A Salute to John Evelyn

John Dargavel


I salute John Evelyn (1620–1706) with great respect, but I do so differently than I would have a year ago. I still salute him for writing Sylva, the book that can mark the start of modern forest science, but now that we have our own contagion, I salute him also for his public service in war and plague. It is more than the need for trees and science that links us across time and space. The public man who wrote the book is not to be forgotten even four centuries after his birth.

Evelyn was 44 when Sylva was published in 1664. It was a hopeful time. After twenty years of civil war and fractious government, a stable polity between parliament and crown had been found and Charles II had been restored to the English throne in 1660. Natural philosophy, as the way to think about the world based on observation, gained official recognition when the Royal Society was chartered in 1662. Scholars, aristocrats, doctors, politicians, divines and gentlemen gathered together in its meetings to discuss scientific discoveries. Evelyn was an active member from the start, served on its Council many times and was briefly its Secretary. Sylva was the first book published by the Royal Society and helped give him an entrée to public life as ‘virtuoso’, or intellectual, and as an ‘ingenious’ man, as scientists were called.

Figure 1. John Evelyn holding Sylva. Godfrey Kneller, 1689. Note: The picture was hung in a prominent position that faced me when I entered the Royal Society’s building in London – J.D.

Evelyn had what Maggie Campbell-Culver titled A Passion for Trees that sprang from his upbringing and travels. He came from the landed gentry in southeast England whose estates and enterprises included managed woodlands and timber trees. As the second son, he did not inherit the family estate at Wotton until he was 79, but he obtained a substantial house and forty hectares of land, Sayes Court at Deptford on the River Thames. It was there that he practised his love of trees and gardening, and where he wrote Sylva. It was close to the royal dockyards where the navy’s ships were built and repaired. The Navy was short of timber, especially durable oak for frames, and hard-wearing elm for decks. The Navy asked the Royal Society to investigate the supply situation and Sylva was the outcome.

As a young man John Evelyn spent six months travelling in Holland where he admired the architecture and noted developments in manufacturing and ‘quaint devices’. In Leyden he was impressed by the lime trees growing outside each house, and in Rotterdam he was ‘ravished … by delicious shades and walks of stately trees’; impressions that would later find their way into Sylva. In Leyden he thought that the ‘Hospital for their lame and decrepid [sic] soldiers … was one of the worthiest things in the world’. It was something that he strove to emulate in England well into his old age.

Evelyn was a devout Anglican and royalist who spent six years in self-imposed exile during the civil war period. He was based in Paris but travelled extensively in France and Italy, learnt the languages, poked his long nose into everything, made notes, went to lectures and medical dissections, bought books and pictures, and in Florence commissioned a cabinet for curiosities. He visited the great palaces, villas and estates always looking at their gardens. At the royal palace of Fontainebleau, he thought that ‘the beauty of all are the gardens’, and at Cardinal Richelieu’s palace at Varennes that ‘the groves, meadows and several excellent walks are a real paradise’. The formal style of the renaissance gardens in Italy with their terraces, statuary, water features and evergreen trees profoundly influenced his imagination. The development of this style by Le Nôtre in France showed him what could be done when he came to design landscapes for English estates much later in his life. He certainly included evergreen trees — pines, cedars, cypresses, myrtle, holly, box, yew and juniper — when he came to write Sylva.

Figure 2. John Evelyn’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Domenico Benotti and Francesco Fanelli, makers, Florence, 1644–46. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, W.24:1 to 24-1977.

When he was twenty-six, he married the twelve or thirteen-year old Mary Browne, daughter of the English Resident (diplomat) in Paris, although they would not live together for another two years. Despite how this seems to our present sensibilities, their long marriage proved a kind and loving one, though filled with sadness as only one of their eight children survived them.

Sylva speaks to us across the centuries and continents because it addresses both the need to restore damaged forests, and the practical science of how to do it. Evelyn saw the navy’s shortage of timber in terms of the loss and damage to the woods that had occurred on the private estates during the civil war and its aftermath. In fact, part of the navy’s problem probably lay in the mismanagement of the shipyards and the royal forests. Evelyn focussed on the estate woods he knew when he wrote in the introduction:

Truly, the waste and destruction of our woods has been so universal, that I conceive nothing less than an universal plantation of all the sorts of trees will supply, and well encounter the defect.

It could just as well have been written now about Australia’s poor battered landscape.

Having set out the problem and proposed the solution, Evelyn assembled the information on how to do it. He starts with two chapters on collecting seed and raising young plants in the ‘seminary’, or nursery; follows with twenty-three chapters on the characteristics of different tree species; and adds five chapters on ‘infirmities’, copses, pruning, felling and timber. He makes policy proposals in the final chapter. Aside from its profusion of classical quotations, it is all familiar to our present-day books on arboriculture and restoring trees on farms. Among his many books and translations, Evelyn was proudest of Sylva, and rightly so as the first (1644) edition was very well received. Its one-thousand copies sold out and a second (1669) edition was needed. For this, Evelyn added new information, as he did for the enlarged third edition (1679) and the fourth (1706, renamed Silva) that appeared a few months after his death. Its subsequent history is remarkable. Six further editions were published between 1729 and 1827. It took on a new life for its historical interest with seven reprint and facsimile editions appearing between 1908 and 1995, and four digital copies now available on the internet. Sylva is the probably the most published book on trees and forests in the world. In 2014, it stimulated Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet to re-write and illustrate The New Sylva in the spirit of the original but with up-to-date information for the present time.

Evelyn wanted to be recognised for public service as well as for science. A few months after Sylva was published, and with the Second Dutch naval war (1665–1667) imminent, he was appointed one of the four Commissioners for Sick and Wounded Seamen and Prisoners. He was given one of the most difficult districts. With no existing organisation, his immediate task was to appoint ‘Physicians, Chirurgeons, Agents, Martials & other officers in all the Sea-Ports’. They were soon needed, and Evelyn had to travel endlessly between the various ports, ships, hospitals and prisons, and often to London to plead for more funds and facilities. As the war went on, he faced mounting demands to: ‘receive the poor burnt creatures’; ‘consider poor widows and orphans’; ‘today neer [sic] 3000 prisoners at war … more than I had places to fit them’.

When the plague spread through London in the summer, Evelyn took his wife and family to his brother’s house isolated in the country, but ‘resolved to stay [in London]… look after my charge, trusting in the providence and goodness of God’. About 100,000 people, or twenty percent of the city’s population died. In September he ‘went all along the city and suburbs … dismal and dangerous, to see so many coffins exposed in the streets and the streets so thin of people’. But he was there to ask for a ‘pest-ship’ to put his ‘poor infected men’. The war at sea resumed after the winter and immersed him in his duties. As it did the next summer, disasterously so for England. However the plague reduced, helped perhaps by the great fire that destroyed most of the old medieval centre of London, and with it the rats whose fleas spread the plague, although this would not be known for another two centuries. The Second war ended, but the Third erupted five years later (1672–1674) and Evelyn was recalled to look after the ‘abundence of poor miserably wounded men’ and the prisoners. His work on this commission established his repuation and he was called on to serve on other types of commission at times later in his life.

Evelyn, the active public man in highest circles of royal government was also the curious, ingenious man and scholar. Even in wartime, he noted architecture, inspected ‘a graceful avenue of trees’, attended an amputation, inspected mechanical inventions and exotic birds, published his translation of a political-religious text from French, presented the King with a plan to rebuild London after the fire, and saw to the second edition of Sylva.

John Evelyn speaks to me across the centuries in several ways. One is his critical inquisitiveness captured in the Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in verba, ‘take no man’s word for it’; the essence of experimentation. Another is his persistence in adding new information into further editions of Sylva right up to the end of his life. It can be seen equally in his pressing for military hospitals that were finally built in Chelsea and Greenwich when he was seventy-two; fifty years after he had first seen one in Holland. So too do I value his aesthetic delight in the beauty and variety of trees in the landscape.

To restore our battered forests today, we too need the hope that advancing science proffers; we need the sense of the fullness of their true beauty and diversity; and we need the persistence to argue and work for their restoration.

John Evelyn, I salute you.


About the Author

John Dargavel has been interested in John Evelyn ever since he found a 3rd edition of Sylva in an Edinburgh bookshop over sixty years ago. He has practised and researched the science, history and political economy of forestry in Australia and elsewhere. He is honorary associate professor in the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. He is currently investigating the paradoxes of how the environment appears in a variety of aspects of everyday life. Contact: [email protected]


Further Reading

URLs cited 26 August 2020

Maggie Campbell-Culver, A Passion for Trees: The Legacy of John Evelyn (London: Transworld Publishers, 2006).

Gillian Darley, John Evelyn, Living for Ingenuity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

John Evelyn, Diary [1632–1706], in The Diary of John Evelyn, (ed.) G. de la Bédoyère (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1 vol. abridged, 1995). The Diary of John Evelyn. William Bray (ed.) (London 1901), vol.1 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41218/41218-h/41218-h.htm and vol.2 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42081/42081-h/42081-h.htm

John Evelyn, Sylva, or a Discourse on Forest-trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesties Dominions [London, 1st edn. 1664], in The Writings of John Evelyn, (ed.) G. de la Bédoyère (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995). Reprint of 4th 1706 edn. at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20778/20778-h/20778-h.htm

Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet,The New Sylva: A Discourse on Forest and Orchard Trees for the Twenty-first Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Michael Hunter, The Royal Society and its Fellows 1660-1700: The Morphology of an Early Scientific Institution (Chalfont St Giles: British Society of the History of Science, 1982).