Garden as Laboratory in the Work of John Evelyn
: Baconian Intentions and the Hermetic Legacy

  • Juliet Odgers

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Towards the end of the 1650s, John Evelyn (1620-1706) composed a book on gardening, the ‘Elysium Britannicum: or the Royal Gardens’, transcribing a draft into fair copy between 1660 and 1663. The book was never finished, but a good part of the manuscript survives. He composed the work in three books: the first sets out a philosophical frame for the conduct of gardening; the second describes the design of a Royal Garden; the third book is now lost. In the first book, Evelyn presents a vision of Nature that owes something to newly emerging mechanistic ideas, derived from the contemporary revival of classical atomism, but which owes much more to Renaissance Neoplatonic Hermetic ideas which cast Nature as a vital Universal Spirit. As it appears in the Elysium, Evelyn’s syncretic Hermetico-Mechanical speculative physics is underpinned by an ardent experimentalism which emerges time and again in his descriptions of the Royal Garden, and this is in turn informed by his study of the works of Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626). Bringing the Hermetic and Baconian components of Evelyn’s thought to bear on the study of his gardens, this thesis offers interpretations of four garden designs. Two are the theoretical propositions from the ‘Elysium’: the grand universal Royal Garden as a whole, and smaller the smaller Philosophico-Medicall garden within it. Two are realised designs: the gardens at Wotton in Surrey, and Evelyn’s own garden at his home in Sayes Court, Deptford. Evelyn’s imagined Royal Elysium emerges as a contemplative microcosm, an image of the well governed Kingdom, which reflects the mystical harmony of God’s creation; and as a domain which promotes, represents and accommodates the powerful practices of an operative natural philosophy, instituted in accordance with Bacon’s design. The gardens and landscape at Wotton and Sayes Court reflect similar ideas on a more modest scale.
Date of Award26 Apr 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorVaughan Hart (Supervisor) & Mark Wilson Jones (Supervisor)

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