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Being defaced: John Aubrey and the literary sketch

John Aubrey might have made an excellent literary agent. When Charles II was restored, Aubrey told Thomas Hobbes to come down to London straight away to get his portrait painted. It was a successful bid for patronage. Aubrey correctly calculated that Hobbes would meet the King at the studio of Samuel Cooper, ‘the prince’ of miniaturists. Cooper painted two watercolour miniatures, “as like as art could afford.” One the King took away for his “closet” at Whitehall Palace, and another was not finished.

This incomplete sketch is now in the Cleveland Art Museum. The formidable “old gent” stares out with a firmness and vitality out of all proportion to the state of finish of his portrait; the surrounding detail is barely sketched in. It could stand as Aubrey’s biographical signature. As he explains, he was offered this portrait by Cooper once he had finished it but, “like a foole,”  did not insist on taking it at once in its unfinished state. Cooper then died and Aubrey lost his chance.

This was the story of Aubrey’s life, as he chose to tell it. His own portrait, also by Cooper, was stolen from the Ashmolean Museum in his lifetime, along with another precious miniature by Nicholas Hilliard. Brief Lives describes the hit and miss process of constructing memorials from materials which are, as he put it, like fragments from a shipwreck, sinking to the bottom, or like winged birds, which fly away if not swiftly trapped. Insisting on literary completeness and polish, waiting for the perfect moment allowed the birds to escape: his works are nets: full of holes, but swarming with a mixed catch.

Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, c. 1660
Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, c. 1660. Samuel Cooper (British, 1608/09-1672). Watercolor on vellum in a gilt metal frame; 7.3 x 6.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Edward B. Greene Collection 1949.548. Used with permission.

In the preface of the Life of Thomas Hobbes, Aubrey said that “First sketches ought to be rude, as those of paynters: for he that in his first Essay will be curious in refining will certainly be unhappy in inventing.” This much-quoted defence of the state of his unfinished works has always been taken as a spontaneous confession. But it is not actually spontaneous at all. Aubrey is quoting from a letter written to him by the musical theorist Thomas Pigot. This letter was the beginning of a process during which Aubrey manoeuvred to bring Pigot’s unfinished treatise, ‘de Sono,’ to the notice of the Royal Society. In return, Aubrey asked Pigot to visit a manor house near Oxford to transcribe an inscription on a copy of Holbein’s group portrait of Sir Thomas More and his family, “for it begins to be defaced.”

In Brief Lives, whose defaced Greek title, Schediasmata, means “a thing made extempore”, Aubrey was even more determined to present the world with an unfinished work, and to defend the integrity and inventiveness of the ‘rude’ sketch. The Lives tell the story of wasted creativity and unfinished projects, such as William Harvey’s manuscript on the anatomy of insects which was plundered during the Civil War, and a canal-building scheme which did not receive funding. Yet behind the text is a much more complex story, with which Brief Lives is intertwined, one of intellectual patronage and the beginnings of a sense of the national heritage. Aubrey was engaged to an amazing degree in attempts to support the ingenuity and talent of his vast circle, bringing the marginal and the neglected to the centre, finding copies of lost and minor works, and images of lost faces.

When you open the manuscripts of Brief Lives what strikes you immediately is their visual vitality. They have the sketchy quality of  works in progress, great complexity of interlinings, crossings-out, inserted papers, and the marginal comments of friends. They contain pictures and coats of arms, printed portraits, horoscopes, and architectural drawings. There are 160 images in the manuscripts, and the Lives have an unmistakable look. You can follow the research taking place, the changes of information, the involvement of others, and, less positively, the censorship of many pages by a collaborator whom Aubrey had trusted. Brief Lives is a work which charts the vicissitudes of writing a ‘modern history’ in a particularly turbulent century. Aubrey claimed that the truth appeared in the work “exposed so bare, that the very pudenda are not hid.” In it Aubrey presents us with a nude portrait of the seventeenth century, in an incomplete form, one which he called its “puris naturalibus” — a pure state of nature.

Header image credit: John Aubrey, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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