John Evelyn (1620-1706), diarist, scholar and horticulturalist, died 300 years ago at his much beloved birthplace, Wotton House, Surrey, aged 85.
Evelyn contributed to most of the fields of knowledge of his age, and was a friend to fellow virtuosi Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. He was a key founder member of the Royal Society in 1660, and his publications included works on chemistry, architecture, coins, copper engraving, French techniques of bread-making, and town planning.
Evelyn was best known in his own time as the author of ‘Sylva, or discourse of Forest Trees’ (1664), which went through four editions in his lifetime, and as a garden designer. His famed garden at Sayes Court, Deptford, was visited by King Charles II in 1663. Gardens he is associated with still survive at Albury Park and Wotton House in Surrey.
Since the highly successful posthumous publication of his private ‘Diary’ in 1818, edited by the Surrey antiquarian William Bray, Evelyn is now also celebrated as a source for many aspects of 17th century history, including the cultural, social and political history of Surrey. The Diary covers over 60 years, from his exile in Europe during the Civil Wars, through his later career as a public servant, to a few days before his death in 1706. He gives us first hand descriptions of such events as the Great Fire of London in 1666, and of his work on the Commission for Sick and Wounded Seamen and on the Council for Foreign Plantations. Numerous houses and gardens visited and people encountered are detailed, providing an invaluable record of the landscapes and lives of upper class society.
Evelyn is buried in the old chapel at Wotton beneath a plain slab, which praises an exemplary life, ‘in an age of extraordinary events and revolutions’.