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Who was John Evelyn?

Born in 1620 into a substantial Surrey landowning family whose fortunes were founded in gunpowder manufacture, John Evelyn came of age just as the Civil War began `in a conjunction of the greatest and most prodigious hazards that ever the youth of England saw'. To escape the disturbances, he embarked on a prolonged and formative period of travel in Italy and France, finally coming to rest in Paris in 1647 where he married the daughter of the English Resident, Sir Richard Browne, whose house was a centre for the exiled royalist community.
John Evelyn's family home

John Evelyn's drawing of his family home, Wotton House near Guildford, made in 1640 when he was 20 years old
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This period abroad stimulated Evelyn's wide-ranging intellectual interests. He embarked on an intensive programme of study, of which the evidence remains in his elaborate series of commonplace books, and began to build up his impressive private library: as he afterwards wrote, he always looked on a library `with the reverence of a temple'. By the time he returned to England in 1652 to take up residence at a house belonging to his wife's family, Sayes Court at Deptford, he had made himself prodigiously learned, not only in classical literature but also in scientific and technical matters. He soon established himself as one of the foremost virtuosi of his day. His famous garden at Sayes Court, begun at this time, gave scope for his talent for design, his enthusiasm for French and Italian ideas, his practical skills and his strong moral and religious impulses: his conviction that `the air and genius of gardens operate upon human spirits towards virtue and sanctity'.
John Evelyn's house and garden

Plan of John Evelyn's house and garden at Sayes Court, Deptford (detail) showing his elaborate design and planting of the 1650s
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The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 brought Evelyn a long wished-for opportunity to engage in public affairs. He became a founder member of the Royal Society. The King sought his company and commissioned him to write. But Evelyn never found `the fruitless, vicious and empty conversations' of the Restoration Court congenial. With his sense of duty, practical knowledge and sheer capacity for hard work, he was at his best on public commissions. Evelyn won himself great credit by his indefatigable labours among the prisoners of war and sick and wounded seamen during the Second Dutch War while the country was stricken with the plague; in 1671 he was appointed to the Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations and under James II made a Commissioner for the Privy Seal.

Evelyn was also a notable lay representative of the restored Church of England, a role closely associated with the most controversial episode of his life: his pact of religious fellowship with Margaret Blagge, a pious maid of honour at the Restoration Court, who in 1675 married the future prime minister, Sidney Godolphin, only to die in childbirth three years later. It has been suggested that Evelyn tried to discourage her from the marriage in order to keep her under his influence. Certainly, there is evidence in the archive that his feelings for her went beyond the platonic friendship he professed. The suggestion is that, like his friend Samuel Pepys and despite his far more respectable historical persona, Evelyn had his secrets.

`In fine', Pepys wrote of this many-faceted man, `a most excellent person he is, and must be allowed a little for conceitedness; but he may well be so, being a man so much above others'.
Letter from Samuel Pepys to John Evelyn

Letter from Samuel Pepys to Evelyn 2 October 1685. The two famous diarists were close friends in their later years
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Hitherto John Evelyn has principally been known from his Diary. The Archive allows him to be seen in his true milieu, that of the community of seventeenth century intellectuals who aimed to establish a major programme of scientific and technological development, linked with social and economic progress. He emerges as this community's most long-lived and versatile member: scholar, connoisseur, bibliophile and horticulturalist, as well as a writer and thinker of sometimes startlingly current relevance, on everything from forestry, architecture and the formation of a universal library to fashion and air pollution.

The Archive has continued until now in the ownership of his descendants who have been instrumental in the publication of successive editions of the Diary which have so enriched our historical knowledge. But the preservation of the whole collection now calls for the resources of a national institution so that it can be made available to scholars as fully as it deserves.

Discover more:
John Evelyn
The John Evelyn archive
Who was John Evelyn?
Importance of the archive
The wider context

 
 
 
Discover more:
John Evelyn John Evelyn
The John Evelyn archive The John Evelyn archive
Who was John Evelyn? Who was John Evelyn?
Importance of the archive
The wider context The wider context
 
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