Elysium Britannicum, or the Royal Gardens 
by John Evelyn, edited by John Ingram.
Pennsylvania, 492 pp., £49, December 2000, 0 8122 3536 3
Show More
Show More

On Guy Fawkes Day 1665, Samuel Pepys paid a visit to John Evelyn, his fellow diarist, administrative colleague and lifelong friend. Evelyn had an astonishing range of interests, from numismatics to town planning. He also possessed the leisure in which to pursue them, thanks to a family fortune founded on manufacturing gunpowder for Elizabeth I. He had spent most of the Civil War period and its aftermath touring France, Italy and the Netherlands, where he acquired an excellent knowledge of European art and architecture; and much of his later life was devoted to introducing Continental high culture to England. On this occasion, he showed Pepys a handsome album of dried plants and some choice items from his art collection. He read some bits from plays he had written (‘very good, but not as he conceits them, I think’) and recited (‘though with too much gusto’) some of his poems. He also read ‘very much of his discourse that he hath been many years and now is about, about Guardenage; which will be a most noble and pleasant piece’.

This was Elysium Britannicum, an encyclopedic work on gardening which Evelyn had begun in the 1650s, after designing his own garden at Sayes Court in Deptford, and on which he was still working in the early 1700s, when he was in his eighties. During his lifetime, Evelyn published many books on gardening: translations of French works on fruit trees and kitchen gardens, and books of his own on forest trees, orchards and vineyards. His Kalendarium Hortense: or; The Gard’ners Almanac (1664) was a guide to the gardener’s task, month by month throughout the year, while Acetaria: a Discourse of Sallets (1699) was a spirited proof that it was possible ‘to live on wholesome vegetables, both long and happily’. All these publications were preparatory to his magnum opus and some were meant to be included in it.

Unfortunately for Evelyn, the later 17th century was a time of scientific ferment and horticultural innovation. To keep Elysium Britannicum up to date, he had constantly to add and subtract from his manuscript. The result, as so often in such circumstances, was that the author never finished the work to his satisfaction. In Evelyn’s own words, the project fell victim to ‘that which abortives the perfection of the most glorious and useful undertakings; the unsatiable coveting to exhaust all that could or should be said upon every head’.

Evelyn died in 1706, leaving his book in manuscript, along with a magnificent library and a vast archive of papers. The collection survived, largely intact, until 1977-78, when, to general horror, the Evelyn Trustees dispersed the books at Christie’s. Fortunately, the papers were rescued by the British Library, where Elysium Britannicum is now Evelyn MS 45.

John Ingram’s transcription of Evelyn’s large and untidy manuscript has been circulating among scholars for a decade or so. It is not complete, for a large part of the original text has been lost. But it is a wonderful document even so: a key work in intellectual history and the history of taste. It was the stimulus for an excellent collection of essays published three years ago as John Evelyn’s ‘Elysium Britannicum’ and European Gardening* and its publication has been long awaited. John Ingram has worked hard to reproduce Evelyn’s text, with its thousands of insertions and deletions, and his volume is a handsome production.

As a work of editorial scholarship, however, the result is frustratingly unsatisfactory. Evelyn’s manuscript is a vast collage, much of it cribbed, as were so many of his writings, from other authors. Yet Ingram gives the reader no help with the identification of Evelyn’s sources or with the numerous pieces of Latin verse and scraps of Greek with which he adorned his text. There is no index of authors cited, no list of gardens mentioned, no glossary of plants. Ingram’s text contains many unexplained obscurities or (very possibly) mistranscriptions and such help as is offered in the book’s index is frequently misleading. Palladius, the fifth-century Roman writer on agriculture, on whom Evelyn drew extensively, is identified throughout as Andrea Palladio, the 16th-century architect. John Rea, whose Flora (1665) Evelyn also pillaged, is not distinguished from John Ray, the great botanist. Robert Boyle appears as ‘Mr Royle’ and is solemnly indexed as such. The editor has no great pretensions to be either a classical scholar or an expert on English 17th-century history; and he deserves gratitude for his labours on a difficult text. It is a shame that his publishers did not find someone to help him to produce an edition which would have been more useful to its readers. One day, the work will have to be done all over again. It makes an ironic contrast with E.S. de Beer’s six-volume edition of Evelyn’s Diary (1955), one of the most meticulous pieces of literary scholarship ever produced.

Yet, for all its imperfections, this book will give any attentive reader hours of delight. To those interested either in gardening or the intellectual life of the 17th century, Elysium Britannicum is an enthralling work. It is so ambitious in scope, so delicious in its detail, so expressive of a now-vanished sensibility.

For Evelyn, a garden was ‘of all terrestiall enjoyments the most resembling Heaven, and the best representation of our lost felicitie’. His treatise was designed to recreate this paradise on earth, to make a new Eden. A garden provided suitable spaces for prayer and meditation. It gratified all the senses, but it did so virtuously. Its natural processes, like the germination of seeds and the return of spring, were emblematic of the Resurrection. ‘Our Gardiner treads every day upon new borne miracles as often as he walkes upon his bedds of Violets and Flowering bankes, conversing with the purest & most abstracted of human delights.’

To create this Elysium, the gardener had to possess a good purse, a judicious eye and a skilful hand. He also needed to be a philosopher, with a God-like understanding of the natural world. An early Fellow of the Royal Society, Evelyn devotes the first part of Elysium Britannicum to the physical foundations of horticulture: air, winds, earth, soil, water, climate, the seasons and the generation of plants. He then moves on to enumerate the gardener’s tools and to set out the ideal situation and extent of a garden. Here, he reveals that he is envisaging an Elysium of heroic dimensions. He is not writing for suburban gardeners, whose ‘cockney plantations’, with their ‘starch’t and affected designes’, he 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’, who can afford to make and maintain a garden on an appropriately magnificent scale, and whose concerns will be aesthetic rather than utilitarian.

Evelyn accepts that the cost will be enormous. Ideally, the garden should occupy some seventy acres, though he concedes that ‘some thing very princely may be contrived in thirty akers; allways supposing it be exquisitely kept.’ It will be surrounded by a wall of brick or stone, two feet wide and 13 feet high. There will be a huge staff of under-gardeners, masons, carpenters, labourers and odd-job men. In taste and style, the garden is unashamedly aristocratic. Straight lines are to be avoided because they are ‘extremely vulgar’, and there is no room for ‘the more vulgar sort of flower’. The overall effect is to be ‘noble’, ‘generous’, ‘stately’, ‘gracious’, ‘polite’, ‘civilising’, ‘masculine’ and ‘extremly refined’. Evelyn would, however, like a ban on high heels.

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 work proceeds, Evelyn’s conception becomes ever more ambitious. He wants fountains, canals and spectacular waterworks; rocks, grottoes, mountains and precipices; sundials, urns, statuary and trompe-l’oeil painting; artificial echoes, music (‘an absolute necessity’) and hydraulic automata (including speaking statues and a chair that will wet anyone who sits in it); menageries, apiaries and aviaries (‘it is incredible … what a concert fifty or sixty birds will produce’). As his admirers pointed out, Evelyn was the first English author to handle the theme of ‘the ornaments, state and pompe of a garden’; and he does it full justice, drawing heavily on what he has seen and read of the great, aristocratic gardens of the continent, like the Tuileries and the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, and Tivoli and Frascati beyond the Alps.

Evelyn’s extensive discussion of trees and flowers is greatly indebted to the innovations made by Dutch horticulturalists, though he also draws from English authors, like John Parkinson, John Rea and Sir Thomas Hanmer. He describes ‘coronary gardens’ (to produce garlands and wreaths) and ‘philosophico-medical gardens’ (yielding simples and adorned with effigies ‘of the most skillfull & illustrious Botanists, Physitians and Philosophers’). His favourite flower is the tulip (‘absolutely the most stupendious ornament of the terrestrial paradise’).

Halfway through the chapter on ‘stupendious and wonderfull Plants’, Evelyn’s manuscript comes to an abrupt end. The chapter titles of the rest of the work survive, so we know what we have lost. We can doubtless live without the promised section on ‘Watering, Pruning, Plashing, Nailing, Clipping, Mowing and Rolling’, but it is sad not to have the chapter on ‘Crowns, Chaplets, Garlands, Festoons, Flower-pots, Nosegays, Posies, and other Flowry Pomps’, and it is a real loss to be lacking Evelyn’s descriptions of ‘the most famous Gardens in the World, Ancient and Modern’.

Yet, even in its truncated form, Elysium Britannicum is highly pleasurable, not least because of its wonderfully irrelevant digressions, reminiscent of Robert Burton or Sir Thomas Browne. Who would have expected to find, in a book on English gardens, four pages on the terrifying effects of being bitten by a tarantula, including the text of the song sung by the Italians in order to cure the patient? (‘There are Spiders in Hispaniola as bigg as Tenis balles, and those in Brasile have clawes like greate birds which make excellent tooth-pickers, as we can shew.’) And who could resist Evelyn’s device for protecting ‘the choycest flowers’ from excessive sunlight: a handsome ‘Bed-Stead furnished with a tester and Curtaines of Greene, or some other coloured Taffata’ (charmingly illustrated in one of the many drawings with which Evelyn adorns his text)?

Admittedly, there is something precious and unrealistic about all this. Evelyn’s conservatory has Corinthian capitals and wreathed columns; and, for garden rollers, he recommends marble columns procured from the classical ruins in Smyrna. This is literary gardening, not the sort that requires one to spend hours trying to scrub the dirt from one’s fingernails. Evelyn’s approach is very bookish. He draws heavily on Greek and Latin authors, especially Theophrastus, Varro, Virgil, Pliny the Elder, Columella and Vitruvius. At the same time, he struggles to keep up with the rapidly developing subject of plant science, which was being revolutionised by contemporaries like Marcello Malpighi, Nehemiah Grew and Robert Sharrock. Here one feels Evelyn was out of his depth. His solemn discussion of the spontaneous generation of insects similarly suggests that he was not at the cutting-edge of contemporary entomology.

Evelyn’s overriding concern was to assimilate English gardening to the European tradition. He felt that, when it came to public ornaments, his countrymen lagged far behind: ‘it is a just reproch of our northern stupidity & avarice when such an inconsiderable Towne as Viterbo in Italy can shew a publique fountain that cost more art & mony than all the Fountains this day in England.’ England’s north winds and bitter winters did not make it easy to introduce Mediterranean-style gardening, but there were plenty of possibilities. The English had produced better herbals than other countries and their bowling-greens, with the ‘incomparable divertissement which they afford us’, were ‘singular to the English nation above all others in the world’. The extensive use of evergreens could produce an effect of perpetual spring and make English gardens ‘little inferior to the Italian’. Box hedges would have to take the place of myrtle, but, with heated conservatories, it would be possible to acclimatise oranges and lemons. The magnificent prospects of London and the Thames from the hills near Windsor and Greenwich were finer than any view in the world, even in Constantinople; and at Backbury Hill, in Herefordshire, Evelyn had learned, there was an ideal site for his Elysium. It was ‘no phantasticall Utopia but a reall place’, with a mountain, 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 stupendious Solitudes fitting to dispose the behoulder to pious Ecstacies, silent & profound contemplation’.

Here we see an interesting shift in taste. His Diary reveals that, when Evelyn crossed the Alps in 1644, he found ‘heaps of rocks so strangely congested, & broaken … as would affright one with their horror and menacing postures’, though he thought the extensive views through gaps in the clouds ‘one of the most pleasant, new and altogether surprising objects that in my life I had ever beheld’. Looking back on the experience in Elysium Britannicum, he remarks that ‘we have travelled the Apeninnes & Aspiring Alps & can well remember the affections and rapture extraordinary which then possessd us.’ Mountains had become for him sites of religious inspiration, places to which the holy men of the Biblical past had retreated, as nearer heaven. ‘The sight of vast objects, as rocks & Mounts, [&] willd Prospects, and the attent 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’.

These religious ecstasies went along with highly conservative politics. Evelyn’s sympathies were Royalist and Anglican. He believed that the natural world exhibited order and hierarchy of a kind which had all too often been lacking in human affairs, particularly during the ‘sacrilegious’ and ‘unnaturall wars’ which had led to the death of Charles I, ‘that blessed martyr’. Elysium Britannicum praises bees, because, of all creatures, they were ‘the most affected to Monarchy, & the most Loyall, reading a Lecture of obedience to Rebells in every mans garden’. It also includes an obsequious description of Charles II’s collection of birds and beasts in St James’s Park, ‘so that posterity may have a record of his Majesty’s great minde’. Evelyn indeed had probably only taken up gardening in the first place because, as a Royalist in 1650s, there were no openings for him in public life. As Michael Hunter suggested in his contribution to the 1998 colloquium, Evelyn’s subsequent career as connoisseur, savant and writer was something of a pis aller.

Elysium Britannicum is thus a not-altogether-easy mixture of Royalist politics, modern science, classical aesthetics and religious rhapsody. It attempts a combination of genres and is riddled with unresolved tensions and inconsistencies. It originated in the Baconian tradition of writing about productive husbandry: the gardening books which Evelyn published in his lifetime were all eminently practical in their concerns. But the Elysium is overwhelmingly aesthetic and philosophical in its preoccupations. It is also far too comprehensive to be a recipe for action. It represents every kind of gardening idiom, from knot gardens to forest glades. Ultimately, the reader is left bewildered as to what Evelyn really wants: English pastoral or Versailles? No wonder he provides no site plan and no layout. And no wonder the work was never finished.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 23 No. 15 · 9 August 2001

In his review of John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum, Keith Thomas (LRB, 19 July) feels that there was something ‘precious and unrealistic’ about Evelyn’s suggestion that marble columns should be procured from classical ruins to use for rolling lawns. However, at least one of Evelyn’s contemporaries took the suggestion at face value. James Theobald acquired a section of a fine classical column for his house at White Waltham, where it was indeed used as a garden roller. It didn’t, as Evelyn had suggested, come directly from Smyrna; Theobald excavated it himself from a Lambeth rubbish dump where the less noteworthy of the Earl of Arundel’s marbles had been dumped after the Civil War. Theobald’s ingenious adaptation – which I had previously taken as a particularly inspired piece of cultural vandalism – now seems to have a literary precedent, suggesting that Evelyn’s manuscript may have had some limited circulation, or that he had cribbed the idea.

Jon Newman

John Evelyn’s belief in the spontaneous generation of insects suggests to Keith Thomas that he was not at the ‘cutting-edge of contemporary entomology’. But Evelyn’s belief would have been considered perfectly sound in the 17th century (and fly-plagued Australians are tempted to believe it still).

Mick McManus
Leeds Metropolitan University

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences