongside the theoretical ideas he included.

Evelyn even discussed a possible location at length with his  friend John Beale, a fellow member of the Royal Society. Beale suggested  Backbury Hill  in Herefordshire, arguing it  was “no phantasticall Utopia but a reall place.”  It had all the things that feature in Evelyn’s account of Elysium: torrents of water and cascades, groves of oak, a green plain, ‘a most horrid and deepe precipice, fitted for Solitary Grotts and Caverns’, and a prospect of ‘rocks, caves, mountains and stupendous Solitudes fitting to dispose the behoulder to pious Ecstacies, silent & profound contemplation’.   Sadly it is difficult to tell if that’s still true today as Backbury is almost entirely covered in trees.

For more on this see: Peter Goodhild’s article,  ‘No Phantasticall Utopia, but a Reall Place’. John Evelyn, John Beale and Backbury Hill, Herefordshire, in Garden History Vol. 19(2) 1991.  And Douglas Chambers. “Wild pastorall encounter” in Culture and Cultivation in Early Modern England ed by Michael Leslie and Timothy Raylor (1992).

But as readers interested in garden history I hope that rings some bells.  I wonder ….was Evelyn ahead of his times in garden aesthetics and foreshadowing the Pictureseque?

Backbury Hill                                                                                                                                                           © Copyright Jonathan Billinger 2014 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.



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1 Response to Making Mountains and Music in Elysium…

  1. Pat Webster says:

    As always, interesting information and a delight to read.

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