The Optical Construction of John Evelyn's Garden at Sayes Court

The Optical Construction of John Evelyn's Garden at Sayes Court

Juliet Odgers

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The frontispiece from John Evelyn's 'The French Gardiner, Instructing How to Cultivate All Sorts of Fruit Trees and Herbs for the Garden' (1658), translated from an original work by Nicolas de Bonnefons.

This project brought together a garden and a text by John Evelyn (1620–1706). The garden was planted at Sayes Court in Deptford, where Evelyn established his family home on return to England in 1652 from self-imposed exile in Paris. The text is his great unfinished and unpublished gardening book The Elysium Britannicum: or, the Royal Gardens, composed during the 1650s and early 1660s whilst Evelyn was resident at Sayes Court. This survives in part in manuscript form and is held at the British Library. In his Elysium Evelyn gives us an account of his ideas for the perspectival setting out of gardens, ideas that can be placed squarely in the French garden tradition—the influence of Jacques Boyceau is particularly evident. There is a certain "experimental" sophistication in what Evelyn proposes—a reflection of the broader culture of the increasingly complete mathematization of perspective described in works by Niçeron, Gaspar Schott, and Abraham Bosse, all of which Evelyn knew. However, whilst Evelyn's design for Sayes Court is equally sophisticated, when we turn to his plan we find that the perspectival precepts that he describes in the Elysium Britannicum do not dominate the setting out of Sayes Court, for his garden relies on a relatively loose axial structure incapable of supporting the perspectival unity that Evelyn describes in the Elysium. It is only by placing perspective within the wider territory of optics that it becomes possible to read the geometries of Evelyn's garden.