What cannot be repaired

November 30, 2010

There are some parallels between seventeenth-century herbariums, plant taxonomies and botanic gardens, and the institutional seed banks which have recently been commissioned by several governments in Europe. In the last few years, organised compendiums of vegetable life have been developed with renewed urgency, as scientists become aware of the hastening rates at which species are declining. The Millennium Seed Bank at Kew aims to stockpile 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the doomsday vault, protects specimens in an underground cavern which is secured against environmental disaster.

The programme of early modern natural philosophers, however, tended to focus on collection and classification, while the twentieth century has seen a shift towards conservation. The Pavlovsk Seed Bank, a 1,200 acre fruit and crop garden outside St Petersburg, has recently been in the news because its nurseries are being optioned as a building site by the Russian government. If planned works go ahead, developers will evict thousands of varieties of strawberries, hundreds of blackcurrants, raspberries, and gooseberries, and many other species.  In an argument that the Guardian has called Kafkaesque, the developers argue that because the collection is priceless, no price can be paid for it

The site of John Evelyn’s famous garden in Deptford is also currently subject to contested building projects – read this blog for more on the development. Plans of the garden, drawn in the 1650s, can be used by campaigners as detailed maps of the area at the time, showing of what it was supposed to look like as it matured (there are better, copyrighted pictures available here and here). The key to one plan mentions stables, beehives and yards, rows of ash and elm, fountains, orchards and barns, amongst much else. But a plan can only go so far in describing the way the land took shape. Neat little avenues of trees and geometric hedges only partly fill the area delineated by the boundary walls, and rows of beds are drawn in, but vacant.

When Peter the Great, travelling incognito on his Great Embassy, stayed in Evelyn’s house in 1698, a servant at the residence wrote disapprovingly that the house was ‘full of people right nasty’. Of the many anecdotes which circulated during Peter’s stay, perhaps one of the most enduring is the story of the Tsar in a wheelbarrow holding races with his ambassadors through Evelyn’s home.

It was only after Peter left that the extent of his Embassy’s desecration became clear. William III sent Christopher Wren to itemise losses from the house, and another inventory was made of damage to Evelyn’s famous garden:

During the time the Zar of Muscovie inhabited the said house, severall disorders have been committed in the gardens and plantations, which are observed to be under two heads: one is what can be repaired again, and the other what cannot be repaired.

1.      All the grasse worke is out of order, and broke into holes by their leaping and shewing tricks upon it

2.      The bowling green is in the same condition

All that ground which used to be cultivated for eatable plants is all overgroune with weeds and is not manured nor cultivated, by reason the Zar would not suffer any men to worke when the season offered

4 The wall fruite and stander fruite trees are unpruined and unnailed.

5 The hedges nor wilderness are not cutt as they ought to be.

6 The gravel walks are all broke into holes and out of order.

We can see how Evelyn’s garden diversified, combining features of the botanical garden for plants that could be taken, or eaten by humans, with aspects of parkland, country-house gardens; kitchen-gardens and farmland, and a fashionable (then as now) ‘wilderness’. There is even a house in the grounds belonging to a poor man, appropriately named Russell  – the guards billeted there have ‘almost intirely’ ruined it.

The inventory also gives some details of cultivation work that was necessary to various parts of the garden: manuring, cutting, pruning, nailing (presumably of espaliers), in addition to implied maintenance of lawns, bowling greens and walkways.

The paper was drawn up by George London, the King’s Master Gardener, and the £55 cost of reparation work ‘to put the gardens and plantations in as good repair as they were before his Zarrish Majestie resided there’, is ‘certified’ and ‘Justified’ by his signature. The sum was duly paid out of the royal coffers. Evelyn had some revenge in the 1706 edition of his Sylva:

Is there under the heavens a more glorious and refreshing object of the kind than an impregnable hedge of about 400 feet in length, nine feet high, and five in diameter, which I can still show in my ruined garden at Sayes Court (thanks to the Tzar of Muscovy) at any time of year, glittering with its armed and variegated leaves, the taller standards at ordinary distance, blushing with their natural coral? It mocks the rudest assaults of the weather, beasts or hedge-breakers, et illum nemo impune lacessit

Other than the boggling dimensions of the hedge, it is striking to see that he defines the species by personal memoir, and more broadly, by its relative resilience to human impact.

Beneath George London’s £55 estimate comes the second ‘head’: that which cannot be repaired:

Great damages are done to the trees and plants, which cannot be repaired, as the breaking of branches of the wall fruit trees, spoiling two or three of the finest true phillereas, breaking severall holleys and other fine plants.

The inventory of Evelyn’s losses gives us an idea of many of the things that were in his grounds at that time, their purposes, and the maintenance they required. It seems unlikely that we would have a picture so precise and so particular of Evelyn’s garden at that moment in 1698, if Peter and his company had not destroyed it.

  • A transcript of the inventory, ‘Peter the Great at Sayes Court, Deptford’, was published in Notes and Queries, 19 (1856)
  • Evelyn’s servant and Sylva quoted in Simon Dixon, ed., Britain and Russia in the Age of Peter the Great – Historical Documents, London: School of Slavonic & East European Studies,1998

One Response to “What cannot be repaired”

  1. ofsmith said

    I thought I might add this article about an Egyptian seed bank being looted in this week’s political unrest to the footnotes: http://blogs.nature.com/news/thegreatbeyond/2011/02/genebank.html

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