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The Collector

As the Society looks forward to hosting a London exhibition of the St Aubyn Collection, Jessica Shepherd* marks the start of its tour by exploring the secret life of a great collector…

Sir John St Aubyn (1758-1839), St Michael's Mount Collection

Sir John St. Aubyn (1758-1839) was a collector and a facilitator to the arts and sciences. His particular interest was mineralogy, and he created a sizeable mineral collection containing many specimens, some found by him but most bought from dealers or as whole collections.

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet was born in London on 17 May 1758. He was captivated by science and the arts and was a keen collector. His father had been brought up by a Dr. William Borlase, a passionate mineral collector and natural scientist, and his father’s interest is likely to have fuelled Sir John’s fascination with the natural world.

Sir John was also interested in the arts and collected a huge number of engravings and etchings that were sold at Phillips’s Auction Rooms in 1840 in a sale lasting 17 days. Sir John was also a patron of the painter John Opie, and was a pallbearer at the artist’s funeral. The remaining few pieces of Sir John’s art collection can now been seen at St. Michael’s Mount, Marazion and at Pencarrow House, Bodmin.
Sir John, pictured with his geological hammer. St Michael's Mount collection (c) The St. Aubyn family had two estates in Cornwall – Clowance and St. Michael’s Mount, which Sir John inherited in 1772. The 5th Baronet chose to live in London however, because there he could satisfy his taste for fine art and literature. Towards the end of his life, Sir John spent a brief time at Shortgrove Hall, Saffron Walden; but when he moved again in 1834, he donated a collection of minerals to Saffron Walden Museum.

Sir John St. Aubyn is said to have spent a lot of time with a number of young ladies in his youth, but the first to share his home at Clowance was Martha Nicholls, daughter of Clowance’s groundsman and a well known landscape gardener. Sir John never married Martha, even though she bore five of his children. Instead, aged 64, he married Juliana Vinicombe of Marazion, daughter of a farm labourer. She and Sir John had nine children together.
Juliana Vinicimbe, Sir John's wife. St Michael's Mount Collection (c)

History of the Collection

The origin of Sir John St. Aubyn’s mineral collection is unknown, but it must have been substantial by 1794, when he met and employed the French expatriate Count Jacques Louis de Bournon to order his collection. De Bournon is among the most famous mineralogists of the late 18th Century, and was the prima causa behind the founding of the Geological Society of London. He eventually returned to France and became director general of the ‘cabinet des minéraux’ of Louis XVIII.

Sir John St. Aubyn also spent time with other famous mineralogists of his day. From 1783, he became a friend of Rudolph Erich Raspe, now known mainly as the author of the classic Travels and Campaigns of Baron Munchausen, but who was employed by Matthew Boulton and James Watt to oversee mining activities in Cornwall. In 1799, Sir John bought a proportion of the 3rd Earl of Bute’s mineral collection from another Society founder Dr William Babington for £3000. He also purchased a smaller mineral collection from the son of Richard Greene in the same year for £100. (Richard Greene of Lichfield opened the first public museum in Britain.)

Sir John St. Aubyn’s ability to network and communicate ideas is well represented by the diversity of labels in his mineral collection. He obviously had connections with many dealers during his lifetime. However, surprisingly there are no records of Sir John’s ever being in correspondence with the Cornish collector Phillip Rashleigh, nor do they appear ever to have exchanged minerals. Perhaps the two did not get on!
Babington's New System of Mineralogy. Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery (c). Suggests Sir John may have funded the book. On the 10 August 1839, Sir John died, leaving his estate deeply indebted. Much of his property had already been sold. In 1834, the mineral dealer Isaiah Deck was commissioned to dispose of his extensive mineral collection. At this time Sir John donated a large proportion of his minerals to the Civil and Military Library at Devonport. This collection was later presented to Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (PCMAG) in 1924.

Between 1834 and 1840, a local chemist called John Prideaux catalogued Sir John’s minerals. Prideaux had an interest in mineralogy and lectured at the Camborne School of Mines (as well as being an important figure in the abolition movement). John Prideaux catalogued the St. Aubyn collection by placing them in drawers and labeling the panels inside using the system published by Robert Allan in 1834.


In addition to Sir John’s minerals there are approximately 300 micromounts in the collection. Most of these consist of a small wooden cup (3.5cm diameter) with a wax column in the middle and a gem on the top. They are very unusual and extremely delicate, bearing the impressions of the fingerprints of their maker all those years ago. Could these be the prints of de Bournon himself? It is reasonable to suppose that de Bournon made them for Sir John while he was in England.
Flint, with a blue Comte de Bournon label. Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery (c)


Alongside Sir John St. Aubyn’s Collection are several catalogues. In 1799, Babington published a catalogue titled A New System of Mineralogy. The catalogue, written using Baron Born’s Lavoisierian principles of new chemistry, describes approximately 2000 minerals. This catalogue is important because it describes the minerals that Sir John bought from Babington in 1799, most of which were previously owned by the 3rd Earl of Bute.

Between 1794 and 1815, de Bournon arranged Sir John’s minerals so that they followed the crystal structure, as advocated by the Abbé Haüy. But de Bournon never completed his catalogue. We also believe that volume one is missing, which would have described 606 specimens of witherite, barytes, strontianite and quartz.

PCMAG also holds three other catalogues, written in English. One is very large and has pre-printed headings ‘Order, Species, and Case’ and covers Allan’s orders 1-11, so the second volume is missing. Alongside this is an index list of mineral names written in another hand in black ink. The book bears a stamp, indicating that it was bought from Thompson’s Commercial Stationers, Old Town Street, Plymouth. This part of Plymouth was severely bombed in the war, and so this book is likely to pre-date 1940. This index also only covers orders 1-11. Lastly, we have Mr Elliot Steele’s list of Devonport Minerals, written in pencil and pen, and a number of loose pieces of paper covering many audits over the years.

In recent years, there has been some ambiguity hanging over de Bournon’s catalogues, because both volumes were written in French. In 2008, Margaret Morgan (Royal Cornwall Museum) started translating two volumes. One year later, many minerals have been reunited with their French descriptions. Margaret was also able to unveil the mystery behind our triangular labels (picture). It was discovered that Count de Bournon used them as pointers to show something of interest on the specimen. Below is a translated quote where he describes the action of placing this distinctive label on a specimen:

“J’ai indiqué, par un petit morceau de papier bleu, un octaèdre très alongé de la pyrite blanche arsènicale, dont ce morceau enferme plusieurs octaèdres parfaits”.

[“I have indicated, by a small piece of blue paper, a very elongated octahedron of the white arsenical pyrites, of which this piece contains several perfect octahedrons” (De Bournon, 1815, pp.388).]

We have also discovered during the translation that a number of interesting essays were hidden within the catalogue. These essays are historically important because they were never published and they present de Bournon’s ideas about geology almost 200 years ago.


PCMAG will be touring an exhibition about the life of Sir John: ‘Sir John St. Aubyn – The Secret Life of a Collector’. If you want to know more about this unique collection, this exhibition will provide a rare opportunity to see his herbarium and mineral specimens. The tour starts at the Royal Cornwall Museum on the 9 January 2010, and will arrive at the Geological Society, London a year later. For more information, please telephone PCMAG on 01752 304774.


PCMAG would like to thank the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Renaissance South West for funding the St. Aubyn Project. We would also like to thank everyone who contacted us with information, our volunteers, and the St. Aubyn family at Michael’s Mount who have allowed us to take photographs of the family portraits.

Source material

  • Allan, R., (1834), Manual of Mineralogy, Edinburgh
  • Babington, W., (1799), A New System of Mineralogy, T. Benzley, Fleet Street
  • Bishop, M., (1991), ‘The St. Aubyn Collection: 200 years of Curation’, Dip. Thesis, The Museums Association.
  • Cooper, M. P., (2006), Robbing the Sparry Garniture - A 200 year history of British mineral dealers, Mineralogical Record Inc. Tucson, Arizona
  • Collins, J. H., (1880), Remarks on Some Mineral Collections in West of England, The English Mechanic
  • Courtney, W. P., (2004), Sir John St. Aubyn (1758-1839), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press
  • Curry, D. A., (1975), The Plymouth City Museum Mineral Collection, Geological Curators Group Newsletter, 1(3), pp. 132-137
  • De Bournon, J. L., (1815), Descriptive catalogue of minerals in the cabinet of Sir John St. Aubyn, pp. 247
  • De Bournon, J. L., (1813), Catalogue de la Collection Mineralogique de Count de Bournon, faites par lui-meme. Et dans lequel sont places plusieurs observations et faits interessants’, London pp. iii and xix
  • Hartley, D., (1977), The St. Aubyns of Cornwall 1200 to 1977, Barracuda Books
  • Hunt, F. W., (1902), Libraries of Devonport, Devonport, UK
  • Paul and Nash, (1835), A catalogue of nearly 300 dozens of wine, Youngman, Saffron Walden
  • Paul and Nash, (1835), A catalogue of excellent household furniture and fixtures, valuable greenhouse and American plants, farming live and dead stock, carriages and miscellaneous effects, Youngman, Saffron Walden
  • Plymouth City Council minutes, (1924a), Museum and Art Gallery Committee, (18th March 1924), pp. 338, item 1964
  • Plymouth City Council minutes, (1924b), Museum and Art Gallery Committee, (15th April 1924) pp. 393, item 2316
  • Plymouth City Council minutes, (1924c), Museum and Art Gallery Committee, (13th May 1924) pp. 455, item 2663
  • Prideaux, J., (1825), I send you the packet we talked of last evening, [Letter] Sent 10th February 1825 to Mr. Blackmore, ref 147/1, Plymouth and West Devon Record Office
  • Prideaux, R. M., (1989), Prideaux: A West Country Clan, Phillimore & Co. Ltd., pp. 251-252
  • Shepherd, J. R., (2009), Bringing a Herbarium to Life at Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery, NATSCA, 17, pp 43-51
  • Wilson, W. E., (1994), The History of Mineral Collecting 1530 to 1799, The Mineralogical Record, 25(6)