John Evelyn, the 17th-century diarist whose Restoration diary is recognised as the most extensive and informative record of a momentous period, even advised Samuel Pepys on libraries. Dr Karen Attar, research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, looks at his legacy.

John Evelyn was born 400 years ago on 31 October 2020. We probably think of him predominantly as a Restoration diarist, and certainly the diary stands out in a search on Evelyn in the Senate House Library catalogue for the number of editions throughout the library: four 20th-century editions, published between 1905 and 1995, in the history section, diary extracts about engravings among the holdings on art, and an illustrated edition from 1818, accompanied by correspondence, in two special collections. 

For Evelyn, the diary may well have been an incidental production. He absorbed himself writing books about sculpture (Sculptura, 1661), medals (Numismata, 1697), and above all agriculture, gardens and gardening, such as Sylva, or, A Discourse of Forest-TreesKalendarium Hortense, or, The Gard’ners Almanac (both 1664) and Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (i.e. salads; 1699). First or early editions of most of these are held at Senate House Library. He also translated French books on gardening and on the visual arts (architecture and painting). 

One book Evelyn translated without contributing his own titles on the topic was an early classic on library science, Gabriel Naudé’s Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque (‘Advice on Establishing a Library’): in Evelyn’s translation, Instructions concerning Erecting of a Library (1661). 

Unlike Evelyn, Gabriel Naudé (1600–53) studied medicine in Paris before becoming a professional librarian: first, for Henri de Mesmes, a statesman, bibliophile, and friend of Montaigne, and then in turn for the cardinals di Bagni, Barberini, Richelieu and Mazarin, and finally, for the Queen of Sweden. He is said to have died of a broken heart after Mazarin’s superb library was dispersed. 

Naudé wrote his Advis for his first employer, de Mesmes, to make ‘one of the most considerable and best furnished libraries of France’ (Evelyn’s translation) even better and published it in 1627 as the most convenient way of securing copies of the text for friends. Evelyn’s translation is from an edition of 1644, appended to Louis Jacob’s Traicté des plus belles bibliothèques.

Naudé covered all the standard aspects of librarianship – library architecture and furnishings, book selection and acquisition, cataloguing and classification, and use. As he was aware, his book was groundbreaking. By introducing it to England in 1661, Evelyn, too, blazed a trail. This was just one of two books about library science to be published in 17th-century England, the other being John Dury’s The Reformed Librarie-Keeper(1650; repr. 1651). 

Evelyn’s interest was that of a collector and bibliophile. He advised Lord Arlington (whose garden he laid out) and Samuel Pepys about their libraries, giving Pepys a copy of Instructions concerning Erecting of a Library; encouraged the establishment of a public library at St James’s Palace, looked after by the great classicist Richard Bentley; and arranged the gift by Henry Howard, Sixth Duke of Norfolk, of his grandfather’s library to the Royal Society in 1666. Evelyn himself owned a library of several thousand volumes, which he divided subject-wise under six main headings with almost 120 sub-headings. Senate House Library currently holds four of these books. 

In some matters Evelyn followed Naudé’s advice: for example, by maintaining a catalogue and by classifying his books. Naudé wrote: ‘It is the very essence of a library to have a great number of manuscripts’, and Evelyn did. Naudé recommended telling all and sundry of one’s desire to form a library, so that acquaintances would be honoured to give the collector books, and Evelyn did that, too. 

The two men disagreed on other matters. Whereas Naudé did not believe in splurging on fine bindings, preferring to invest the money in extra books plainly bound, Evelyn had a penchant for decorated bindings. Despite some differences of opinion, Evelyn described Naudé in his dedicatory letter as an ‘excellent author’.

Yet Evelyn’s concern extended beyond groupings of books owned by himself or others to the knowledge contained therein. Dedicating his translation to the Earl of Clarendon, whose duties included the chancellorship of the University of Oxford, Evelyn explains that he is giving Clarendon the book as chancellor of the most famous university of the world, notes Clarendon’s rank ‘over the learned republique, as well as the political’, and rushes on to say how wonderful it will be to have a Royal Society (co-founded by Evelyn and granted a charter in 1662). In his concluding letter to Oxford’s Dr Barlow, Evelyn expresses the hope that more people will establish libraries, and by translating Naudé into English he provides the intellectual wherewithal for them to do it. The foundation of the Royal Society and the promotion of extensive, well arranged libraries open to the public, are two aspects of one objective, to disseminate learning.

Later in life, Evelyn was annoyed with the number of printing errors in Instructions concerning Erecting of a Library and tried to recall it. He failed, and a solid, sensible manual of continuing relevance remained available to English-speaking readers. The copy in Senate House Library formerly belonged to William Wyndham Grenville, baron Grenville (1759–1834), who shared several characteristics with Evelyn or with others connected with the book. Like Naudé’s employers, he was a statesman (during his brief time as prime minister he was instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade in Britain); like Clarendon, he was chancellor of the University of Oxford; and like Evelyn, he liked trees and gardens, planting some 2,500 trees at Dropmore House, his home. His younger brother, Thomas Grenville, was the bibliophile whose book collection is among the jewels of the British Library.  

Perhaps there is one point to be added about the Instructions as a translation. Evelyn regarded his relationship to the work as that of a conduit, in his term an ‘interpreter’ advancing the labours of a creator. Conduits might not have the status of authors but, as Evelyn recognised when devoting time to the work, they provide valuable service.

Dr Karen Attar is a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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