Monday, October 31, 2016

Birthday: "Mulberry Garden, now the only place of refreshment about the town for persons of the best quality to be exceedingly cheated at."


John Evelyn (1620-1706)
Aesthete, author, diarist

Following that most excellent precept, “Choose your parents wisely,” John Evelyn lived a long, tasteful life. His father made a fortune in gunpowder and sent the boy to Balliol College, Oxford, and the Middle Temple. After a brief service on the Royalist side in the English Civil War, Evelyn retreated to the Continent for the duration. He did the Grand Tour, met famous people, and collected tasteful objects, many of which remain in British museums.

Evelyn returned to England and rejoiced in the restoration of the monarchy. He married well, bought an estate in the London suburbs, and set about cultivating its grounds and his mind. He was a prolific author, producing one of the earliest books on air pollution in 1661, and was one of the founders of the Royal Society.

An early conservationist, Evelyn wrote extensively on the care and cultivation of trees. He feared that the growing population and rise of industries like glassmaking would cause the deforestation of the island. His great work on trees, Sylva, was published in 1664 and was in its fourth edition by his death forty years later. His account of the Great Fire of London remains a touchstone for scholars, and he was among those involved with the effort to redesign and rebuild the ruins as a modern capital.

He was a keen observer of manners and social life (his father-in-law was the British ambassador in Paris, and Evelyn moved in court circles); for 65 years beginning in 1641 he kept a diary that, once published in 1818, was the last word on day to day life in 17th century London until his friend Samuel Pepys’ diaries were decoded.

At his death in 1706- at 86, having buried all but one of his eight children- Evelyn had amassed a personal library of over 4600 works that passed through the family until it was finally broken up in eight sales at Sotheby's in 1977-78.

Late in life, Evelyn retired to the family’s country home and inherited the baronetcy at 79. In 1698 he rented his London seat to Peter the Great, Tsar of All the Russias, for three months when the great oligarch came to England to study industry. It was not a happy landlord-tenant relationship:

No part of the house escaped damage. All the floors were covered with grease and ink, and three new floors had to be provided. The tiled stoves, locks to the doors, and all the paint work had to be renewed. The curtains, quilts, and bed linen were ‘tore in pieces.’ All the chairs in the house, numbering over fifty, were broken, or had disappeared, probably used to stoke the fires. Three hundred window panes were broken and there were ‘twenty fine pictures very much tore and all frames broke.’ The garden which was Evelyn’s pride was ruined.

The estate as broken up after Evelyn’s death and remains only- and in small part- as a public park. Evelyn’s Diary has kept his name alive, however; he lives on as a polling station, in the Crabtree & Evelyn skin care line, and, since 1964, as the gossip column of the Oxford University newspaper, The Cherwell.

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