The home in 50 objects #38: ebony cabinet (1652)


John Evelyn was a diarist, botanist, intellectual and landscape gardener — and this monumental cabinet is commensurate with his manifold roles. Commissioned for him by his wife Mary Browne, daughter of the English ambassador in Paris, it is made of engraved ebony, its interior inlaid with exotic veneers and ivory.

Inside the labyrinth of drawers and compartments could be stored all the minutiae of a multitasking virtuoso. 

Evelyn would need every square inch. First, to accommodate his prodigious diaries, which bore witness to 60 years of momentous events, from the execution of Charles I and the rise of Oliver Cromwell to the Great Plague and Great Fire of London.

Published posthumously, they rivalled those of his friend Samuel Pepys and, says the V&A museum, are “perhaps the greatest record of morals, manners and tastes of the leading personalities in the reign of Charles II”.

More hefty paperwork would be produced during Evelyn’s years as an adviser to Charles II. And when not hobnobbing with court chums, he could be found holding forth at the Royal Society, of which he was a founding member, on the scientific and technological discoveries of the day, with the likes of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren.

Not to forget his career in public affairs as an urban planner, commissioner of the Royal Mint and overseer of charitable works.

Finding that court life was ultimately full of “fruitless, vicious and empty conversations”, however, Evelyn sought refuge in horticulture. “The air and genius of gardens operate upon human spirits towards virtue and sanctity,” he wrote. He introduced European landscaping to England, using his famous Italian garden at Sayes Court, Deptford, as a showcase. 

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That didn’t stop his ever-prolific compositions. An early environmentalist, Evelyn was the author of Sylva, a plea for reforestation following the depletion of woodland due to industry, and Fumifugium (or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated), the first book to tackle London’s air pollution problem.

“It is this horrid Smoake which obscures our Churches and makes our Palaces look old, which fouls our Clothes and corrupts the Waters,” he wrote.

Evelyn’s cabinet was a customised, turbocharged Mac Pro for the 17th-century alpha male. But less exalted men also needed a corner of the home to call their own, to administer affairs or enjoy hobbies, even if it was just a simple desk or a yard to tinker in. However grandiose or humble, these were the precursors to the garage, shed or “man cave” of today.

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