John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity By Gillian Darley.Yale University Press, 2006. £25.00
With this biography of the great English polymath John Evelyn (1620-1706), Gillian Darley has produced a book of marvellous quality and depth. Evelyn's long life and vastly varied interests make him a difficult subject to represent, but Darley brings him to life as a figure of central importance to the intellectual life of Restoration England.
Although more detached in his persona than his contemporary and friend Samuel Pepys, his engagement with the world can now be seen to have been as generous as it was multifarious.
His interests encompassed town planning and architecture as well as literature, popular science, politics and the visual arts. Above all, perhaps, was his enthusiasm for gardening, which he wrote on from personal experience as a plantsman and arborist; his key work on the subject, Elysium Britannicum, was presented to the King. His interests encapsulate the rationalist intellectual curiosity of later17th-century England, and despite the tumultuous events that took place then, we see that its culture sowed the seeds for the Enlightenment in the following century.
Evelyn's diaries are relatively well-known, but Darley's study is the first to make full use of over 200 volumes of unpublished manuscripts and papers deposited at the British Library in 1995. The result of this painstaking research is a book which abounds with the kinds of detail which not only makes Evelyn's character come alive on the page but does so with lucidity and conviction. You feel that Darley has selected the diagnostic nuggets so perceptively it allows her to achieve the rare feat of presenting her subject both exhaustively and economically.
Immersed in the everyday matters of family life at Sayes Court, Deptford, and later at Wotton in Surrey, Evelyn also lived through and sometimes witnessed many of the most defining events in English history, from the Great Fire of London to the Revolution of 1688. He seemed to know everyone who mattered.
In architecture, he was a friend and champion of Christopher Wren and worked with him on the creation of the Chelsea Hospital; a building which typifies Evelyn's interests in combining rigour and rationalism with a desire for social improvement.
Evelyn encompasses the best of the English tradition of amateurism, with its capacity for pragmatic experimentation and enthusiastic generalism. It would be wrong to present him as having been equally effective in all fields - the limitations of his skills as an architectural draughtsman are particularly obvious - but it is his interconnectedness with so many aspects of England's cultural life that makes him such an engaging character.
With the extraordinary breadth of her own knowledge, Darley succeeds in making the biography of one man a veritable history of England in the late 17th century, and in doing so she has written a very fine book indeed.
Neil Cameron is an Edinburghbased writer on architecture and art