Friday, 14 November 2014

Dr Johnson's House

17 Gough Square
City of London EC4A 3DE

Wednesday November 12 2014

We had a commitment for lunch-time so an 11AM start suited us very well; Mary still being overseas, Jo and Linda arrived by bus and took a short walk from the bustle of Fleet Street and Farringdon Road. Gough Square is a surprisingly small and quiet enclave between these two more major thoroughfares. In fact Johnson lived in over a dozen different addresses during his time in London but think of this residence as ‘Johnson – the Dictionary Years’ with apologies to Sue Townsend  and Adrian Mole.

Johnson was born in Lichfield Staffordshire and seemed to have been a rather sickly child – it is thought that he had scrofula, a type of tuberculosis and seemed to suffer with his chest for most of his life.  Nothwithstanding this, most accounts and portraits depict him as singularly robust and he was clearly fond of his food. He lived from 1709 to 1784 making him a near contemporary of last week’s ‘collector’ John Hunter. Sam Johnson was no collector – in fact he had great trouble hanging on to money at all – unless you see him as a collector of words. He rented this property as it was close to his printer, a Scot named William Strahan.

The house has four stories plus a basement, where now are located the museum’s office and toilets.

The public enters into the Dining Room from a side door probably added later. Each room is simply furnished with plain tables and chairs to allow the visiting public to sit and read the copious  laminated room notes, which give some information about Johnson and his many friends and acquaintances.  Basically he moved in celebrity circles and knew the actors, writers, politicians and clergymen of the day. Unusually for the time he was open to mixing with women on an equal footing and entertained the so-called ‘blue-stockings' of the day 'along with all the men. These were formidable women who translated the classics, wrote letters and journals and travelled.  Each room contains a range of prints pictures and portraits, many of them by or copies of Reynolds, as he too was a friend of Johnson’s.  Surprisingly (to me at least) the one person he did not entertain here was his eventual biographer, James Boswell, as they met after he moved on in the neighbourhood.

From entering the dining room which is now the ticket office and shop (with a nice range of postcards giving the most famous of his quotations – it also has a neat cellaret in the corner handy for storing more stock) you enter the actual hall behind the very impressive front door. Apart from the massive chain, made by the women chainmakers of Edgbaston (pioneers of claiming for a 5 day week) and bolts there are spikes across the upper fanlight to deter any one from posting a small child thief through the top of the door! Apparently Johnson was often in debt and tended to keep front door callers at bay.

The front parlour has the original wood panelling and a rather lovely striking upright clock.  It is also the room where the museum commemorates the life and times of Johnson’s servant Francis Barber  
(probably a name given by his plantation owner in Orange County Jamaica before he was sold on when the plantation came under the hammer). But a lad when he came to England, he was sent to school by Johnson and he remained with Johnson till the latter’s death; Francis (Frank) married an English girl and was left £70 by Johnson in his will (considered  a generous legacy for a servant) . Rather movingly Francis and his wife née Elizabeth Ball moved to Lichfield after his master’s death.

Johnson had himself married another Elizabeth who was some 20 years his senior but she died soon after they moved to this house. He never remarried and apparently lived in some fear of being alone; hence perhaps the relentless socialising.  The other memorable (or not) figure depicted in this room is the Earl of Chesterfield who was supposed to be the patron and sponsor of the Dictionary but put virtually no money upfront and then only a small amount on publication. Admittedly Johnson had reckoned three years and the completed work took him seven , which is still a MASSIVE achievement when you think it took the whole French Academy forty years…

The Parlour has a Powder Cupboard even larger than the one we saw at Southside House – the ubiquitous wigs, seen in most portraits in the house needed a space somewhere.  The centrally located stairs lead up to two very handsome  adjoining rooms, a withdrawing room for ‘ladies’ to one side and Elizabeth Carter (she of the Classical translations) had a room here also.   The pretty little ‘whatnot’, a piece of furniture like a cake stand, is hers.  The delicate glass fronted bookcases hold their works. Also here you can see a chest used by David Garrick the actor; he had been a pupil of Johnson’s during his brief phase as a school teacher in Lichfield and followed him to London.  Johnsons’ father had been a bookseller, who travelled the Midlands with his stock but was not good financially and Samuel was not able to complete his education at Pembroke College Oxford when money for fees ran out…

The views from this room are charming and include a Victorian addition of a stained glass window and a memorial to Hodge, the cat (also commemorated in a statue down the square). Johnson of course would have had the real thing. One of the few artefacts in the house includes an excellent brass door knocker with Johnson as the handle bit and the cat as where you strike.

Once in London Johnson became a jobbing journalist working for a variety of publications – the ‘Rambler’ and the ‘Gentlemen’s Magazine’ – but became well known for his parliamentary reports in an era where parliament did not really allow reporting. On the basis of his facility with words he was approached to compile a dictionary. There had been attempts and compilations before but Samuel Johnson was the first to give examples and contexts for the different meanings of words often using literary quotations. Additionally he addressed all parts of speech.  Like many before and since he tried to ‘rationalise’ English spelling but soon realised this was a non-starter and stuck to the original plan of the dictionary. 

Upstairs another level is in fact the library, which probably was used as a bedroom – more portraits of friends and peers line the room. In one corner there is a video with re-enacters going through a conversation between Johnson and Boswell – the sort of questions he would have asked prior to writing the biography but also ones that enhance the visitors understanding of the man and his times. There is a stunningly lively description of the shops and delights of Fleet Street from a German satirist who lived nearby:

‘The street looked as though it was illuminated for some festivity; the apothecaries and druggists display glasses filled with gay-coloured spirits, in which Dietrich’s lackey could bathe; they suffuse many a wide space with purple yellow verdigris-green or azure light. The confectioners dazzle your eyes with their candelabra and tickle your nose with their wares…  Above this din and the hum and clatter of thousands of tongues and feet one hears the chimes  from church towers, the bells of the postmen, the organs the fiddles the hurdy-gurdies and the tambourines of the English mountebanks, and the cries of those who sell hot and cold viands in the open at street corners…  Suddenly a man whose handkerchief had been stolen will cry ’Stop Thief’ and everyone will begin running and pushing and shoving—many of them not with any desire of catching the thief, but of prigging for themselves, perhaps a watch or purse.’

 The museum visitor is offered headphones to maintain the calm atmosphere of the house.

It is on this level that you get introduced to the Thrales of Southwark (where Mr. ran a brewery: he was the money, she was the brains) and of Streatham where he lived with his wife Hester. They became close friends of Johnson, and he often spent time with them away from ‘London’.  After Henry died Johnson and Hester continued their relationship through her second marriage to her children’s Italian piano teacher. A cabinet displays her ‘tea equipage’ (tea-set to you and me) reminding us how important a ceremony this was for the times and especially the women (see Twinings Museum).

The top floor is the Garret but actually pretty roomy and with more than adequate head room. Here Johnson assembled a half dozen helpers (paid interns hopefully) who sorted his work but did not do the definitions while he worked on the dictionary – at times ‘dull work’ as he put it.  There are two volumes available to browse on the table.  It is impressive to think there was no replacement work of similar stature until the Oxford English Dictionary of the early 20th Century.

Up here are reminders that this garret was used by ARP wardens during the war for ‘R&R‘ including some music making, and that a bomb did destroy part of the roof (and neighbouring cottage) . Fortunately the house was rescued and restored and opened for paying visitors (reductions for National Trust members). It is a great place to learn more about one of London’s real characters and his salon society; he appreciated brevity and clarity so I would today have fallen short of his expectations and high standards.

No comments:

Post a Comment