The Bodleian Libraries 2010 Summer exhibition examines the intellectual world of John Aubrey (1626-97), one of the Founding Fellows of the Royal Society of London, and a major seventeenth-century scientific and cultural figure.
John Aubrey and the Development of Experimental Science presents all of Aubrey’s varied interests and pursuits within the intellectual context of his times. Coinciding with the nationwide celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, this is the first exhibition to feature Aubrey’s many diverse achievements as a biographer, antiquary, mathematician, ‘natural philosopher’ and all-round virtuoso.
Highlights of the exhibition include Aubrey’s own manuscripts for Brief Lives;presentation books from fellow scientists Hobbes and Newton; original 17-century mathematical instruments; fossil specimens; and a working camera obscura.
Aubrey is best known for his Brief Lives, a collection of compelling narratives of a generation of eminent thinkers including William Harvey, Thomas Hobbes, and Robert Hooke. Nevertheless, he also had an intellectual stake in the two different faces of late seventeenth-century science – the mathematical and the natural. A keen mathematician, pioneer biographer, natural philosopher and antiquary, Aubrey had a broad and deep range of scholarly interests.
Aubrey was one of the best-connected scholars in the great decades of the British scientific revolution. He studied as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford but, like many gentlemen of his time, left before gaining a degree. He maintained strong links with Oxford for the rest of his life.
As a ‘gentleman amateur’, he gained a reputation as a pioneer antiquary and archaeologist. He was acquainted with all the leading scientists of the generation including Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley, and Isaac Newton. Aubrey championed Hooke’s radical ideas on geology and the origin of fossils, and he also worked with him on the construction of a workable artificial language.
One of Aubrey’s more remarkable proposals was that educational reform had to start in the schools before the universities, and nowhere more so than in the teaching of mathematics in a an engaging way. Aubrey proposed not only that pupils should be furnished with their own personal mathematical tools, but also that the ideal classroom should contain a set of instruments.
A pioneer archaeologist, Aubrey is also remembered for producing the most profound analysis in his period of both the Avebury and Stonehenge megaliths. He used mathematical tools in the service of field archaeology for the first time. In addition, Aubrey was a donor of books and manuscripts to the Bodleian, and he also gave books, manuscripts, mathematical instruments, and other objects to the new Ashmolean Museum, which opened in 1683.
William Poole, curator of the exhibition and Fellow of New College, University of Oxford said: ‘John Aubrey is not only a fascinating figure in his own right but also acts as the ideal lens onto his own age. He was an antiquarian, a mathematician, a natural philosopher, an archaeologist, an ethnologist, a biographer, a historian, an astrologer, a botanist, a chemist, a collector, a folklorist; and he knew the most learned men of his age and moved among them as a respected equal, recording their achievements and foibles as well as his own. His papers and extensive correspondence, today deposited in the Bodleian Library, bring to life the world of Restoration learning like no other comparable archive. If we did not have Aubrey, our vision of the great age of Newton and Hooke would be dimmer and duller.’