Curious Travellers Exhibition (Doctor Johnson’s House) Back

Eighteenth-century travel writing has increasingly been recognised as central to the period’s literary culture. Classics like Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) bookend the century as defined by its interest in travel, exploration, and discovery. But not all travel writing concerned the well-trodden countries abroad. The eighteenth century also saw the rise of domestic tours, or the ‘petite tours’ of Scotland and Wales, as viable tourist destinations.[i] Post-1750 marked both the end of Jacobite rebellion and the completion of General George Wade’s new roads which increased accessibility to the highlands; thus Scotland became a less dangerous and more attractive tourist destination.

This setting is the historical backdrop of ‘Curious Travellers: Dr Johnson and Thomas Pennant on Tour’, an exhibition which seeks to connect the respective domestic tours of Dr Samuel Johnson and Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant. Curated by Celine Luppo McDaid, the exhibition is staged at Dr Johnson’s House and works in collaboration with the AHRC-funded project headed by Dr Mary-Ann Constantine titled ‘Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant and the Welsh and Scottish Tour 1760-1820’. The exhibition spreads throughout the four floors in Dr Johnson’s House, where each level explores a different facet of Johnson and Pennant’s domestic tours.

The first and second floors introduce the state of travel writing as a burgeoning form in the eighteenth century, and Johnson’s surprising literary debt to Pennant’s A Tour of Scotland, 1769 (1771). Pennant’s Tour provided a ‘meticulously researched and up-to-date account of the country which was enthusiastically received on both sides of the border, going through five editions before the end of the century’.[ii] So meticulous even that Johnson conceded ‘He’s a Whig, Sir: a sad dog…But he’s the best traveller I ever read; he observes more things than anyone else does’.[iii] Johnson’s travels received mixed reception and were less well-received than Pennant’s, as the third floor explores through the reviews of Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). The voice of James Boswell is present as well. His The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) was aimed at ‘mollifying his fellow-Scots’ as well as reconciling Johnson to Scotland.[iv] The exhibition does not pretend to ignore Johnson’s ‘scotophobia’ but admits his complex relationship regarding the ‘Celtic fringe’.[v] The top floor explores the mutual connection of Johnson and Pennant, Hester Thrale Piozzi, who kept a travel journal while with Johnson during their tour of Wales in 1774. The connection between these three writers is certainly interesting, and each one’s perspective provides a different insight into eighteenth-century life in Wales.

One of the best aspects of the exhibition is that it attempts to give the clearest possible picture of Pennant and Johnson’s tours by sewing together a masterful collection of mediums. While it is expected that a literary exhibition would include books and manuscripts, the project is brought to life through the use of illustrations, engravings, satirical cartoons, letters, poetry, and paraphernalia from the tours such as Johnson’s letter-case and walking cane. Perhaps the stand out feature of the exhibition is the digital maps which allow viewers to follow in the footsteps of Pennant, Johnson, and Boswell. The maps have features which allow viewers to click on particular sites and read the journal entry that Johnson or Pennant wrote about that particular location. This software allows for a more immediate and personalised experience, in which viewers can find out precisely what Johnson thought about a city of their choosing.

Wall text and brochures are available throughout, and while at times the amount of information can seem overwhelming, the exhibition has a story to tell. The exhibition booklet (£5) is a necessity; it is well-written and helps tie the exhibition together more clearly. Not only does the exhibition fill a sort of gap in Johnsonian scholarship, but it also suggests many avenues for further research, whether through the charming artwork of Moses Griffith who accompanied Pennant on his tours; or the different manner in which Pennant and Johnson record life, one as a collector of natural history and local lore, and the other as a collector of human character. With the plethora of information and research presented, I would suggest visiting the exhibition during a free afternoon when you have the time to let yourself be curious. This exhibition encourages viewers to be immersive like Johnson and Pennant, as ‘both men, through their writings, sparked a similar curiosity in their readers, inspiring many of them to follow in their footsteps’.[vi] It is in this spirit of curiosity that visitors are meant to view the exhibition.

[i] Nigel Leask, Mary-Ann Constantine, Elizabeth Edwards, ‘Curious Travellers: Dr Johnson and Thomas Pennant on Tour, An Exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House’, Exhibition booklet  (Aberystwyth: University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, 2018) p. 10

[ii] Leask, Constantine, Edwards, p. 5

[iii]Leask, Constantine, Edwards, p. 7

[iv] Leask, Constantine, Edwards, p. 4

[v] Leask, Constantine, Edwards,  p. 2

[vi] Leask, Constantine, Edwards, p. 1

Curious Travellers: Dr Johnson and Thomas Pennant on Tour is at Dr Johnson’s House from 5th October 2018 to 12th January 2019.