Monday, 15 June 2009

Choosing the Objects


Today I am choosing the objects that are going to be displayed in our touring exhibition on Sir John St. Aubyn. In order to get our funding, we needed to have some sort of public outcome for the project, and the exhibition is one of these outcomes. It starts it's tour on the 9th January 2010 at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. It seems like a long way away, but really it isn't, and already a number of departments in my museum are working on the designs. I think the joiner downstairs has the trickiest task of building the plinths and display cases. The exhibition is going to St. Michael's Mount in May, and in order to get everything up to the castle on the top, we have to put all the cases in a tram, which climbs the Mount at a 45° incline. Problem is, the tram isn't very big, so all the cases have to either be very small, or very cleverly built.


So, as I said today I am choosing objects to use in the exhibition. I suppose this too is rather tricky, because I have to choose objects that look interesting. A while back, I carefully selected six herbarium sheets out of the 1100 or so we hold in the St. Aubyn collection. Today I am choosing minerals. I am picking the most colourful, the most sturdy and the ones with amazingly detailed descriptions which were written by a French refugee called Count Jacques Louis de Bournon, in 1794. Below is a small picture of the Count's entry for a piece of calcareous spar, don't you just love his handwriting?!


Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery ©

Friday, 12 June 2009


Sir John St. Aubyn (1758-1839)

Sir John St. Aubyn, painted by John Opie, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery ©


Chapter Two

Sir John St Aubyn, 5th Baronet, was born at Golden Square, London on 17th May 1758. Sir John was captivated by science and the arts and was a keen collector. Sir John's father (the 4th Baronet) was brought up by a Dr. William Borlase (1695 to 1772), a passionate mineral collector and Natural scientist. The influence of his father’s learned interest is likely to have also assisted in creating Sir John’s fascination with minerals and the natural world. St Aubyn succeeded to the baronetcy at the age of fourteen and was a clever and distinguished man. He served as High Sheriff of Cornwall (at the age of 23), and went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the Linnean Society, member of Parliament, Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians, Fellow of the Geological Society of London, Fellow of the Society of Arts and Provincial Grandmaster of the Freemasons. The St. Aubyn’s were also well-known gardeners in their time, and on the 5th baronet’s Royal Society election certificate, his interest in botany is mentioned.

Sir John was also interested in the arts and collected a huge number of engravings and etchings which were sold at Phillips’s Auction Rooms in April 1840. The collection was so vast that the sale is said to have lasted for seventeen days. Sir John was also an early and constant patron and friend of the painter John Opie, and was a pallbearer at the artist’s funeral in April 1807.



Juliana Vinicombe, painted by John Opie, St. Michael's Mount Collection ©

Sir John St. Aubyn is said to have spent a lot of time with a number of young ladies in his early years, but the first lady to live with Sir John was Martha Nicholls. Her father, John Nicholls, came from an old Cornish family and was a well known landscape gardener. Astonishingly, Sir John St. Aubyn never married Martha, even though she had five of his children. Instead, he married the other lady in his life - Juliana Vinicombe. Sir John met her when she was very young and sent her to be educated at Cheltenham. He eventually married Juliana, a blacksmith’s daughter, in 1822 when he was 64.

The St. Aubyn family had two estates in Cornwall – Clowance and St. Michael’s Mount, which Sir John inherited from his father in 1772. However, it appears that Sir John St. Aubyn found life in this part of the country rather uninspiring for his tastes in fine art and literature, and so he spent more of his time in London, or on estates closer to the city.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


Sir John St. Aubyn (1758-1839)

Over the past year and a half I have been researching an 18th century mineral and plant collection at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. It's a two year project, so my time here is drawing to a close. Now I find myself trying to amalgamate all the information I have dug out about the collection and the people behind it, and re-write it all in an interesting way for an exhibition. Part of my contract is to design a touring exhibition about Sir John's collection. I thought it would be the easiest part of my work, but on the contrary! I have unearthed so much about this man and his friends that I am struggling to decide 'what to keep' and 'what not to keep'. So, I thought I should begin writing about him on this blog in several chapters, so that everything is there, saved on an archive system - my archive system. Because it would be impossible for me to talk about my life on this blog without mentioning the man I have studied since my graduation.

Chapter One
Sir John St. Aubyn was born at Golden Square, London on 17 May 1758. He was captivated by science and the arts and was a keen collector. His particular interest was for mineralogy, but he also had interests in botany, which lead him to create a sizable herbarium containing many interesting plants. Most of these have been collected in the field, but there are also specimens from early plant nurseries and important gardens in Europe. The notes on the herbarium sheets are also exceptionally detailed. Adjacent to many species, the medicinal properties and domestic uses have been described.

Before his death, Sir John donated a folio containing his herbarium to the Civil Military Library at Devonport, which later moved to Plymouth City Museum in 1924, where it was hidden away. In 2007, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery secured a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, enabling the museum’s natural history department to conduct a variety of work on this historic collection. In the following chapters, I will recount my journey through time as I removed centuries of dust to reveal a collection of scientific and cultural importance.