Oxford’s saddest ruin – between river and railway

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Osney’s view in the book was originally commissioned and paid for by John Aubrey, whose name in a Latin version, Johannes Albericus, was added in a cartouche. In a note included in Andrew Clark’s edition of brief lives, Aubrey says: ‘I asked Mr. Hesketh, Mr. Dobson’s man, a priest, to draw the ruins of Osney a couple of ways before they were demolished. Now the very foundation is dug. It must have been in 1643, when he was only 16 years old and had not begun his studies as a commoner gentleman at Trinity for a long time, interrupted by the civil war. Hesketh was the name of a family known for its Catholic reticence. The design was engraved by Wenceslaus Hollar and published by the energetic antiquarian William Dugdale in his monumental study Monasticon Anglicanum.

In 1672 Aubrey wrote to that lovable antiquarian Anthony Wood (whom he later reproached bitterly for having cut pages from the manuscript he had lent him): “You must not forget that I have 3 other faces or perspectives of Osney Abbey, as good as it is now in the monasticon. They’re still in my trunk at Easton Piers [the house in Wiltshire where he was born].”

Taylor invokes Aubrey’s thoughts of the abbey in her youth: “I can see that the ruin cannot last long. There is a large arch hanging unsupported on one side, waiting to collapse on the crumbling walls below. But these are pictures of what Aubrey would say in Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life, which Taylor mentions. She was expertly inspired by the writings of Aubrey, but this sentence has the sound of a construction of the 21st century. Indeed, one might think that Ruth Scurr included the phrase after looking at the print.

I’m not saying a fictional autobiography is fake, but Ruth Scurr’s book is inevitably dressed up in current habits of thought. To find out what Aubrey was thinking, head over to his infinitely entertaining brief livesfree online in Clark’s 1898 edition or for £320 in both volumes expertly edited in 2015 by Kate Bennett.

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