Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield in September 1709.  He has been described as “Arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history” (entry on Samuel Johnson by Pat Rogers in the online edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). He was a tall man and looked healthy but is thought to have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome {undiagnosed at that time). He went to Pembroke College, Oxford but only stayed for a year as he ran out of money while there. He was also a very shy and self-conscious man: when he first came to London he got a job writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine based at Clerkenwell, London but whenever visitors came he would hide behind a screen as he thought he looked too shabby to be seen.

 

In 1765 a friendship began that was to provide Johnson with 15 years of happiness when he met Henry Thrale, who, with his wife Hester, entertained many of the leading literary and artistic characters of the day at their country home, Streatham Park which was located between Streatham and Tooting Bec, near where the Lido is today. Johnson spent much of his time in Streatham Park and although he had his own rooms he was fond of a summer house in the grounds. His favourite spot was under a Mulberry tree where he did his writing. Johnson suffered from bouts of depression and was cheered up by Hester; Henry was particularly fond of Johnson's company and even included him on a family trip to France.

 

Visitors to Streatham Park included many famous 18th century individuals: as well as Johnson there was David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, William Henry Lyttleton, Charles and Frances Burney. The dining room contained 12 portraits of Henry's guests painted by Reynolds. These portraits were wittily labelled by Frances Burney as the ‘Streatham Worthies’.

In March 1781, Johnson finished his final major work, Lives of the English Poets, which was published in six volumes. Sadly its success was overshadowed by the death of Henry Thrale in April 1781. Hester became engaged to her Italian singing teacher, Gabriel Mario Piozzi, and decided to sell Streatham Park in 1782.

 

Plagued by failing health, the death of many of his friends, and the loss of Hester’s companionship, Johnson suffered a stroke and lost his speech for two days. Although suffering from gout, his health had begun to improve when he and Boswell travelled to Oxford in May 1784. By July Boswell had left for Scotland. Johnson, now being alone, returned to London in November 1784. On 25 November 1784 he left Gough Square to stay with George Strahan, the vicar of St. Mary’s, Islington. It was there that many visitors came to see Johnson as he lay sick in bed. On 13 December 1784 he fell into a coma and died at 7:00 pm. “A few days before his death, he had asked Sir John Hawkins, as one of his executors, where he should be buried; and on being answered, ‘Doubtless, in Westminster Abbey’, seemed to feel a satisfaction, very natural to a poet.” (from Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson).