Poor old John Evelyn.
He was arguably the most refined character of his day – a man of taste, education and compassion who campaigned for the welfare of elderly seamen, liked to plant sweet chestnut trees in people’s gardens and kept a diary which though perhaps not quite as ‘entertaining’ as that of his friend Samuel Pepys, is ever bit as illuminating to us today. Pepys mentions him several times in his journal, though reading between the lines, although the diarist admired Evelyn he sometimes found him a bit dull.
Evelyn lived in times that just weren’t as sophisticated as himself. Although he kept a fine house in Deptford which attracted all the learned men of his day and held soirees which discussed the important issues of the times, his hospitality wasn’t always treated with the same respect.
Evelyn’s most passionate love was his Deptford garden at Sayes Court, upon which he lavished attention, planting it carefully in the formal European style with walks, vistas and intimate groves. He collected rare plants which he cared for like children – even visiting them in the middle of the great Frost Fair to check they were alright.
Trouble is, that when, in 1698, the young oaf who would later become known to the world as Czar Peter the Great came to visit Britain, ostensibly on the 17th Century equivalent of a student exchange trip to see the sights of London and learn about shipbuilding, he ended up staying at Evelyn’s house. Evelyn had let it to Admiral Benbow, but Benbow got elbowed out of the way. Evelyn didn’t get a look in.
When Evelyn returned to Sayes Court three months later, after the Czar had moved on, his heart was broken, as indeed, was his house. His doors had been taken down and burned, his floors and walls covered in grease, ink and whatever else the czar and his mates had cared to chuck around, Evelyn’s precious collection of paintings had been used for pistol practice and not a single piece of textile from bedclothes to tapestries was left unripped or unsoiled.
But it was his precious garden that upset him most. The Czar had ruined his carefully laid-out lawns, stamped around all over his plants and totally destroyed his favourite holly hedge by he and his cronies charging around pushing each other straight through it in wheelbarrows.
The Treasury agreed it was a bit of a mess and gave him the paltry sum of 350 quid to clear it up, but Evelyn was devastated.
Sadly, if he were to see Sayes Court now he would probably just be depressed. I recently went to see what was left of one of the greatest houses of the 17thC. The house has totally disappeared – now there are just grim apartment blocks and dismal roads. covering the site Part of the garden remains, though not in anything like it would have been even after the Czar of Russia had been on his jolly.
It’s now a gloomy municipal park in 1950s corporate style. Crazy-paved concrete rose beds and dull walkways are the best it offers, though maybe we should be grateful it’s a splash of any kind of green and there are at least some nice big trees. There are one or two ancient Mulberry trees which I would guess do actually date from the time (James I hit on a ‘brilliant’ money-making wheeze by trying to introduce the silk industry to Britain. He made everyone plant mulberry trees in their back gardens, only discovering too late that they were the wrong variety for silkworms…) but nothing else to even imply that this was one of the most influential gardens of the time, visited by many members of the Royal Family in Evelyn’s day. No plaque, no little explanation in the noticeboard as you walk in, no nothing.
Even today Evelyn is vastly underrated. As a final insult, the Czar’s visit is commemorated by a road name in Deptford, whereas the best John Evelyn gets is an extremely dodgy-looking pub.
More about Evelyn on another day, for now I have to do some proper work…