Press Release - Exhibition on Samuel Johnson Celebrates a Writer's Writer

April 27, 2009


“Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the 18th Century” On View May 23–Sept. 21, 2009, in the Library West Hall



The famous “Blinking Sam” portrait of Samuel Johnson, painted by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1775.© Huntington Library.


SAN MARINO, Calif.—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 full-time 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.”


Related Events

Lecture: “Samuel Johnson and His Famous Dictionary”

May 27 (Wednesday) 7:30 p.m.

Loren Rothschild, a noted collector of the works of Samuel Johnson, will talk about the life and work of the great 18th-century man of letters who compiled the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language.


Lecture: “Johnson Agonistes: Portraying Samuel Johnson”

June 8 (Monday) 7:30 p.m.

By the time James Boswell published his monumental biography of his friend, Johnson’s life had been more fully documented than virtually any other figure in Western history. But Johnson was also the subject of various forms of visual portraiture that attempted, in a similar vein, to chronicle his accomplishment as a man of letters and reveal his individuality as a private person. Richard Wendorf, Stanford Calderwood Director and Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, will survey all of the known portraits of Johnson, including the famous portrait by Reynolds now at The Huntington.


Lecture: “Sam and Jamie: ‘No Theory Please, We’re British’”

Sept. 9 (Wednesday) 7:30 p.m.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of books, articles, and dissertations have been written about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, many dealing with the nature of their relationship. Much of this writing—the vast majority—has come from professional scholars who have read and written through various theoretical filters, changing with the fashion of the academic times. Paul Ruxin, a corporate lawyer and renowned collector, will discuss the famous relationship outside of any academic parameters.


All lectures take place in Friends’ Hall and are free to the public. No reservations required.


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Samuel Johnson’s definition of Lexicographer, from his 1755 dictionary: “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.” © Huntington Library



Samuel Johnson’s diary, open to Aug. 9, 1781. In this diary entry from late in his life, Johnson confronts his propensity for procrastination and laziness, and he admonishes himself: “After innumerable resolutions formed and neglected, I have retired hither to plan a life of greater diligence, in the hope that I may yet be useful…. My purpose is to pass eight hours every day in some serious employment.” © Huntington Library.



A first edition of Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755 in two volumes. Courtesy of Loren Rothschild.



Engraving 1
Mezzotint of Samuel Johnson from the frontispiece of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791, based on a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds painted in 1756–57. © Huntington Library



Engraving 2
Mezzotint of Johnson, based on a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds painted in the late 1760s. Courtesy of Loren Rothschild.



Frontispiece and title page of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791. © Huntington Library



A view of London and the Thames during the “age of Johnson.” Hand-colored engraving by Samuel Buck, 1749. © Huntington Library.



Samuel Johnson (far right) converses with his friend James Boswell (center) and author Oliver Goldsmith in an engraving titled “The Mitre Tavern,” 1880. Courtesy of Loren Rothschild.



Taxation no Tyranny
Samuel Johnson’s pamphlet from 1775 in response to dissent in the American colonies about British taxation. © Huntington Library



Considered Johnson’s greatest poem, Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) was written while Johnson was busy working on his groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language. Courtesy of Loren Rothschild


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[EDITOR’S NOTE: High-resolution digital images for publicity use are available on request.]


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About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. and Arabella Huntington. Henry Huntington, a key figure in the...

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