Dr Johnson’s House
Samuel Johnson, intellectual, tea lover and lexicographer, was born on September 18, 1709. In this 300th anniversary year, Martyn Oliver visits the house in which the doctor compiled his Dictionary of the English Language.
Surrounded on three sides by tall, anonymous office buildings, Gough Square’s fourth side is occupied by No. 17, Dr Johnson’s House. Samuel Johnson rented the house in the mid-18th century, and it was here that he compiled the famous Dictionary, which was published in 1755.
Johnson was one of the foremost thinkers of the day; in fact, in many respects he was very much ahead of his time, particularly in his encouragement of a group of intellectual women, several of whom were frequent visitors at Gough Square. They were known as ‘Blues’ or ‘Bluestockings’, after the blue worsted hosiery they often wore in place of the approved black silk, and many of the paintings and drawings throughout the house feature these women, as well as the influential men amongst the doctor’s wide and eclectic acquaintance. They included Elizabeth Montague, ‘Queen of the Blues’, a well-known businesswoman and hostess, Charlotte Lennox, an actress and an early novelist, and Elizabeth Carter, a poet, translator and linguist. Amongst the men were David Garrick, the actor and one-time pupil of Johnson, the Methodist John Wesley, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Warren Hastings, who became Governor-General of India.
Dr Johnson left the house in 1759, and over the next 150 years or so it had a variety of tenants and gradually fell into disrepair, until in 1911 it was rescued by the press baron Cecil Harmsworth, who restored it and opened it to the public as a memorial to Johnson’s work.
Harmsworth decreed that as much of the original fabric of the house should remain, and new materials be used only when absolutely necessary. Accordingly, most of the wall panels, cupboards, doors and floorboards are original – although Harmsworth’s workmen had to piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle because many of them had been moved and put to use elsewhere in the house.
One original feature is particularly ingenious. The first floor is built as an open-plan room, with the main staircase emerging at the centre of one side. Two huge wooden panels, complete with doorways, enclose the staircase and the wide window recess in the opposite wall. However, either or both panels could be swung across the room from one side or the other, effectively creating two smaller and more intimate rooms and a landing.
Calm and quiet from the moment you enter the tiny courtyard with its glorious crimson camellia, No. 17 is built on four floors. Unlike many preserved town houses, Dr Johnson’s House is light and airy, and no room more so than the garret, the top floor. This was where Johnson and his team of writers compiled the Dictionary. From his extensive reading, Johnson would pick out a quotation containing an important word. The quotation was written on a slip of paper by one of the writers and placed in alphabetical order within the Dictionary‘s manuscript. Johnson would then add the word’s derivation and definition. The Dictionary was nine years in the making (Johnson had budgeted for three), but the end result was the first English dictionary in the modern sense, and a great achievement for one man.
The Dr Johnson’s House Trust, and the Trust’s curator Stephanie Pickford, now manage the house and look after its welfare. Art historian Pickford, who describes it as ‘the perfect job’, is busy preparing for the 300th anniversary in September. As well as a series of events centred on a major exhibition (The House of Words) in the summer, there is to be a Tercentenary Tea, Johnson-style (the doctor was a noted tea addict) at the house on Sunday September 13, and on September 18, Johnson’s birthday, admission charges will be waived and visitors welcomed free.
Dr Johnson’s House, 17 Gough Square, London EC4A 3DE; tel: 0207 353 3745;