Dr Johnson’s Desk on Display for First Time at his House-Museum. Or Is It?

Lynda Mugglestone/Dr Johnson's House

Dr Johnson's desk. Probably.

Next month visitors to Dr Johnson's House will be able to see the desk on which he wrote his landmark dictionary. Probably.

Samuel Johnson’s Garret Lexicography: Desks, Drudges and the Dictionary opens on July 3 at the house-museum dedicated to him in London. It will showcase aspects of Dr Johnson's garret lexicography and explore why the garret was so important in Johnson's move to this house in Gough Square, and show how he and his assistants worked on the Dictionary before it was published in 1755. 

A central part of the exhibition will be his desk of which he said "composing a Dictionary requires books and a desk". Its normal home since 1867 has been in Pembroke College, Oxford, where Johnson studied as an undergraduate and which is returning it to the garret for the first time since the dictionary was written there. However, despite a plaque dating back to 1867 'confirming' that his is the great man's desk, there are provenance issues.

The simple desk is made of ‘deal’ or pine but mysteriously disappeared when Johnson left Gough Square in 1759. It resurfaced in April 1855 in the London home of Johnson's Godchild Ann Elizabeth Lowe who was living in poverty. With help from Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens as well as an international appeal for money, she sold it and it made its way to Pembroke College. However, recently discovered letters written by Ann in the 1820s muddy the waters and it is not entirely clear that this is in fact Johnson's desk, as the exhibition explains...

This exhibition is the result of a project funded by TORCH at Oxford University, a collaboration between Director and Curator of Dr Johnson's House Celine Luppo McDaid, and Professor Lynda Mugglestone, professor of English Language at Pembroke College, Oxford.