John Evelyn —Page 2

An engraving of John Evelyn after a portrait by the French artist Robert Nanteuil. In his diary for 13th June 1650 Evelyn noted the visit to Nanteuil’s studio while in Paris.

Wren and Evelyn were both appointed to the commission considering the matter of what to do about the ancient St.Paul’s Cathedral, which was in a very poor state of repair in the mid-17th century. Wren made a report condemning the old building and proposing the demolition of the central tower and its replacement by a large cupola. Following the proposal, the Commissioners made a site visit at which there was a heated debate amongst the members, some of whom believed that simple repairs were possible. Evelyn recorded the meeting in August 1666: “I went to St.Paules Church…where with Dr.Wren, Mr.Prat, Mr.May, Mr.Tho.Chichley, Mr.Slingsby, the Bish: of Lond., the Dean of S.Paule, & severall expert Workmen, we went to survey the generall decays…I was with Dr.Wren…we had in mind to build it with a noble Cupola, a forme of church building, not as yet knowne in England, but of wonderfull grace.” Five days later the cathedral was destroyed by the Great Fire and eventually Wren and Evelyn’s ideas came to fruition with the new (and still extant) cathedral.

The Great Fire was described in detail in Evelyn’s diary and immediately afterwards he was ready with a plan to replace the devastated city with an ideal replacement, which he presented directly to the King, Queen and the Duke of York at Whitehall Palace. There were so many similarities between the plans presented by Evelyn, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke – all three friends and acquaintances from the Royal Society – that they must have previously spent time discussing ways to rebuild London even before the Fire.

Evelyn wrote books on a number of subjects such as architecture, cookery, horticulture, politics and theology. Like Pepys, he was also a collector of books and at his death his library consisted of almost four thousand volumes and over eight hundred pamphlets. His daughter Mary is believed to have been the pseudonymous author of several books. Evelyn’s interest in gardening led him to design pleasure gardens such as one at Euston Hall.

Many wounded sailors were arriving back from naval battles without any medical or financial provision, something which concerned Evelyn (living close by the naval dockyards) and Samuel Pepys of the Naval Board. In 1664 they were both appointed to a Commission for Sick, Wounded and Prisoners and met regularly with other commissioners. Evelyn studied the architecture and organisation of the new Les Invalides military hospital in Paris and backed the idea of such an institution in England. In January 1666 Pepys shared a coach ride during which time Evelyn “intertained me with a discourse of an Infirmary which he hath projected for the sick and wounded seamen…which I mightily approve of – and will endeavour to promote, it being a worthy thing.” After some years the proposals of men such as Evelyn, Pepys and the army financier Stephen Fox led to the foundation of the Royal Military Hospital at Chelsea and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich (both designed by the friend and associate of all three men, Sir Christopher Wren).

One of Evelyn’s neighbours at Sayes Court was the master wood-worker Grinling Gibbons, then renting a cottage there. In 1671 Evelyn introduced him to Sir Christopher Wren and Gibbons thus went on to become the most famous wood-carver of the period, producing work for St.Paul’s Cathedral and many of the London churches.

During the brief reign of James II Evelyn was appointed the Commissioner of the Privy Seal. In 1694 he left Deptford to retire to his family’s country estate in Surrey and the house at Sayes Court was rented out. One notable tenant in 1698 was the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, who is reported to have done much damage during his tenancy.

Evelyn died in 1706 at his London house at Dover Street and his wife three years later. They were pre-deceased by seven of their eight children. His motto was ‘Omnia explorate; meliora retinete’ (explore everything; keep the best). On the memorial stone above the grave of Evelyn and his wife at St.John’s church at Wotton is the inscription: “[He] perpetuated his fame by far more lasting Monuments than those of Stone, or Brass: his Learned and useful works…Living in an age of extraordinary events, and revolutions he learnt…this truth which pursuant to his intention is here declared. That all is vanity which is not honest and that there’s no solid Wisdom but in real piety”. The name of Sayes Court lives on where it remains as a park, very close to the larger Pepys Park. It is immediately off the main A200 road from Rotherhithe to Greenwich, which is named Evelyn Street as it passes his former home at Deptford.

Sources include: Stephen Coote ‘Samuel Pepys – A Life’; Lisa Jardine ‘On A Grander Scale’; Adrian Tinniswood ‘By Permission of Heaven’; Samuel Pepys Diary; Michael Cooper ‘Robert Hooke and the Rebuilding of London’; Richard West ‘Daniel Defoe – The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures’.