John Aubrey’s Prospects

Kate Bennett, Magdalen College, University of Oxford

‘If ever I had been good for anything,’ Aubrey said, ‘ ‘twould have been a Painter’; and he cites his quickly-sketched ‘Landskips’ as one of the few achievements of an interrupted career. Aubrey’s manuscripts are full of sketches of ancient monuments, tombs, heraldry, and views. In 1642 he caused a sketch to be made of the ruins of Osney Abbey, for the sake of recording their appearance, at a time when the “ruin prospect” was typically an imaginary composition. This was later etched by Hollar and published by William Dugdale. Aubrey commissioned and purchased paintings and sketches from Samuel Cooper, William Faithorne, William Dobson, and Wenceslaus Hollar, whose life he wrote. He consulted many others, such as John Hoskyns and Robert Streater. Characterising himself as a ‘lieve-habber’, who rose from unpromising rural beginnings, he aspired to the role of collector and connoisseur. He acted as an agent for the Earl of Pembroke, and he had a strong interest in architecture and garden design. His biographical work Brief Lives is a kind of collector’s notebook, full of details about the location of portraits, their subject and faithfulness to life. In my paper, I shall sketch out Aubrey’s visual landscape, while considering the relation between remembering and forgetting on which the prospect drawing depends.

John Aubrey, prospect drawing from Bodleian Library, Oxford
John Aubrey, Prospect Drawing, MS Aubrey 3 © Bodleian Library, Oxford
John Aubrey, prospect drawing from Bodleian Library, Oxford
John Aubrey, prospect drawing from Bodleian Library, Oxford (detail)