Samuel Johnson

Portrait of Samuel Johnson commissioned for Henry Thrale's Streatham Park gallery.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson commissioned for Henry Thrale’s Streatham Park gallery.

Johnson was an English writer and critic, and one of the most famous literary figures of the 18th century. His best-known work is his ‘Dictionary of the English Language’.

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on 18 September 1709. His father was a bookseller. He was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and spent a brief period at Oxford University, but was forced to leave due to lack of money. Unable to find teaching work, he drifted into a writing career. In 1735, he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow more than 20 years his senior.

In 1737, Johnson moved to London where he struggled to support himself through journalism, writing on a huge variety of subjects. He gradually acquired a literary reputation and in 1747 a syndicate of printers commissioned him to compile his ‘Dictionary of the English Language’. The task took eight years, and Johnson employed six assistants, all of them working in his house off Fleet Street.

The dictionary was published on 15 April 1755. It was not the first such dictionary, but was certainly the most important at that time. In Johnson’s lifetime five further editions were published, and a sixth came out when he died.

Johnson’s wife had died in 1752 and shortly afterwards Francis Barber, a former slave from Jamaica, joined Johnson’s household as a servant. He lived with Johnson for more than 30 years, as did his wife and children, and became Johnson’s heir.

Johnson was continually short of money, despite the success of his dictionary. In 1762, his financial situation was alleviated when he was awarded a government pension.

In 1763, he met James Boswell, a young Scottish lawyer, whose ‘Life of Johnson’ (published in 1791) did much to spread Johnson’s name. In 1773, Johnson and Boswell set out on a three-month tour of the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides. Both wrote accounts of their travels. Johnson spent considerable time in Edinburgh in the 1770s.

Johnson was by now the leader of the London literary world, and a friend of notable artists and writers such as Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick. Another important friendship for Johnson was with Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and member of parliament, and his wife Hester. Johnson became part of their family, treating their London houses as second homes.

Johnson died on 13 December 1784 and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

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