The following is a guest post.
Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet. From those sounds which we hear on small or on coarse occasions, we do not easily receive strong impressions, or delightful images; and words to which we are nearly strangers, whenever they occur, draw that attention on themselves which they should transmit to other things. – Samuel Johnson
I have a small obsession with words. I love them, and the meaning, use and evolution of language fascinates me. Dictionaries feed my verbal appetite – from Merriam-Webster to Urban Dictionary to the gold standard, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Which is why, when a friend told me about Samuel Johnson’s house in London, I knew I wanted to write about it.
Samuel Johnson’s influence on the English language, literature, journalism and satire, and his connections to fascinating personalities of the day alone would make him a compelling figure. His first roommate in London was the actor David Garrick. (He also possibly suffered from Tourette’s, which would have made him a different sort of compelling companion.)
But he is best remembered for his “Dictionary of the English Language.” Johnson’s dictionary wasn’t the first – but it became the most lasting and imitated until the OED was published in 1928. Johnson is also well-known as being the subject of “the greatest biography written in English,” by James Boswell (published in 1791). I’ll return to Boswell shortly.
Located at 17 Gough Square off of Fleet Street in London (Fleet Street developed in the13th and 14th centuries as the road from the commercial core of London to Westminster, the heart of politics), Dr. Johnson’s House is a three-story brick building, not including attic and basement. Built in the late-17th century, the house was restored in 1910-11 and opened to the public. Today it is part of the London Shh… small historic houses network and a National Trust Partner.
Johnson rented 17 Gough Square from 1748 to 1759 – and within its walls, composed most of his Dictionary, as well as began the Rambler and Idler. Before he moved to 17 Gough Square, his lodgings were perhaps less than desirable. A historic account describes the house this way (my notes are in brackets):
“Dr. Johnson, who, before this time, together with his wife, had lived in obscurity, lodging at different houses in the courts and alleys in and about the Strand and Fleet Street, had, for the purpose of carrying on this arduous work, [writing the Dictionary] and being near the printers employed in it, take a handsome house in Gough Square, and fitted up a room in it with books and other accommodations for amanuenses [a literary or artistic assistant], whom, to the number of five or six, he kept constantly under his eye.”
Johnson lived in approximately 17 other places in London – this is the only building still standing. Cecil Harmsworth, who restored Dr. Johnson’s house, insisted that the dwelling not be furnished with “irrelevant 18th century bric-a-brac,” and that items in the collection must be connected to Johnson and appropriate for the “cheery home of an impoverished writer.”
I can only imagine Johnson’s first impressions of James Boswell, who was certainly not impoverished. (He was also a Scot, and Johnson famously decried all Scots). But the two men became friends upon meeting in 1763 and we know Johnson best through Boswell’s compulsive note-taking and diaries.
Boswell was heir to Auchinleck House, which is often cited as the “finest eighteenth century country villa to survive in Scotland.” It was likely designed not by Robert Adam, but rather by Lord Auchinleck (Boswell’s father) and his master craftsman.
This was not a full-time home, but rather a respite from the rigors of city life in Edinburgh. The house, built between 1755-1762, is two-story stone dwelling on full basement.
Samuel Johnson visited Boswell at Auchinleck shortly after the house was complete, and he and the elder Boswell (polar opposites when it came to politics) nearly came to blows in the library, arguing over Oliver Cromwell.
James Boswell, in his journal A Tour of the Hebrides, described his “ ‘honoured father’ and ‘respected friend’ as ‘intellectual gladiators for the entertainment of the publick.”
After Samuel Johnson left 17 Gough Square, the house served as lodging house, hotel, bed and breakfast and a printer’s shop. A visit to Dr. Johnson’s House includes not only the tour of the building, but a “collection relating to Johnson, a research library, restored interiors and a wealth of original features.”
James Boswell inherited the family house in 1782, but this seemed to do little to stem his legendary “high spirits.” As he wrote in his journal, “a great variety of other company was at Auchinleck. I felt the entertaining of them in general was a laborious and anxious task. I several times drank too much wine, and suffered severe distress after it.”
Various branches of the Bowell family owned and occupied the house until 1970. It then entered a sad state of decline – the metal was stripped from the house, the windows broken and the plaster rotten. It was purchased by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust in 1986, and saved from further ruin. In 1999, the house was turned over to the Landmark Trust, who undertook an extensive restoration. The house is now available for rent (which isn’t nearly as affordable as visiting Johnson’s house!).
Both Dr. Johnson’s House and Auchinleck House are testament to the power of words – and the influence of men who shaped them. Though Johnson and Boswell should have moved in entirely different worlds, given their respective places in 18th-century society, their friendship endured due to a different sort of power – intellect, wit and a respect for an evolving new way of writing.
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Janie-Rice is currently plotting her next trip to England and looking for a patron to sponsor it (landed gentry preferred.) Visit her at www.fhandfag.blogspot.com.