Dr Johnson’s House in London

On a recent trip to London I visited 17 Gough Square, better known as Dr Johnson’s House. Samuel Johnson compiled his great Dictionary of 1755 in this tall Georgian building, and I’ve always wanted to visit. As I’m currently writing a column on the subject (ish), the timing was apt.

On my way there I passed a Furnival Street and wondered if it was named after another lexicographer – but that Furnivall has two l’s in his name, so I guess not.

The house is ‘one of a very few of its age to survive in the City of London, and the only one of Johnson’s eighteen London homes to have done so’, Henry Hitchings writes in his terrific book Defining the World (aka Dr Johnson’s Dictionary). Here’s the plaque outside:

Circular plaque on the red-brick wall of 17 Gough Square. The plaque reads:

Upstairs, a stained-glass window of Johnson overlooks the square:

Stained-glass image of Samuel Johnson overlooking the square

The spacious garret is where Johnson worked on the Dictionary with the help of a half-dozen amanuenses (not all at the same time), who, per Hitchings, ‘were his servants, but also his companions’, and attended to some of the dictionary’s ‘more menial and mechanical aspects’. The room was reconstructed after being destroyed by fire in World War II:

Wide view of the spacious garret at 17 Gough Square: on a wooden floor stand several chairs and a small desk. A few windows let in plenty of light.

This post-it art of Pac-Man across the way, seen from the garret, was probably not there in Johnson’s time:

A view through the window upstairs at 17 Gough Square. Tall buildings are all that can be seen, but in two windows directly opposite are what look like post-it depictions of Pac-Man chasing cherries.

Excuse the poor picture quality: I didn’t bring my proper camera. But I encourage any London tourists and residents interested in Johnson or his dictionary to visit the museum: a fine and fascinating place, steeped in history and atmosphere, that gives a sense of what work and life were like for Johnson during his time here.

On my way out I met an American couple talking with the receptionist about the ‘word of the day’ feature behind the desk. They had just encountered petrichor elsewhere and were very taken by it. The word was fresh in my mind from a recent appearance at Macmillan Dictionary, so I shared its etymology. (I’d just had lunch with Macmillan colleagues Michael Rundell and Kati Sule, and Michael had suggested I visit Johnson’s house, so the coincidences were beginning to pile up.) The Americans proposed petrichor as a word of the day, but house rules say it has to be a word in Johnson’s Dictionary, and petrichor didn’t arrive until two centuries later.

I’ll finish with a few more photos from London. This vibrant street art near Brick Lane caught my eye (the artist is Cosmo Sarson, I’ve since learned):

Colourful street art on the side wall of a shop: a young man with cropped hair backflips in blue t-shirt, green combat trousers, red and orange hoodie, and white trainers

The Serpentine bridge between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park is an especially scenic spot:

Scenic view of Serpentine bridge, with five arches reflected in the calm narrow lake, and some greenery in the foreground and trees beyond the bridge.

A sign in Clapham struck me because of its lexical ambiguity:

A street and broad verge on which stands a sign saying

As I said on Twitter, Is he behind the tree?

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10 Responses to Dr Johnson’s House in London

  1. Fran Hill says:

    Near where I used to live in London, there was a St Peter’s Close. I always thought that a rather uncomfortable place to live.

  2. John Cowan says:

    I wondered why a bridge that is obviously a straight as nature and art could make it should be called serpentine. So I investigated Wikipedia and a map of Hyde Park, and it’s the water to the east that’s called the Serpentine. The water to the west is also often given that name, but properly it is the Long Water. The Serpentine proper is only serpentine in a very relative sense, having but one bend in it and that rather gentle.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes: the lake’s shape, as shown in this detailed map, is serpent-like rather than strictly serpentine; presumably the bridge was named after it, though I couldn’t find this detail on the Royal Parks website. Wikipedia has a decent page on it.

      Tangent: The word tends to remind me of Loie Fuller’s beautiful Danse Serpentine, filmed by the Lumière Brothers in 1896:

  3. astraya says:

    I went to the Johnson museum in Lichfield, back in the days when I was only moderately interested in language and dictionaries.

    There is a St Peters Close retirement village in Adelaide: https://www.southerncrosscare.com.au/locations/st-peters-close-retirement-living. The lack of an apostrophe might be deliberate, though the suburb is officially St Peters.

    I composed a song to the poem ‘Love’s coming’ (viz, the coming of love). When I showed it to a student, she said ‘Is it?’ (viz, is love coming?).

    • astraya says:

      I’ve got to pay more attention. St Peters Close is in Stepney. St Peters is the next suburb, so yes, St Peters is close.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Apostrophes in business names and official names (e.g., street signs) are quite often omitted even in places where strictly speaking they would seem mandatory. Though it infuriates pedants, it can be justified on practical grounds, as Waterstones did, and there’s little likelihood of genuine ambiguity arising. Even mine (in the photo above) is contrived. I like the misreading of ‘Love’s coming’ – my instinctive reading would have been the same as your student’s.

      • astraya says:

        In Australia, almost all towns, suburbs, streets and businesses don’t have an apostrophe. A nearby suburb is St Marys, which is named after a church which is either St Mary Magdalene’s Church, St Marys or St Marys Church. Nearby is St Clair, which as far as I know is not named after a church. A station in the city is St James, which is named after a church which is interchangeably St James and St James’.

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