Thursday, 3 March 2011

Dr Johnson’s House

Dr Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds circa 1772

I recently rediscovered some footage I had taken of the exterior and interiors of Dr Johnson’s House near Fleet Street in London which I visited with the Partridge in August 2004. That was before I had my current digital camera or indeed well before I had begun writing a blog. The first segment of the film shows the exterior of 17 Gough Square. The small 18th century house to the immediate left is also part of the Museum but is closed to the public as it serves as staff accommodation. The first interior is a small white panelled room containing, amongst other articles of period furniture, an armchair covered in yellow leather. The third space on view is the cream panelled library. Next, my camera films the internal pine staircase. The final footage is of the attic in which Dr Johnson and his team of workers laboured to produce his famous Dictionary in the mid-18th century. The little red glass cabinet contains a model of Dr Johnson's team working on the Dictionary. Also on display in the latter are costumes for visitors to put on. I made a beeline for them but regrettably only a mob cap and a Louis IV sun god mask fitted me.

I have included various stills of the interior including the front door fortified with heavy chains, burglars and bailiffs being a twin fear for Samuel Johnson. I later read “According to Queenie” by the late Dame Beryl Bainbridge, which centres on the latter years of his life and his complex relationship with the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale and his wife and daughter, Hester and Queenie. Dame Beryl died in 2010. I once spied her at a Marks and Spencer store in Islington. I wanted to approach her and say how much I admired her work but felt too shy to do so. I particularly admired one of her earliest novels: Sweet William. It was made into a film in 1979 with Jenny Agutter and Sam Waterson. It centres on the eponymous and philandering William. This fictional character was yet another Lothario who left a deep impression on my psyche at a young age.

The real life Hester Thrale was said to have been deeply disapproving of the unconventional lifestyle of sculptor Anne Seymour Damer, who later inherited the gothic villa at Strawberry Hill from Horace Walpole. Thrale satirised Anne’s penchant for dressing up in male attire as well as her alleged lesbian affairs. Hester Thrale in turn incurred censure from polite society when she married her Italian music master following the death of her first husband Henry. The elderly and ailing Doctor Johnson had entertained romantic notions of his own when Hester’s first husband died and there was a schism between them for a while after she married her Italian music master. Even if Hester rejected Johnson as a potential husband she was not so quick to disown her own association with such a celebrated man of letters. Two years after Johnson’s death in 1784, Hester published her “Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson” followed by her correspondence with him in 1788.

One of Samuel Johnson’s closest companions was his man servant Francis Barber. Francis had been born a slave in Jamaica and brought over to England by a friend of Samuel Johnson, Colonel Bathurst, when Francis was 15. Having received a rudimentary education at a village school, Francis was sent by Colonel Bathurst’s son to London to act as a valet for the newly widowed Samuel. When Colonel Bathurst died, Francis received his freedom and a small legacy and decided to work as an apothecary’s assistant, presumably to learn the trade. He later tried his hand as a sailor for a couple of years until Johnson got wind of his naval ambitions and pulled strings in the Admiralty to have him hauled back to dry land. Back in Dr Johnson’s service, his mentor sent Francis to a Quaker boarding school to resume his education. Francis was by then in his thirties. This was not wholly altruistic on Johnson’s part as it meant that from henceforth Francis could act as his secretary as well as his valet.

In 1967 the Supreme Court made race-based restrictions on marriage illegal in America. Almost 190 years earlier in 1776 Francis Barber, a former black slave married his wife Elizabeth, a white Englishwoman and went on to raise a family of four children with her in Dr Johnson’s house. When Dr Johnson died in 1784 he left Francis his gold watch, a handsome annuity and a house near his birthplace of Lichfield into which the Barber family moved. In 1794 only 7 years before his own death Francis was visited by a journalist for the Gentleman’s magazine which published an interview with him in their June edition. According to the journalist:
“Francis is about 48, low of stature, marked with the small-pox; has lost his teeth; appears aged and infirm, clean and neat, but his cloaths the worse for wear; a green coat, his late Master's cloaths, all worn out. He spends his time in fishing, cultivating a few potatoes, and a little reading. He laments that he has lost the countenance and table of Miss S-, Mr.- and many other respectable good friends, through his own imprudence and low connexions”

Despite Dr Johnson’s generous annuity Francis descended into penury and illness as was already evident from his interview with the Gentleman’s Magazine. Despite his own poor health, Barber's descendants have survived on into the 21s century and continue to live in the vicinity of Lichfield.  


Thanks to a comment posted by Mel I went back to the Gentleman’s magazine, this time for 1818, and found another poignant snippet about the lives of Francis Barber and his wife. It is interesting to note the tone of the writer. The late Mrs Barber is spoken of in respectful terms. No odium is heaped on her because of the fact she had chosen to marry and raise a family with a former black slave in 18th century England.

“Mr. Thomas Simpson says, Perhaps it may not be generally known that there is now in the possession of a gentleman, who purchased it of Mrs. Barber, the wife of Francis Barber, Dr. Johnson's faithful servant, the Original Miniaturey painted about the year 1736, of the late Dr, Samuel Johnson, when he was in his twenty-eighth year. It is in good preservation, is the only one ever painted at so early a period of his life, and was given by the Doctor himself to Mrs. Barber (who died at Lichfield about two years since) a short time before his death, with an injunction that she should never make it known; which request was strictly complied with, until her poverty obliged her to dispose of it to its present possessor."

I wonder if by this time Elizabeth Barber’s destitution had forced her to sell the wedding ring of Dr Johnson’s own wife Elizabeth better known as Tetty. Johnson’s foremost biographer and close friend James Boswell wrote in his “Life of Johnson:”
“Her wedding ring, [Tetty’s] when she became his wife, was, after her death, preserved by him, [Dr Johnson] as long as he lived, with an affectionate care, in a little round wooden box, in the inside of which he pasted a slip of paper, thus inscribed by him in fair characters, as follows:

    Eliz. Johnson
    Nupta Jul. 9 1736,
    Mortua, eheu!
    Mart. 17 1752.'

After his death, Mr. Francis Barber, his faithful servant and residuary legatee, offered this memorial of tenderness to Mrs. Lucy Porter, Mrs. Johnson's daughter; but she having declined to accept of it, he had it enamelled as a mourning ring for his old master, and presented it to his wife, Mrs. Barber, who now has it.”

More details on Dr Johnson's House can be found on the museum 's website:Dr Johnson's House