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John Evelyn and his Books

William Seymour introduces the scientist, architect, gardener, forester and book-collector, John Evelyn; one of the most distinguished polymaths of the English seventeenth century.

In the seventeenth century there were still a few men who could reasonably be held to have learnt all there was to learn, whether of literature or of the contemporary sciences; and such a man was John Evelyn. Much of the magnificent library he collected, his many learned books and pamphlets, his diary and a large collection of letters have come down to the present day.

And, although one of his houses—Wotton House, near Dorking—has been extensively rebuilt, and the other—Sayes Court, Deptford, with its lovely garden—has now completely disappeared, this gentle virtuoso continues to exist through the books he left behind him.

When John Evelyn was born in 1620, the pattern of life at Wotton was very much as it had been when his grandfather first went to live there in 1579. But the period of the Civil Wars overshadowed his youth. He was a man who hated violence; and, although he was neither a physical nor a moral coward, as he more than once showed, the troubles that brought Milton hurrying home from Europe caused Evelyn to seek permission to set out on his Continental travels. They lasted nearly ten years; and during that time, he developed his taste for collecting and his interest in architecture, and came to appreciate the beauty of a well-stocked and well-tended garden.

In Paris he met Sir Richard Browne, then British Ambassador to the French Court; and, thanks to this meeting, he acquired both a devoted wife and his life-long interest in books. In 1647 he married Sir Richard’s daughter Mary, who bore him eight children. The Ambassador had himself a passion for books; and, although Evelyn had already started to collect when he came down from Oxford in 1640, his education as a serious bibliophile probably began under Sir Richard Browne’s aegis.

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