Etching of Wotton in Surrey by John Evelyn

John Evelyn’s views of Wotton, Surrey

John Bonehill explores John Evelyn's views of the house and gardens at Wotton in Surrey, the Evelyn family seat.

Buried among the voluminous collections of correspondence, literary manuscripts and family papers held in the British Library’s John Evelyn Archive is a folio of drawings (Add MS 78610 A-S). One of the sketches it contains is probably the work of his friend John Aubrey (1626–1697), the antiquary and biographer, but the others are in Evelyn’s (1620–1706) own hand and depict a place he knew intimately and held dear.[1] A mix of architectural elevations, plans and views of Wotton, in Surrey, Evelyn’s historic family seat, they document a series of changes or projected changes to the house and landscape. Some date from the very end of the 17th century, around the time Evelyn inherited the estate from his older brother George. Others were drawn up as early as the 1640s and 50s, when he was little more than an occasional visitor. It is these first sketches, done either side of a lengthy period of exile on the Continent, as the young Evelyn looked to escape the turmoil of civil war, that are the subject of this essay.

View of Wotton with the garden, grotto and environs

View of Wotton with the garden, grotto and environs from the western corner

This pen, ink and red crayon view of the Wotton estate was likely drawn by Evelyn in the 1650s.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Thanks to his well-known diaries, Evelyn is now perhaps best-known as a chronicler of everyday life and politics during this tumultuous period. Since the British Library assumed responsibility for the archive, however, his prodigious activities and writings, which covered matters of gardening, forestry and horticulture, among other things, as well as involvement in the early Royal Society, have also begun to come more fully into view.[2] Understandably, given this wealth of material, his drawings have attracted rather less attention than his work across these other areas.[3] But looked at closely, Evelyn’s drawings of Wotton might not only be seen as inextricably connected with that wider field of learning and practice in various ways but also a way towards opening up fresh perspectives on those pursuits.

‘[O]ne who could not Designe a little, would never make an honest man’, Evelyn would recall his early mentor and Wotton neighbour Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (1585–1646) telling him.[4] For Evelyn, design and its manual expression through drawing was an appropriate adjunct of gentlemanly knowledge.[5] Learning to draw was not just a pleasurable way of spending one’s leisure hours. It was a useful means of exchanging and circulating information and ideas about the world too. But, in this, it was the act or better the ‘process’ of drawing itself as much as the resultant image that was to be understood as a form of knowledge and knowledge-making. Drawing gave tangible form to the thought process. It might even be of value in the proper management and planning of a gentleman’s estate like Wotton. Evelyn’s drawings had such practical purpose. But, as we shall see, they were also a means for him to address rather more personal matters, of biography and memory, place and position. Scrappy and offhand, torn and water damaged, Evelyn’s drawings of his family estate may be. Yet, if anything, their now fragile state only grants the reflections they contain on these personal matters a certain poignancy.

The 1640s and early 50s, when Evelyn made the earliest of his sketches of the family estate, were a time of considerable upheaval. A period which was to take him on an extended tour of the antiquities and natural wonders of the Italian peninsula, as well as undertake lengthy stays in Paris, the experiences of these years laid the ground for many of his later activities and interests.[6] Though Evelyn was one of many royalists heading for the safety of the continent at this time, the conditions they found themselves in varied enormously. While some refugees lived in near abject destitution, others led lavish and culturally rich existences. For Evelyn, exile was an opportunity of sorts. Denied the role in public life a scion of the genteel classes would in the ordinary run of things think his due, Evelyn spent the decade committing himself to a broad range of cultural and intellectual pursuits.  

During three years spent in Paris, Evelyn began assembling a collection that focussed and informed these interests; laying out considerable sums on books, curiosities and prints.[7] Moreover, he assiduously courted such learned figures as the natural philosopher Nicaise le Fèvre as well as a number of the city’s leading artists and connoisseurs. Visiting workshops and collections, Evelyn made contacts and gathered a wealth of information on philosophical and technical matters that he would take forward in various later projects and publications. Among those figures to have had their horizons expanded by the experience, for Evelyn exile was an occasion for forging ties, not breaking them. Just ahead of finally returning to England for good in early 1652, he was to write of entertaining ‘no ambitions at all to be a statesman, or meddle with the unlucky Interests of Kingdomes . . . A Friend, a Booke, and a Garden shall for the future, perfectly circumscribe my utmost designes’.[8] It was a matter of expedience as much as principle, but this withdrawal into the world of art and letters was to be the making of him.

Over the course of the following decade, Evelyn would assemble an extraordinary mass of manuscript notes on assorted topics. Some of this work – such as his contributions towards the great Baconian ‘history of the trades’ project – never got past a few pages of jottings. Other schemes were carried through into publication, however. His famous work on the cultivation of trees, Sylva and other manuals of estate management, with a polemical and speculative edge to them, which did make it into print after the Restoration can be seen, for instance, as extracts or offshoots from the activity of this period and more specifically Evelyn’s unfinished study, Elysium Britannicum: or, The Royal Gardens. Begun sometime around the end of the 1650s, this encyclopaedic work reflected on the author’s practical experience as well as his extensive reading in ancient and modern horticultural sources. 

Before leaving for the continent in the mid-1640s, Evelyn had already created ‘a little study over a cascade’, together with ‘an island, and some other solitudes and retirements’ for his family estate at Wotton.[9] Working with his elder brother George Evelyn and their cousin, the military engineer Captain George Evelyn, over the next few years the three men would help transform what had been a moated Tudor manor house plot into a hydraulic garden of modern, ‘Italian’ design. 

On his return from Paris, Evelyn would propose an equally ambitious scheme for the redesign of the gardens of Sayes Court, his father-in-law’s historic Thames-side seat at Deptford.[10] Obtaining a lease on this now run-down property (which had been a parliamentary confiscation), Evelyn made it his main residence and the gardens his principal field of experiment. Despite (or perhaps because of) the challenges presented by the local environment, especially the ‘Hellish and dismall Cloud of Sea-Coale’ that wafted eastwards from the city of London, Evelyn’s planting of the site made it ‘most boscaresque’ in the words of one visitor, indeed the very ‘Exemplar of his Book of Forest Trees’, Sylva.[11] What else but ‘building, planting, buying, felling & c.’ was there for him ‘in this madd & estranged country’, Evelyn would write.[12]  

Plans of Sayes Court, Deptford

Plan of Sayes Court House and Garden A

This plan of the house and garden at Sayes Court shows the renovations to the house, outbuildings and the new garden designed and carried out by John Evelyn.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Further solace was to be found in the landscape of Surrey or more especially ‘the Gardens, Fountaines and Groves that adorne it’. These were among ‘the most natural & [most] magnificent that England afforded’, Evelyn was to write.[13] Summoning this unashamedly patriotic vision of a landscape jointly fashioned by art and nature, Evelyn would seem to have had a small complex of estates of very particular association in mind. Just to the north of Wotton lay Albury, the former country retreat of the Earl of Arundel and now owned by his grandson, for whom Evelyn was to design a new terrace garden during the 1650s.[14] A few miles east, Dibden (or Deepdene) had been laid out as an ‘Ampitheater Garden, or Solitarie recesse’ by Charles Howard. Near to the village of Capel, on the south-east edge of the market town of Dorking, the site lay on Arundel land settled on this other grandson in 1652. Like Evelyn, the owner of Dibden had turned his mind to various curious interests, taking a ‘Cottage of Retirement’ so ‘in the troublesome Times’ he might withdraw ‘from this wicked World’. There, he crafted a landscape appropriate to his studies in natural philosophy, setting it with ‘divers rare plants’ and building an ‘Elaboratory’.[15] It epitomised Evelyn’s vision of the landed estate as a domain of ingenuity and reflection, of use and philosophy, which was to shape his own designs too. All being laid out or thought about in and around the early 1650s, the gardens of Albury, Dibden and Wotton were linked socially and philosophically as well as by principles of design. They were also one of the prompts for Evelyn to begin to draw. 

Soon after his return from Paris, Evelyn’s diary records a journey to Wotton to give his brother ‘what directions I was able about his Garden, which he was now desirous to put in some form; but for which he was to remove a mountaine, that was over-growne with huge trees, & thicket, with a moate, within 10 yards of the very house: this my Brother immediately attempted’.[16] That this was a plan of some years standing is suggested by ‘A Rude draght of Wotton Garden before my Bro: alterd it & as it was 1640’ (c. 1643). Taken from the wooded hillside or ‘mountaine’ of Evelyn’s diary entry, the drawing lays out the prospect to the south of the house that would be the principal focus of the brothers and their cousin’s designs. Eventually, these ambitious plans would sculpt the hillside into the cut and fill terraced mount faced with a temple front depicted in a later etching: ‘Wotton in Surrey’ (1653).[17]

A rude draft of Wotton

A Rude Draft of Wotton Garden

This view of Wotton depicts the estate – house, gardens and some of the grounds – as they were prior to the renovations drafted and implemented by Evelyn, his brother and their cousin in the 1640s and 50s.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Etched view of Wotton in Surrey, by John Evelyn

Wotton in Surrey, taken in perspective from the top of the Grotto, by John Evelyn

John Evelyn’s accomplished amateur etching of Wotton was made in 1653.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Beginning with the freely drawn but highly-detailed ‘Rude draght of Wotton . . . as it was 1640’ and ending with the actually rather accomplished etching dated 1653, Evelyn would sketch out several designs on the landscape of the family seat during this period. Such pictures are not discrete then, confined by a single viewpoint within a single frame, but part of an expansive series, surveying the estate from different aspects and at different moments.

Etched or drawn up in red chalks, pencil, pen and wash, solely or in various combinations, there is a sense of experiment about them. It is as if Evelyn was familiarising himself with the properties and possibilities of the different media. Being composed of prospects and plans, some offhand and schematic, others worked up a little and heavily annotated, they are no less of a mixed bag pictorially. Awkward, not a little naïve, as such drawings may perhaps now seem, in matters of scale or the handling of perspective, a number of the formal devices Evelyn employs were to become commonplace in the landscape art of the second half of the century. He was learning to draw here. Accordingly, there are various rather self-conscious gestures to pictorial convention: the broad woodland screen of the foreground promontory in the ‘Rude draght’ of the house, for example, or the broken tree that frames a view from the west in ‘The prospect of the old house at Wotton 1640 from the Broome field’ (c. 1643). Elsewhere, the inclusion of grazing cattle or the odd estate worker help set the scene too. But it is the mechanical as well as the imaginative processes of giving pictorial expression to his observations and plans for the landscape that make these drawings part of that wider field of enquiry and study Evelyn was to dedicate himself to in the 1640s and 50s as much as what they depict. 

Prospect of the old house at Wotton, 1640

The Prospect of the old house at Wotton 1640

Evelyn’s drawing poignantly captured Wotton ‘as it was 1640’, the year of his father’s death.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Based on suggestions in Evelyn’s diary and the drawings themselves it is likely that the earliest were actually made in the summer of 1643, just ahead of setting out on his lengthy tour of the Continent. But, gesturing to various later additions to the landscape, the written inscriptions were by and large done at some later date. When labelling them up, going back over the old, familiar ground they surveyed, they appear to have prompted the recollection of a clutch of different moments and times. The paper Wotton Evelyn had fashioned seems to have reminded him of the ties that bound him to the place. The idea that his ‘Rude draght’ captured Wotton ‘as it was 1640’ and so, in the year of his father’s death imbues it with some poignancy, for instance. Among other similarly autobiographical allusions is an inscription set carefully in amongst the brickwork identifying the upper ‘chamber window to the roome wher I was borne’. 

Given that he was abroad or otherwise absent when much of the work was carried out, it may be that this sleight of hand in the dating of the drawings and some of the diary entries referring to the improvement of Wotton was a way of Evelyn laying claim to a greater role in the subsequent landscaping; the ingenious hydraulics and inventive classicism of which were largely of his cousin’s devise.[18] Still, this does not mean that, when in exile in Paris, the plans for the improvement of the family estate were any less a way of Evelyn maintaining an imaginative link with the people and places of home. For those displaced by the war at home, dreaming of England, remembering familiar places through drawings or letters was an important means of preserving their connection with lands over which they had (or formerly had) influence. Though his brother and his cousin oversaw work on the ground, he was still to offer advice in letters or on occasional, quiet trips across the Channel.  Whether he had the drawings of Wotton with him abroad is not known, but their making was clearly part of the conversations that re-shaped the landscape.  

Laying roughly mid-way between the historic market towns of Guildford and Dorking, Wotton was one of a chain of south-facing estates, sitting under the chalk and clay ridge of the North Downs, and set on the banks of the river Tillingbourne. It was an enviable setting; ‘capable of furnishing all the amoenities of a villa and garden, after the Italian manner’ Evelyn declared.[19] Narrow, almost ravine-like at times and flanked by rich woodland, the ‘little Romancy Vale’ (as Aubrey was to characterise it) where Wotton lay was readily imagined as a pastoral idyll, even as a variety of other, competing claims were also being made on its highly-desirable resources.[20]

While it is the garden plot to the south of the manor house and so the plans for it that seem to have preoccupied Evelyn in making his drawings, those developments are very carefully located in a wider working landscape. So, an ink and wash drawing like the prospect from the scrubby, game-filled heights of ‘the Broome field’ on the northern side of the estate very carefully situates the ‘old house’ and its courts in relation to their surroundings. To better display the management and use of the landscape, here Evelyn combines several subtle shifts of viewpoint. Thus, the various wings of the house and surrounding courts are constructed from two or three different, intersecting perspective systems, while the flanking hillsides, meadows and waters occupy other fields of vision. Taking in the encroachment of the steep woody hills and the winding course of the waters bounding the property, these tilting planes convey a sense of the confines of the valley setting and its use.

To the left-hand side, the watercourse powers one of the mills on which the family’s prosperity was founded. Tracing its passage, the eye is taken along a walled vegetable garden and then on to a broad, reflection-filled, lake-like expanse. Marked out here by birds taking flight, as a prime source of saltpetre, the dovecote shown on its banks was  a remnant of the estate’s ties with the local gunpowder industry. Signs of the industrialization of the valley are thus placed front and centre. Unlike those members of the rural gentry who were at this time increasingly preferring to distance themselves at least outwardly from the wealth generated by commerce and manufacturing, Evelyn happily embraced the rewards of such ‘honest Industry’.[21] In Sylva, a book which draws a good deal on his family’s management of the natural resources of the Tillingbourne for commercial ends, Evelyn would recall hearing his ‘own Father . . . affirm that a Forge, and some other Mills, to which he furnish’d much fuel were a means of maintaining and improving his woods’, not depleting them.[22]

In the view from ‘the Broome field’, the status of a structure like the dovecote, which restricted by law to the manorial gentry was something of a badge of landed privilege, is underlined by the careful treatment it is granted. Indeed, it is picked out just as meticulously as the central block of the house or the long ranges of outbuildings and stabling that flank it. Other areas – like the woodland and the precipitous, newly-cleared slope across the way, which was to be the site of the planned terracing – are more summary in execution. They were still a work in progress. It is a sense of a working towards something that is no less apparent in other drawings. Stretching across two sheets of paper, ‘Prospect of Wotton gardens & house towards the east, from the Meadow by the Woodside as altered by my Bro: 1646’ (c. 1647) leaves a good deal blank. Though a tree-top nook with a winding stair and a gothic-looking waterside alcove – labelled the ‘study & pond made by me 1640’ – are delineated with some care, Evelyn does little more than block out the surrounding plots. The design waits to be inscribed. It would appear then, very much a working document; a pictorial complement for the raw data he recorded elsewhere under the heading ‘The Measures of Wotton Area’ (c. 1640–50s) and signed off with another sketch of the house and its gardens). 

Prospect of Wotton gardens and house, by John Evelyn

Prospect of Wotton Gardens & House

This sparse sketch of Wotton plots and measures the land surrounding the main house.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The measurements of Wotton, with a small drawing of the house

The measurments of Wotton, with a small drawing of the house

Evelyn recorded the measurements of both the house and the grounds at Wotton.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Thinking about Evelyn’s views of Wotton in these terms, they might be understood as a pictorial aide-memoire of sorts, a carefully-compiled and transcribed inventory of land use and management, of value in the evaluation and proposed improvement of the estate. They are not straightforwardly documentary, however. Nor are they simply about Evelyn acquiring a proficiency in a gentlemanly art. Some things about them are rather affecting and personally charged too. Drawn up over a period of extended uncertainty – from the threat posed by the descent into civil war through to the return from exile – the set would seem as much an act of remembrance as a matter of design, recalling his father’s time as well as tracing his brother’s plans, a record of the place as it was or should be before it was irrevocably altered or given the violence of the day, even lost completely. Drawing had such a capacity.


[1] Add MS. 78610, f. I. This must date from Aubrey’s visit of 1673, since it is very clearly the model for a more finished version interleaved with his manuscript account of ‘A perambulation of Surrey anno domini 1673’, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS Aubrey 4, f. 095r.

[2] For an invaluable biographical study, see Gillian Darley, John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006).

[3] His work as a printmaker is considered, however, in Anthony Griffiths, ‘The etchings of John Evelyn’ in David Howarth (ed.), Art and Patronage in the Caroline Courts: Essays in Honour of Sir Oliver Miller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 51-67.

[4] John Evelyn, Sculptura: Or the History, and Art of Chalcography and Engraving in Copper (London: J. Crook, 1662), p. 103.

[5] Ann Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in a Polite and Useful Art (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000); Kim Sloan, ‘A Noble Art’: Amateur Artists and Drawing Masters, c.1600-1800(London: published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press, 2000).

[6] Gillian Darley, John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 19-36, 56-76.

[7] Michael Hunter, ‘John Evelyn in the 1650s: a virtuoso in quest of a role’, in Science and the Shape of Orthodoxy: Intellectual Change in Late Seventeenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge & Rochester: Boydell Press, 1996), pp. 67-98.

[8] John Evelyn, letter to William Prettyman, 2 December 1651, in, Douglas Chambers & David Galbraith (eds.) The Letterbooks of John Evelyn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), pp. 103-4, 104.

[9] John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn, E.S. de Beer (ed.), 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), I, 55.

[10] Prudence Leith-Ross, ‘The garden of John Evelyn at Deptford’ in Garden History, 25, 2 (1997), pp. 138–152.; Mark Laird, ‘Parterre, grove and flower garden: European horticulture and planting design in John Evelyn’s time’ in Therese O’Malley & Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn (eds.), John Evelyn’s ‘Elysium Britannicum’ and European Gardening (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 171–219; and Mark Laird, ‘Sayes Court revisited’ in Frances Harris & Michael Hunter (eds.), John Evelyn and his Milieu, (London: British Library, 2003), pp. 115–144.

[11] John Evelyn, Fumifugium: or, The Inconvenience of the Aer, and Smoke of London Dissipated (London, 1661), p. 18; Roger North, The Life of the Right Honourable Francis North, Baron Guilford, 2 vols. (London, 1742), II, 252.

[12] John Evelyn, letter to Richard Browne, 31 March 1657, British Library, Add MS 34702, f. 150.

[13] Evelyn, Diary, III, 154.

[14] Douglas Chambers, ‘The tomb in the landscape: John Evelyn’s garden at Albury’ in Journal of Garden History, 1 (1981), pp. 37–54.

[15] John Aubrey, The Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, 5 vols. (London, 1718–19), III, 133; Evelyn, Diary, III, 154.

[16] Evelyn, Diary, III, 60.

[17] Frances Harris, ‘”My Most Cherished Place on Earth”: John Evelyn and Wotton’, in Mavis Batey (ed.) A Celebration of John Evelyn: Proceedings to Mark to Tercentenary of his Death (Wotton: Surrey Gardens Trust, 2006), pp. 53–73;  Juliet Odgers, ‘Water in use and philosophy at Wotton House: John Evelyn and the history of trades’, Architectural Research History, 15, 3 (2011), pp. 237–247.

[18] It is worth noting here that Evelyn’s diary entries were not daily additions, but actually written up many years later from brief notes or correspondence: see de Beer’s editorial comments in Evelyn, Diary, I, 69 f, especially 73.

[19] John Evelyn, letter to John Aubrey, 8 February 1675, in William Upcott (ed.) The Miscellaneous Writings of John Evelyn, Esq. F.R.S., (London: Henry Colburn, 1825), pp. 687–691, 687.

[20] John Aubrey, The Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, 5 vols. (London: E. Curll, 1718–19), IV, 56.

[21] John Evelyn, ‘Oeconomics to a newly married friend’ [1676], British Library, London, Add. MS 78386.

[22] John Evelyn, Sylva: Or, A Discourse of Forest-Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominion (London: printed by Jo. Martyn & Ja. Allestry, 1664), p. 110.

  • John Bonehill
  • Dr John Bonehill is a lecturer in the history of art at the University of Glasgow. His research interests encompass British art and culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, art, travel and natural history and the work of the Paul and Thomas Sandby.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.