John Evelyn’s Elysium Britannicum

Wax impression of John Evelyn’s seal,    National Portrait Gallery

John Evelyn is, like his friend Samuel Pepys, best known for his diary,  detailing life in the second half of the 17thc. He was a landed gentleman, government official and a high Anglican of uncompromising piety but also a man beset by curiosity.

As a result he investigated and wrote about a huge range of subjects, but particularly gardening. He not only translated and commented on several  major French texts  on gardening but also wrote several key ones of his own.  

Method for propagating plants by layering into a pot full of earth

Evelyn saw horticulture as the form of knowledge and expression that by its very nature could include all other arts and sciences, and developed  a pious understanding of the workings of Nature, so revealing God’s infinite wisdom. Indeed so convinced of this was he that he spent much of his life from the 1650s onwards working on a book intended to cover every aspect of the subject that he could. He’d already written about 1000 pages when he died in 1706.

Instructions for grafting rare fruit trees

Now in the British Library and catalogued as Add MS  78432 it’s better known as Elysium Britannicum or The Royal Gardens.  It remained virtually unknown until 2001 when it was finally transcribed and published.  Continue reading

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East comes West

Panel from the Chinese House at Stowe, photo by Peter Vallance, 2008

Dr Johnson wrote in 1738 : “There are few nations in the world more talked of, or less known than the Chinese.”  He was reflecting on the latest book about China to be published, one which Patrick Conner in Oriental Architecture in the West suggests that inspired the first “Chinese” building in Britain.

This was a massive 4 volume work by the Jesuit priest Father Jean-Baptiste Du Halde who had not visited China himself but collated the unpublished reports  of 17 of his fellow priests. It first appeared in France in 1735, but was translated into English as  The General History of China the following year, and went into its 3rd edition by 1741.


Unlike Nieuhof’s account of the Dutch Embassy which I mentioned  a couple of weeks ago there are  very  few illustrations.  However the artist, Antoin Humblot, crucially shifted the emphasis of his Chinese sources, from reality to something rather more playful and elegant,  and in the process he made China appear almost  to be rococo.  Such books helped feed the growing fascination for all things “Chinese” including gardens and architecture, which Tim Richardson has called  “one of the wonderful eccentricities of the age.”

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St Fiacre

I forgot to celebrate St Fiacre’s day last year. I bet you did too.   But I did better this year and did so in the appropriate surroundings of the Gardens Trust’s annual conference in Birmingham which is taking place this weekend. Unfortunately that means I wont be able to get to the festival of St Fiacre at Meaux, near Paris,  which is better known for its Brie and its mustard than for its saints, although I could still take part in the international pilgrimage  and festival of St Fiacre at Senlis next month. But why am I telling you all this stuff about a strange-sounding saint you’ve probably never heard of in a garden-related blog?

15thc alabaster statuette of St Fiacre, now on display at the Garden Museum, London. V&A

It’s because St Fiacre just happens the patron saint of gardening, and his “official”feast day falls on the 31st August although there are some local variations on that date including today, September 1st.  Since I didn’t really know  why he had that privilege and responsibility I thought I should find out.

Of course the mediaeval world was besotted by saints – I was going to say bedevilled by but that somehow didn’t seem quite right. One or other of them was believed to watch over  after every minute aspect of daily life.  Legends grew up around them and although many are obscure like Fiacre  [perhaps a polite way of saying they are either imaginary or have lives which have been  ’embroidered’] nevertheless they became well-known, if only locally, with shrines, chapels, wells, springs and statues dedicated to them.

So this post is the story of how an obscure monk from Ireland – became the spiritual guardian of gardeners, and for different reasons, believe it or not, also, of taxi-drivers and sufferers from haemorrhoids.

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Adam’s weed

An obscure 17thc botanist cleric is very prominent in many  gardens at the moment because of a plant, that as so often in the weird and wonderful ways of botanical names,  he never saw, didn’t even know existed  and had absolutely no connection with in any shape or form.   Yet his is one of the few botanists names that really are well-known. That’s because because the plant is also renowned as a colonising weed, which grows rapidly in the poorest ground, filling waste ground, lining railway embankments and even cracks in walls, roofs and gutters where its hard to imagine how anything survives let alone thrives. It has no predators to munch its leaves, but unlike the other invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed or Himalayan balsam, that this description applies to, it instead attracts butterflies and insects and fills the air with a wonderful honey-like fragrance.

The Guardian in an editorial called this plant “the ragamuffin of the natural world” saying  “It is common as muck and as easy as dandelions to grow”  ….


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Looking East …

What’s the best known – and certainly most instantly recognizable – garden building in Britain?

I ought to think of something clever to say at this point, or perhaps provide a list to choose from but I suspect that for the general public, and probably garden historians too there really is one possible choice.  The fact that it’s just been reopened to the public for the first time in years following a massive restoration project, and the return of its 80 dragons is a good excuse to sing its praises and ask a few questions.



I can’t think of any other garden building that is so well-known and has such an immediate  wow factor  as the Pagoda at Kew which is now 256 years old.  Which poses the next obvious question: Why is there a Chinese inspired building in what was once a private garden for the royal family? What drove William Chambers, effectively the newly appointed ‘royal architect’, to suggest the construction of this extraordinary building?   The answer is quite a long one, but one which Chambers was eminently suited to provide.

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