Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was born in Lichfield near Birmingham. The family house, facing the market square, was built by his bookselling father as both a home and a bookshop. He was a very unhealthy child, deaf in one ear, blind in one eye, a survivor of small-pox and a sufferer of Tourette's syndrome. Samuel’s early years were not easy due to these health issues and his parents’ financial problems, but he must have been a clever lad. His years at Lichfield Grammar School gave him a classical education, and his father’s books opened the rest of the world.
Samuel’s father died a bankrupt, so the young man had to earn an income as best he could from journalism and translation. In Birmingham he met the much older widow Elizabeth Porter whom he married in 1735. She had three adult children from her first marriage.
Samuel and his wife set up a gentlemen’s boarding school near Lichfield, using her money. A friend who lived in the bishop's palace even lent his premises for private theatricals organised by talented local schools. But Johnson’s school failed. Johnson and his wife moved to London in 1737, along with another penniless man of culture, David Garrick.
Georgian townhouse in Gough Square, London
Built in 1700
lived in by Samuel Johnson 1748-59
In London, Johnson’s writing career improved, just in time to benefit from the growth of publishing, in English and in the classical languages. Within a year Johnson began to write for The Gentleman's Magazine, founded only a few years earlier and still growing. This magazine involved itself in literature, music and parliamentary debates!
Dr Johnson’s London house from 1748-59 was a lovely Georgian townhouse in Gough Square, just north of Fleet St. Providing a home and a workplace for Johnson, the site has been restored to its original condition, containing panelled rooms, a pine staircase and a collection of contemporary furniture, prints and portraits. I recommend that people visit the house, paying particular attention to the parlour-living room, the garret where he worked on a long table, the library that once had 3,000 volumes for Johnson’s reading pleasure and his first floor rooms set aside for lodgers.
The house could not have come at a better time. In 1747 Johnson had already planned a major task: compiling an English Dictionary, with the consent of the Secretary of State. The work required a keen logical faculty, and an in depth coverage of English literature of the preceding 200 years. After 9 long yrs, and with only 6 copyists assisting him, Johnson completed the mammoth task in 1755. He had written definitions for 40,000+ words, with 114,000 quotations, published in 2 large folio volumes.
Mrs Johnson became very ill in 1751. When she died, Samuel’s grief was overwhelming. He continued his work as a journalist, editing, writing prefaces and contributing articles to journals. In 1756 Johnson proposed a New Edition of Shakespeare which did in fact appear after a few years. Both Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds began to write articles for the Idler. But poverty was never far away. Nor was depression. Being a Man of Letters did not provide a high income. And his loyal wife, once a reliable source of at least some income, had died. In 1759, no longer able to afford his lovely home, Johnson moved into rooms at the Staple Inn.
Samuel Johnson's London house
first floor, for lodgings
Since his early work on the debates in The Gentleman’s Magazine, Johnson had taken a keen interest in politics. Late 1765, he supplied the parliamentarian William Gerard Hamilton with his views on questions being discussed in parliament and wrote papers for him.
The core of his literary life in London was his friendship with Henry and Hester Thrale, people who made their money from Anchor Brewhouse in Southwark. Hester invited her other good literary friends, for herself and for Johnson. In fact Johnson knew the best and the brightest in London, including writers James Boswell and Fanny Burney; painters Allan Ramsay and Sir Joshua Reynolds; Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith; statesman Edmund Burke; and writer/publisher Horace Walpole.
Samuel still had a bit of fun in older age. The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens had been laid out south of the Thames during the 1660s. The whole of cultivated London flocked to the gardens to see a statue erected to their beloved composer, Handel. But Johnson’s last years were sad and sickly. He died in 1784, at 75. Later Mrs Thrale published her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson in 1786, as well as her Letters to and from Johnson. Boswell's biography was published in 1791. In 1791 Westminster Abbey was chosen for Samuel’s monument.
Thomas Rowlandson , an evening concert in Vauxhall Gardens, 1784.
In the supper box on the left, the diners were James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale and Oliver Goldsmith.