Sketching dream homes, fate, and knowing what you want with John Aubrey

I have sketched my house at Easton Pierse and marked with a cross my grandfather’s chamber where I was born. If it had been my fate to be wealthy man I would have rebuilt my house in the grandest of styles. I would have added formal gardens in the Italian mode of the kind I have seen at Sir John Danvers’s house in Chelsea and at his house in Lavington. It was Sir John who first taught us in England the way of Italian gardens. I would have erected a fountain like the one that I saw in Mr Bushell’s grotto at Enstone: Neptune standing on a scallop shell, his trident aimed at a rotating duck, perpetually chased by a spaniel. I would have carved my initials on a low curved bridge across the stream. I would have remade my beloved home in the shape of the most beautiful houses and gardens I have visited in my unsettled life, tumbling up and down in the world. But fate has taken on a different path and the house of my dreams is mere fantasy: a pretty sketch on paper.

Scurr, Ruth. John Aubrey: My Own Life. London: Vintage, 2015. pg 181

We should take these excerpts with some reservation. These aren’t John Aubrey’s copied diaries, but rather an original format historian Ruth Scurr uses to deploy John Aubrey’s biography.

John Aubrey is a man who knew what he wanted. We see this in the detailed descriptions of the gardens and fountains he dreamed of constructing:

I would have added formal gardens in the Italian mode of the kind I have seen at Sir John Danvers’s house in Chelsea and at his house in Lavington. It was Sir John who first taught us in England the way of Italian gardens. I would have erected a fountain like the one that I saw in Mr Bushell’s grotto at Enstone: Neptune standing on a scallop shell, his trident aimed at a rotating duck, perpetually chased by a spaniel. I would have carved my initials on a low curved bridge across the stream. I would have remade my beloved home in the shape of the most beautiful houses and gardens I have visited in my unsettled life, tumbling up and down in the world.

Scurr, Ruth. John Aubrey: My Own Life. London: Vintage, 2015. pg 181

John Aubrey was a man who embraced his fate. He accepts his fate twice in one paragraph. This was probably a more common character trait in the 1600s. In the modern west we’re taught to battle against our fate. We’re told anything is possible. That if we’re passionate, put our minds to it, we can bend our fate to be anything – yeah, yada, yeah. So when you hear someone admit their fate was not to be a wealthy man, and they accept that, it catches the ear.

If it had been my fate to be wealthy man I would have rebuilt my house in the grandest of styles.

and

But fate has taken on a different path and the house of my dreams is mere fantasy: a pretty sketch on paper.

Scurr, Ruth. John Aubrey: My Own Life. London: Vintage, 2015. pg 181

John Aubrey sketched! It’s not surprising. Photography was still two hundred years away, so people captured images by drawing. They preserved memories by drawing. They dreamed with their drawings:

I have sketched my house at Easton Pierse and marked with a cross my grandfather’s chamber where I was born.

and

But fate has taken on a different path and the house of my dreams is mere fantasy: a pretty sketch on paper.

Scurr, Ruth. John Aubrey: My Own Life. London: Vintage, 2015. pg 181

There’s so much to suss from this single passage!


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