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Exhibition on Samuel Johnson Celebrates a "Writer's Writer"
A view of London and the Thames during the “age of Johnson.” Hand-colored engraving by Samuel Buck, 1749. Huntington Library. © The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

SAN MARINO, CA.- Literary giant Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), author of the first English dictionary, will be celebrated in a new exhibition opening this spring at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, marking the 300th anniversary of his birth. Johnson is one of the most significant and influential men of letters in English. Legendary as a writer, moralist, and conversationalist during his lifetime, Johnson first achieved fame with the publication of his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. “Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the 18th Century,” on view from May 23 to Sept. 21, showcases Johnson’s craft as a writer through a display of more than 70 items, including a copy of the first edition of the Dictionary in its original binding, a portion of one of Johnson’s diaries, personal letters, and other works seldom seen by the public.

The exhibition explores how a boy from Lichfield, a small provincial town in the English Midlands, became eminent as an authority on the English language. The story of Johnson’s achievements will be drawn from The Huntington’s collections as well as from the private collection of Huntington Overseer Loren Rothschild.

“The second half of the 18th century in England is known as the age of Johnson,” says O. M. “Skip” Brack, professor emeritus of English at Arizona State University and guest curator of the exhibition. “This was a time when Joshua Reynolds was painting great portraits, Edmund Burke was writing about the French Revolution, actor David Garrick was restoring Shakespeare as the preeminent English playwright, and Oliver Goldsmith was writing plays of enduring importance. But Johnson’s fame surpassed all others.”

Brack is also quick to point out that Johnson is not as well known to Americans today as he should be. “Those who are aware of him conjure a sort of character created by James Boswell in 1791 in his classic book, The Life of Samuel Johnson.” That work is rich in the minutiae of Johnson’s daily life, detailing a personality plagued by physical ailments and driven by peculiar habits. Boswell, however, never had access to Johnson’s diaries and did not meet his subject until Johnson was 53. Brack seeks to go beyond Boswell to show how Johnson’s own great body of work reveals the man many describe as the first professional writer, someone who started out taking anonymous assignments for various periodicals before signing contracts and securing advancements for book projects. As a fulltime writer, he eventually earned a pension from the king.

A highlight of the exhibition is Sir Joshua Reynolds’ iconic “Blinking Sam” portrait of Johnson (1775); Rothschild and his wife, Frances, gave the painting to The Huntington in 2006. “Blinking Sam” portrays Johnson as nearsighted, peering intently at the pages of a book. The exhibition will be supplemented with other items from Rothschild’s personal collection, including mezzotints, books, and manuscripts. Following the exhibition, “Blinking Sam” will go back on permanent display in the Huntington Art Gallery.

The Huntington has long been a natural repository for the works of Johnson. One of Henry Huntington’s strongest collecting interests was the literature and history of England, particularly from the 18th century. Among the rare Johnson items in the exhibition from the Library’s collection are a first edition of the Dictionary of the English Language (1755); Rasselas, the Prince of Abissinia (1759); A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), in which he gives an account of his travels with his friend and biographer James Boswell; and Boswell’s own Life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson had humble beginnings, arriving in London in March 1737 and taking on modest assignments for the Gentleman’s Magazine the following year. Needing a large project that would produce a steady income, he agreed in 1746 to write (the term preferred by Johnson to the less precise compile) an English dictionary; nine years later a consortium of London booksellers published, in two large folio volumes, A Dictionary of the English Language. One man had written a dictionary of more than 40,000 words, illustrated with nearly 116,000 quotations—a colossal achievement that brought him fame not only in England, but all across Europe. The Dictionary formed the foundation of every other English dictionary until 1884, when the New English Dictionary (now the Oxford English Dictionary) began to appear, and even it borrows from Johnson.

During the years he worked on the Dictionary Johnson published his most famous poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), and more than 200 essays twice a week for his own periodical, the Rambler (1750–52), earning him a reputation as the “great moralist” (defined in his Dictionary as “one who teaches the duties of life”). His edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765) and the Lives of the Poets (1779–81) secured his fame as a literary critic and biographer. He was not only author of essays, poetry in English and Latin, drama, fiction, and biographies, but he also wrote obituaries, epitaphs, satires, and political pamphlets. In addition, he wrote sermons and travel literature, as well as book chapters, introductions, prefaces, postscripts, proposals, dedications, advertisements, election addresses, legal arguments, historical annotations, and book reviews. The writings of his contemporaries are replete with work attributed anonymously by Johnson. His range of subjects was vast—from science and mathematics to politics, law, economics, history, travel, theology, architecture, cryptography, games, literature, and language.

All of Johnson’s writings, although not often personal in an autobiographical sense, “have the touch of his humanity, an essential understanding of the trials and joys of life that we all share, expressed sincerely and succinctly in a way that captures the true significance of a thought or feeling,” Brack says. “He could on occasion be difficult, argumentative, even rude, but, at the same time, no one could be more kind, compassionate, generous, and understanding. Few knew better how to be a friend.” When Johnson died, a friend remarked, “Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best: there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

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