September 2017 | A. N. Devers

Collecting Dr. Johnson


It may sound like hyperbole, but there is something enchanting about the Samuel Johnson house, which can difficult to find even if navigating from a smart phone, even if you have been there before. Tucked away through alleys in a nearly hidden square of Fitzrovia in London, it's a house that stands apart from the slick tall glass structures surrounding it. It's also a house that remains popular for literary pilgrims despite Dr. Johnson's age. This week, three days after the anniversary of Dr. Johnson's 1709 birthdate of September 18, I ducked in to see their latest exhibition, Collecting Johnson: Attracted by rarity, seduced by example, and inflamed by competition, which brings together rare and intriguing items from ten prestigious private collections, both anonymous and named, of Johnsonia from Great Britain, America, and Australia. 

                                                                                                                                                                                 Despite his importance to the study of the English language, as the author of The Dictionary of the English Language, there is no single concentrated collection of Johnson material, as he himself decided to quickly sell off his possessions at auction upon his death to raise funds for a trust for his servant, a freed slave from Jamaica, and, essentially adopted son, Francis Barber and his family. 

                                                                                                                                                                                     What has been brought together is a curious selection of items and books, including volumes of his edition of Shakespeare, with an original subscription card -- ever disorganized, Johnson had scratched out one subscriber's name and added another -- and rare pamphlets including one to remove "the nuisance of common prostitutes from the streets of this metropolis," written mostly by Johnson, but published under the name Saunders Welch, one of the justices of Westminster. 

                                                                                                                                                                                  Another highlight is Johnson biographer James Boswell's snuff box made of antler, a portrait of Johnson attributed to the "Circle of Joshua Reynolds" paired with its fascinating x-ray analysis, a print Johnson owned by John Milton, and contemporary objects featuring Johnson including a large Cheshire cheese platter.


Collecting Johnson runs through October 14.

                                                                                                                                                                                        Image credit: A.N. Devers