Bogart

Dr Johnson’s House

In Historic Houses on May 13, 2012 at 10:55 am

A few weeks ago, I took a rather detailed trip to visit the house of Dr Samuel Johnson, wit, lexicographer, and by all accounts, total dude.

Perhaps most famous for his Dictionary of the English Language and the quip “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” (the gift shop merchandisers of the capital praise his glorious name for that little gem), Johnson was a character and a half. His many biographies (including, god bless you, Wikipedia) start with a paragraph of notable careers, including poet, playwright, journalist, teacher, and of course, lexicographer. In his great dictionary, Johnson defines lexicographer thusly:

Lexicographer: A  writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

The very presence of the term “harmless drudge” suggests that Johnson was far from it. And kudos to a man who had the foresight to include some humour in what is, lets face it, the most useful and yet most utterly dull of all books.

The House is lovely. It’s not ostentatiously large or ornamented (obviously, it’s in the middle of Holborn), but its a sweet townhouse, and you do instantly get a feel that this was a working London house, not designed or decorated to intimidate or impress. I, conditioned by a lifelong love of Scandinavian interiors, am a big fan of the functional home. Everyone loves a good gilt ceiling, but now and again it’s nice to have something minimal, tidy, and lived-in. You don’t struggle to imagine the hustle and bustle of  London being right outside the door, or indeed, flowing right through it; collecting debts and paying visits (Dr J had lots of both).

There are some real architectural gems in this little place, mind. Above the door there, you can see some rather impressive ironwork designed to keep out the nefarious little raggamuffins Olde London Towne was so famous for back in the day. My favourite, however, and something I intend to have in my own London Townhouse (everyone on a museum salary has one, you know) is a beautiful set of folding partitions, as here. You can have three medium rooms, or one massive room for keg parties and poker tournaments.  Or, y’know, refined tea-sipping. Johnson was a tea man by all accounts, but there’s a good chance he’d be at the keg party too, I’d wager.

I never knew that Johnson was such a bombastic character before I visited, and I was told many times by the audioguide that he was a larger-than-life wit, whose adventures more than merited the almost absurd length of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and I believe he was. Had I not had the audioguide, however, I would have had no idea that he was such a character. The one and only thing this house was missing for me was the man himself. I felt you got an amazing impression of his friends, lifestyle, work, and importance, but Johnson himself was a bit…absent. The friends, foes, and characters of his life seem to jump out of the walls of this house in Gough Square, but even the audioguide seems only to tellyou that Johnson was awesome; it never quite shows you how. In the way that your friends keep telling you stories about this hilarious mutual friend of theirs that you don’t know. You just had to be there, I guess.

That said, this is a fantastic little house, with big plans for the future, and I do wholeheartedly recommend you pay a visit. Well worth checking out the library (complete with facsimile of Johnson’s Dictionary) and the loft beams , charred by WWII incendiary bombs. Don’t forget that a house so old and so central in London has a history before and after Samuel Johnson, and its an absolutely fascinating one.  The audioguide is well worth investing in – I am a lifelong hater of the audioguide, but this one is actually very well done, and it is a bargain at £2 for a headset, which can have 2 headsets plugged in. This is BRILLIANT – half my loathing of audioguides comes down to the fact that they always seem to double the admission price, but this was excellent value for money.

Dr Johnson’s House is in Gough Square, London. Its nearest tube stations are Blackfriars and Chancery Lane, and admission costs £4.50 (free for Museums Association Members). The audioguide is an extra £2, and can be shared by two people – bloody brilliant to see an historic house museum that offers such good value for money! (They also have a snazzy new website, just launched, which is very helpful. Museums everywhere – take note. Yes, I’m looking at you, Bletchley ORANGE!!!!! Park).

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