Set in a delightful townhouse close to the Strand, Dr Johnson’s House is a little gem, fit to bursting with history and cultural significance. The building tells the story of legendary 18th century lexicographer Samuel Johnson, or Dr Johnson, as he was more commonly known.
The Staffordshire born wordsmith is widely considered to be the second most significant writer in the English language, after Shakespeare. The source of this fame is the book which he began writing in 1746: A Dictionary of the English Language.
The writer moved to Gough Square in 1748, at the age of 39, to be close to his printers. He used the money that he had been given to write the dictionary to pay the rent on the new property.
17 Gough Square is a timber framed late 17th century townhouse. It has three storeys, a basement and a spacious attic. Johnson wasted little time in installing himself in the attic, which was big enough to allow his team of six assistants to work alongside him.
Once installed, Johnson immediately set to work on his dictionary. It was not the first dictionary of the English language; however, it was certainly the most influential. Johnson spent countless hours working on the book, painstakingly recording every word in the English language and producing explanations of each one. It was a heroic feat and one that would stand comparison to any in the long history of English writing.
American literary critic Walter Jackson Bate says of the dictionary: “it easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time”.
Johnson’s dictionary was published in 1755 and once released, it proved a massive success. The lexicographer, who had up to that point been something of an unknown, was suddenly feted wherever he went.
Once the work had been published, it quickly became clear to Johnson that the house in Gough Square was too large for his needs. Shorn of the team who had helped him complete his great tome, there was now no one to fill the large empty rooms. In March 1759, reconciled to this fact, Johnson moved to smaller quarters within Staple Inn.
Following the writer’s stay at the house, 17 Gough Square went through a series of owners. It was at one point even used as a small bed & breakfast and later still, a printer’s workshop. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the house had fallen into permanent decline. Fortunately, it was at this point that the Liberal MP and philanthropist Cecil Harmsworth became involved. Harmsworth determined to save and restore the building, and this he did, with the house opening to the public in 1914.
Visitors to the museum today will see a great example of 17th century architecture with many of the building’s original features preserved or restored. These include the beautiful pine staircase, the wood panelling, the coal holes and even the floorboards. The museum also boasts an impressive collection of books, prints, paintings and period furniture. Best yet, every room of the house is open to the public with visitors free to rest awhile on the building’s many chairs and window seats.
Dr Johnson’s House is a rare gem. Perfectly preserved and lovingly cared for, this most atmospheric of house museums should be on every history lover’s must see list.
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