09 December 2014

The life and creative times of Dr Samuel Johnson

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

Jo­h­n­son had always lived frugally by his writing, until he re­ceived a pen­s­ion of £300/year from King George III in 1762, quite late in his career. The time where he was threatened with debtor's prison were over. He still wrote, but now he could afford to spent time in coffee hous­es in conversation. 

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.

For images of Dr Johnson’s beloved house, see British Heritage magazine, April/May 1977 and Discovery Britain magazine, Nov/Dec 2014.


Student of History said...

Poor old Dr Johnson, he was not a good looking chap, was he. According to Reynolds and other witnesses, the impact of his blindness and Tourette's lasted all his life. Fortunately he was very smart.

Hels said...


The J R Soc Medicine (Dec 2010) said Dr Johnson had scrofula, a right sided fourth cranial nerve palsy, depression since the age of 20, tics, vocalisations, repetitive movements and ritualisms. Luckily he was surrounded by friends who admired his formidable intellect and accomplishments.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I recall the comments of essayist and Johnsonian A. Edward Newton, who visited the Johnson house shortly after it opened as a museum. What most impressed him was that the house was meant to be more a gathering place for dedicated Johnson lovers to gather and to study, instead of a formal museum to display old treasures. I wonder if this same spirit pervades the Johnson house today?

Hels said...


that makes perfect sense to me. When I visited the Johnson House Museum, I was travelling with an organised group and didn't have time to moon about.

But when I visited Handel's Georgian terrace house in Mayfair, the Handel groupies had stars in their eyes, listening to his muisc and absorbing the Handel inspiration.

Pat said...

What do we know about The Gentleman's Magazine and Dr Johnson's contributions?

Hels said...


I am certain the Gentleman's Magazine was a classy one, covering a wide range of topics and lasting for 200 years. But how did Samuel Johnson survive financially?

This was his first regular employment as a writer! Although one of his specialties was his parliamentary reports for the Magazine, I still have to wonder if that was enough to keep the family afloat. Tetty's dowry was of course helpful :)

Anonymous said...

I really like your page and the house in Gough Square - I had no idea Johnson lived so elegantly at that stage of his life.

But I think that Johnson and Horace Walpole met only once - at a formal dinner at the Royal Academy was it? Not absolutely sure and I can't check at the moment. They certainly didn't speak very well of one another. Walpole moved in altogether grander circles than Johnson and was the son of a Whig Prime Minister, Johnson was a Tory, particularly so in his early career when the Stuart cause was still alive. This was the period of his parliamentary reports for The Gentleman's Magazine. In his "creative" records of debate, based on whatever information somebody could sneak out of the House (Hansard type reporting was not then permitted). Johnson made sure that the Whigs, and particularly, Sir Robert Walpole, came off worst. When he discovered that people were taking his oratorically impressive re-creations as actual record of speeches he ceased writing them. But I don't think Sir Robert's son, Horrie, even quite forgave him.

Hels said...


thank you for a detailed response. Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole were largely of the same generation, and had many literary and political acquaintances in common. Needless to say, each person had plenty to comment about each other's work, politics or behaviour.

It must have been a very incestuous scene! People who published about Johnson included John Hawkins, Thrale, Frances Burney, Anna Seward, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More and Boswell, as well as Horace Walpole, as you noted!

Fortunately Sir Robert Walpole had ended his prime ministership by 1742, well before Johnson moved into Gough Square and before Johnson began to write for the Gentleman's Magazine.

Hels said...

Read an excellent post about Dr Johnson in History Of The 18th and 19th Centuries


Joseph said...

The blog Spitalfields Life has beautiful photos inside and outside Dr Johnson's home.