Collecting Johnson Back

Samuel Johnson is well-known for being an eighteenth-century collector of words. But aside from being a lexicographer, Johnson – like many during the eighteenth century – was also a keen collector of objects, amassing books and prints to furnish his various addresses. Johnson himself has been the subject of many ‘collections’, whether they be literary ones, or collections of objects relating to his life and works. This is the subject of the current exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square, London.

Collecting Johnson: Attracted by rarity, seduced by example, and inflamed by competition shows the various ways Johnson collected objects, and, equally, how others have been obsessed with collecting Johnson memorabilia across the centuries. Even before his death in 1784, a collection of his witticisms was published as Johnsoniana, or a collection of Bon Mots (London: 1776), a copy of which is on display. Johnson’s letters, manuscripts and books, lovingly preserved by collectors, are juxtaposed with later keepsakes and memorabilia. Eighteenth-century paintings are displayed in the same space as twentieth-century commemorative cufflinks for the first time, bringing together for public viewing objects from private Johnson collections and Johnson Societies across the world. While not claiming to challenge the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection at the Houghton Library at Harvard, Dr Johnson’s House is able to provide unique access to other objects previously owned by the Hydes (bequeathed separately to the House) and other private collectors. Of particular interest to scholars are rarer texts attributed to Johnson, including a sermon and various pamphlets on issues of social reform, and prints included in Johnson’s own collection.

Visitors of the House navigating the central staircase find themselves in a selection of rooms dedicated to various aspects of Johnson’s life, writings and acquaintances, culminating in the exhibition housed at the very top. Commanding the visitor’s attention upon entering the exhibition space is a portrait of Johnson juxtaposed with its own x-ray image, revealing other layers of paint. The painting, now attributed to the workshop of Joshua Reynolds, has been subject to much scholarly attention in attempts to discover its true subject and provenance. Viewers are invited to compare the two images, which present two very different figures, and compare them to others on display throughout the house, coming to their own judgements about the likeness. Even those unfamiliar with Johnson’s image will, by the end of a visit, be able to recognise his distinctive face in group compositions as well as single-subject portraits. His profile also appears on the ‘Johnson Halfpenny’. Minted shortly after his death, the coin was part of a series designed ‘to commemorate remarkable men’.

Other highlights of the exhibition include a subscription receipt for Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare. The initial name written on the receipt is crossed out and another written above it, and signed in Johnson’s distinctive hand. This small slip of paper reminds visitors that subscribers to Johnson’s Shakespeare had to wait years for the project to be completed: his original intended date for the completion of the series was 1757, but it was not published until October 1765. The first named subscriber, it seems, had given up hope of receiving the books, and his subscription was resold to another in 1759. The curator’s note accompanying the receipt further illuminates Johnson’s attitude towards his subscribers, reporting how he excused the lack of lists of subscribers accompanying his edition of Shakespeare thus: ‘I have two very cogent reasons for not printing any list of subscribers; – one, that I have lost all the names, – the other, that I have spent all the money.’ Such candidness is further evident in the notes and letters in Johnson’s own hand also on display, including a letter addressed to the ‘dearest of all dear Ladies’ Hester Thrale. The result is a collection of objects that begin to present an intimate and familiar view of Johnson and his relationships with friends.

This sense of intimacy complements the rest of Dr Johnson’s House, which uses books, furniture and pictures to provide a thorough examination of its primary subject and his contemporaries. The exhibition itself is small, confined to the very top floor of the House, Johnson’s own study space. Regardless, the Johnsoniana on display gives visitors plenty of material, displaying a broad assortment of ephemera kept by admirers of Johnson, including a book containing a lock of his hair and a modern commemorative bow-tie, dark blue and patterned with his portrait. Visitors may occasionally wish that some of the objects were accompanied with images of the sides not on display, such as the reverse of the Johnson Halfpenny and the print of Milton owned by Johnson, but the cards accompanying the objects are informative, providing context to what might otherwise be a disparate group of objects. Drawn from an impressive range of sources, here is a collection about collections – and collectors – in various forms, brought together to the public for the first time, making essential viewing for anyone interested in Johnson and his circle.

Collecting Johnson is at Dr Johnson’s House from 1st July to 14th October 2017