A word with Dr. Johnson

Dr Samuel Johnson, critic, poet, essayist, biographer and conversationalist is one of England's best-known literary figures and dominated 18th century London's literary life.

He was also known for his great wit and aphorisms, and after Shakespeare, with more than a thousand quotes to his name, Johnson became the most quoted of English writers.

Dr Samuel Johnson

Dr Samuel Johnson, 1709 –1784

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But mention Dr Johnson today, and it is with the English Dictionary that he is most associated. When he published the first comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, Johnson was already well known. By the time he died in 1784, he was a national celebrity and cut the most famous figure in Fleet Street. His good friend and writer Fanny Burney, described him as "tall, stout, grand and authoritative". He was also well loved, a big man with a big heart, overcoming many health problems including poor eyesight and Addisons Disease, to write the Dictionary between 1745 and 1755.

The Withdrawing Room at Johnson's house
The Withdrawing Room at Johnson's house

Johnson was born in the Cathedral city of Lichfield, the son of a poor bookseller whose house is now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. As a writer's museum, it is everything you could wish for – a handsome, 18th century house, facing the market place of a graceful old city. His early years were difficult – his parents were beset by financial difficulties – but from the books in his father's shop, he found inspiration preparing him for his role as the century's greatest man of letters. While his education at Lichfield and Stourbrook Grammar Schools gave him an excellent introduction to classical literature, poverty and financial difficulties forced him to leave Pembroke College, Oxford without a degree. In 1735 he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow more than 20 years his senior who Johnson outlived by many years.

Johnson's house
Johnson's house

In 1737, Johnson moved to London with his friend and pupil, the actor David Garrick, who he knew from his early life in Litchfield, earning a living as a journalist with the Gentleman's Magazine. But it was to be short-lived. Johnson didn't remain out of work for long. He was commissioned by a syndicate of booksellers to write the English Dictionary. Johnson's Dictionary as it became known, was produced in the attic of Gough Square with the help of six assistants. It may not have been the first of its kind, but no other could match it for the clearness of its definitions, its broad references of word usages and the volume of quotations. Johnson later extended his career as a writer and his edition of Shakespeare was published in 1765 and the Lives of the Poets in 1778.

Johnson's fame at large is partly due to the biographical Boswell's Life of Johnson. However the young Scottish lawyer met Johnson in his later years (1763) after he had already achieved a degree of fame and stability. The biography in fact emphasises the latter part of Johnson's life when he was seen more as a gruff but lovable society figure than the struggling and poverty stricken writer that he was for much of his life. The backbone of these years was his friendship with Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and MP and his wife Hester, in whose houses he found comfort and a family in whose affairs he could interest himself. He stayed with the Thrales for 15 years until Henry's death in 1781. Hester Thrale's reminiscences on Johnson, together with her diaries and correspondence are second only to Boswell's as a source of biographical information on Johnson. Johnson is buried at Westminster Abbey.

Johnson's parlour
Johnson's parlour

Storyline Journeys extends a personal invitation to visit his London home, No 17 Gough Square, now Dr Johnson's House Museum. One of the few residential houses dating from 1700 still surviving in the City of London, it is set amidst a maze of courtyards and passages that are a reminder of historic London. Johnson couldn't get enough of London as is evident in his much quoted saying "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of Life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

The man on stage, large and cumbersome has a commanding presence. The wit and wisdom for which he was so well known shines through as he reflects upon his long life at the end of the 18th century. The audience applauds as Royal Shakespearean actor Bruce Purchase brings Dr. Samuel Johnson to life. His mesmerising one man show "Johnson is Leaving" takes place in the Dictionary Room in the garret of London's Gough Square. It is here, in this very room that Dr Johnson slaved away at his mammoth project, for nearly 10 years. Johnson managed to overcome so many obstacles in his life, financial difficulties, ill health, bad eyesight, episodes of depression yet rarely allowing his good humour and wit to desert him. The performance conveys this; Johnson's constant changes of mood, varying from anger and indignation to an almost impish humour as Purchase deftly slips from one character to another.

Bruce Purchase as Dr. Johnson
Bruce Purchase as Dr. Johnson

Today, 17 Gough Square is restored to its original elegant condition. You will be able to wander with though the house, drink in hand, through the panelled rooms, up the pine staircase inspecting authentic period furniture, prints and portraits and soak up the atmosphere of the garret or attic. Johnson lived and worked in the house from 1748 to 1759. The house also features exhibitions about Johnson's life and work. Many of his friends were entertained at the house including Joshua Reynolds, Charles Burney, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke. And you may just be able to bump into 'the man' himself, at least in spirit, known as the most "humane" of English writers, wise, courageous and humorous. Johnson was a devout, conservative Anglican, a staunch Tory and a compassionate man, supporting a number of his poorer friends under him own roof.

A word with Dr Johnson

"Dear Diane and Michael, I had a lovely evening on Saturday at the Johnson House, very enjoyable indeed. Please, put me down for the Dickens evening on 25th January. I’ve told several of my friends I went with to The Messsiah last night about your new venture and I think all three will be in touch with you in a due course. "

- Michelle (M) Barnet (Herts)


"Thank you so much for such an enjoyable evening. Lovely warm welcome!. Excellent guided tour of Dr Johnson’s House by Stephanie the young curator, who fed us with a fund of fascinating historical facts about the learned gentleman’s life and loves. But the high spot of the evening was provided by Karin Fernald the actress, The enormous amount of research she must have put into it really showed as she regaled us with a wide range of readings, quotations and pictures, fleshing out Dr. Johnson’s personality and friendships with the likes of Joshua Reynolds and the Thrale family. The delicious supper was truly the icing on the cake."

- Sue (S) Woking Surrey


"You must have been pleased with the final numbers at your wonderful Johnson evening last Saturday – seemed a good mix of people and the atmosphere was congenial and friendly. Food and wine excellent and entertainment first class so all your efforts will surely be rewarded with new members.."

- Kate (S) Hampstead

Testimonials and what the press says


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