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Posts tagged ‘John Evelyn’

Author talk at Surrey History Centre

August 18, 2014

Gabriel Hemery

Author Gabriel Hemery will be talking about The New Sylva at the Surrey History Centre in Woking at 1430 on 4th October. The centre is just 14 miles from the John Evelyn’s birthplace at Wotton House.

Gabriel’s talk will be illustrated with the exquisite drawings of artist Sarah Simblet. An exhibition about John Evelyn’s work will be on show alongside Evelyn’s letters, diaries and copies of Sylva which are now in the care of Surrey History Centre.

Bloomsbury, the publisher of The New Sylva, has kindly donated a copy of the book to be given away to one lucky member of the audience at the event on 4 October. Signed copies will be available to purchase.

To read more about the talk and to book your place – see here



In retrospect: Sylva

Hemery, In retrospect: Sylva. Nature, 507, 166–167, (13 March 2014), doi:10.1038/507166a

Hemery, In retrospect: Sylva. Nature, 507, 166–167, (13 March 2014), doi:10.1038/507166a

Hemery, In retrospect: Sylva. Nature, 507, 166–167, (13 March 2014), doi:10.1038/507166a

My article celebrating the 350th anniversary of John Evelyn’s 1664 Sylva has been published in the international weekly journal of science Nature.

Read the article here

Hemery, G (2014) In retrospect: Sylva. Nature, 507, 166–167, (13 March 2014), doi:10.1038/507166a

A pilgrimage to Sayes Court

Sayes Court Park, SE8

Late in 2013 I went on a pilgrimage to Sayes Court, at Deptford in East London.  I have become familiar with the voice John Evelyn while I researched his major work Sylva, in readiness for my own book The New Sylva, to be published by Bloomsbury in April 2014. My book concentrates on Evelyn’s influence on the management of trees for the forest and orchard, and given the great scope of these subjects, I did not have space to dwell much on another of Evelyn’s great achievements: his gardens at Sayes Court. I thought it fitting to visit the place that he made his home on return to London after leaving the country during the English Civil War, and which made him a celebrated name in seventeenth century London.

A brief history

During the Interregnum, Evelyn travelled Europe,  settling longest in Paris where he met Mary Browne, daughter and heir of Sir Richard Browne; English ambassador to the court of France. He married Mary in 1647, and four years later in 1651 Evelyn returned to Britain to live at the Browne family home, Sayes Court, opposite the Royal dockyards at Deptford.

Evelyn obtained a 99 year lease on the property from Charles II, and transformed the gardens into one of the most celebrated and influential gardens of the seventeenth century. It included miles of hedges, an ornamental lake with an island, a summer-house, orchards, terraces and avenues. The people of London flocked to visit.

In 1694, Evelyn left Sayes Court to move back to his ancestral home at Wotton in Surrey. Thereafter, a series of tenants soon led to the demise of the spectacular gardens. The first, Captain Benbow who took a three-year lease on the property, caused Evelyn to write in his diary: “the mortification of seeing everyday much of my former labours and expenses there impairing”. But worse was yet to come. Tsar Peter I of Russia was lent Sayes Court by William III for just three months and such was the dereliction caused by his tenancy, that the Treasury had to pay compensation.

The garden was broken up during the 18th century. Late on in the 19th century, Octavia Hill was approached by William John Evelyn (1822-1908), hoping that the property could be owned by the public. Together with Robert Hunter, she went on to form the National Trust but unfortunately its formation came too late to protect their inspiration; Sayes Court.

During the twentieth century a large part of the site was purchased by the War Department and bombs fell nearby, including a V-1 flying  bomb, which destroyed a nearby Victorian terrace. After the second world war a part of the site was redesigned as a children’s playground including a swimming pool.

Sayes Court today

A tiny fragment of Evelyn’s original garden survives today at Sayes Court Garden, in the Borough of Lewisham. Nearby, despite a ‘protected wharf status’ to other parts of the original site, a Chinese investment holding company has applied for planning permission to build residential and commercial properties. Local people have opposed these plans. In late 2013, the site was added to the World Monuments Fund watchlist for 2014.

Visiting Sayes Court Garden

I travelled via the Thames on the Thames Clipper alighting at Greenwich Pier, next to the National Maritime Museum. From there it is just a one mile (25 minute) walk, heading west along the south bank of the Thames.

Soon, evidence that you are on the right track is apparent as you walk along Evelyn Street. Turning onto Sayes Court Street, the gates of the park become visible in the near distance, while underfoot, great cobbles in the street conjure up times when it would have been busy with people.

Evelyn Street, London, SE8

Evelyn Street, London, SE8

Evelyn Street, London SE8

Evelyn Street, London SE8

Sayes Court Park, Entrance Gates

Sayes Court Park, Entrance Gates

I was surprised by the beautifully designed entrance gates to the park from Sayes Court Street, featuring a lovely mulberry stem, leaf and fruit design. Beyond, in the tiny park, some majestic London plane trees dominate.

Sayes Court Park, SE8

Sayes Court Park, SE8

The park itself is quite well cared for, being clear of litter and not too much sign of dereliction, although the entrance sign had seen better days.

Sayes Court mulberry tree

Sayes Court mulberry tree

In the centre of the garden is an ancient mulberry tree, surrounded by a circular iron railing fence. Karen Liljenberg’s excellent blog about Sayes Court Garden, includes some specific comments and ideas for the actual origins of the mulberry tree that survives today in the garden. Karen argues that it seems unlikely that the tree is a remnant of the Tsar Peter I of Russia, as legend leads us to believe, as it is he that is largely blamed for the demise of the garden in 1698. Instead I would agree that it is more likely that the mulberry tree is a surviving remnant of Evelyn’s garden (read more). Earlier this year a large stem of the tree broke off (as evident from only recently wilted leaves) – perhaps a dendrochronologist could be persuaded to sample this stem and at least we would find out how old that part of the tree is. Naturally, it is quite possible that the very low main bole is older than all the stems that now grow from it, making the tree difficult to age accurately.

Sayes Court, Thames Path

Sayes Court is on the route of the Thames Path

It is well worth visiting the garden, despite its small size and low-key presence. Even though there is not much to see, there is a sense of history, which is much enhanced if a little research has been undertaken before visiting the area. Let’s hope that some of the current ideas for celebrating the great heritage of the site (see more below) come to something.

With thanks to my friend Steve for his inspiration and companionship.

Further reading:

The Garden History Society

Sayes Court and the formation of the National Trust

Sayes Court – London’s Lost Garden

Campaign to save Sayes Court – article in the Telegraph

The Royal Society – founded 350 years ago today

November 28, 2012

Gabriel Hemery

Three hundred and fifty years ago today, on 28th November 1660, The Royal Society was founded, following a lecture given by Christopher Wren at Gresham College in London. The ninth man listed among the 41 founding members was John Evelyn (1620-1706).

Two years after it was founded, in 1664, the Society published its first book: John Evelyn’s Sylva: or, a discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in his Majesty’s Dominions, &c.

The Society and its Fellows have played a significant role in some of the most fundamental, significant, and life-changing discoveries in scientific progress. Among its Fellows it includes numerous historical luminaries, notably Robert Boyle, Issac Newton, Charles Babbage, Charles Darwin and Robert Hooke, while living fellows include Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and John Krebs.

The New Sylva will be published in 2014 to celebrate the 350th publication of Evelyn’s influential Sylva. Read more

More precious than gold

March 15, 2012

Gabriel Hemery

“We had better be without gold than without timber”

John Evelyn, 1664

Book deal secured for The New Sylva

January 2, 2012

Gabriel Hemery

We are delighted to announce that a book deal with major publisher Bloomsbury has been secured by authors Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet to write The New Sylva.

The New Sylva aims to be a seminal book about trees and forestry for the 21st Century. The book will be published in 2014 to coincide with the 350th anniversary of John Evelyn’s original Sylva published by the Royal Society in 1664.

The New Sylva will bring the essence of John Evelyn’s most celebrated work to a new readership. It will integrate sensitively parts of his original, visionary and very beautiful prose, with a much-needed contemporary review. It will deliver authoritative scholarship in a style that is brief, clear, accessible, and pleasurable to read, and for the very first time, it will be copiously illustrated. The New Sylva will celebrate mankind’s relationship with trees through a creative integration of history, science and art. Read more about the book.

We (the authors) will be posting news about progress with the book in this blog. You will also be able to follow progress with the twitter hashtag #newsylva.

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