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Dr. Johnson’s House is a perfectly preserved Georgian townhouse, where the great London writer and wit lived between 1748 and 1759.
It’s half-hidden in a maze of alleyways and courtyards off Fleet Street, and is one of the few 18th-century residential dwellings to still survive in the City of London.
It is decorated much as it would have been during his stay (albeit, rather sparsely), and the walls some portraits of his friends and contemporaries.
Samuel Johnson was a famous writer, wit and raconteur, but is best remembered for writing one of the first English dictionaries.
He also contributed some very memorable quotes, including the most famous London quote of all: “If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. For there is in London all that life can afford.”
Samuel Johnson’ English dictionary is often mistakenly described as the first dictionary in history, but he was actually beaten by a Frenchman and an Italian. It was, however, far and away the best of its kind, and it remained so until the Oxford English Dictionary came out one hundred and fifty years later.
His dictionary contains definitions for almost 40,000 words, and some of the quotes are even quite cutting and funny: “Patron: One who countenances, supports, or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is repaid with flattery.” You can view a valuable first edition of the dictionary inside the house.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
Samuel Johnson is one of those famous people that no one knows anything about. If you read a lot of London history then you’ll inevitably bump into him from time to time, but I’m guessing that 95% of London tourists won’t have a clue who he is. They might vaguely remember that he was a London wit, and that he wrote an English dictionary, but that’s probably about it. So why would they bother to visit his house? Hmmm… That’s a toughie.
Dr Johnson’s House is supposed to be a perfectly preserved Georgian townhouse but I was a bit underwhelmed, to be honest. I didn’t really feel as if I was being transported back in time. If you stick a bit of carpet on the floor and some curtains on the windows, then you might even be able to pass it off as your grandma’s house.
The problem is that it’s too sparsely decorated… there’s not enough stuff in it. Where are all his belongings? And his books, papers and letters? Sure… they’ve got a small selection in there, but the rooms aren’t exactly choc-a-block with Dr Johnson’s stuff.
They seem to have made a decision that unless it has a genuine connection with Johnson, then it doesn’t belong. But if it was me, I would have filled his house with other stuff from the period, because it’s too empty. The bedroom hasn’t even got a bed in it. You can’t see his kitchen or his bathroom.
There are a few wooden tables and chairs dotted about the place (none of which are of any particular interest to a tourist: they are all plainly made) and some dim and dark portraits hanging on the walls. I would have arranged some Madame Tussauds wax models in there as well, and dressed up like they were in his day, sitting at their desks and writing, going about their business, with some quiet music from the period playing over the speakers. They need to try and bring the house alive a bit because it’s too… dull.
They should have dotted a lot of glass cabinets around with his work and letters in them, so you can read them. They don’t have to be originals. Why can’t they just showcase some old editions? Apart from one of his dictionaries which you can leaf through, all of his other books are locked up inside a bookcase.
If you don’t fancy spending a couple of quid on the audioguide (which costs extra) then they’ve left a few laminated essays on the tables for you to read, letting you know what the rooms were used for. But if you’re not a fan of Samuel Johnson already, then it’s basically just a plain house, with plain furnishings.
> Read Craig’s latest review of Dr Johnson’s House “If you flick through a London guidebook then it won’t be long before you find the phrase “If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life”. It’s the go-to quote when you’re writing about our city. Well, the guy who wrote that line used to live here – at Dr. Johnson’s House. Samuel Johnson was the famous writer and wit who wrote the first dictionary. If you want to be pedantic about it then I don’t think it was actually the first, but we English like to call it the first. (The other one was foreign, so it doesn’t count.) That’s pretty much everything that we remember Dr Johnson for: that opening quote plus the world’s first (or second) dictionary. And this house… continued.”
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If you’re into the interior architecture of Dr Johnson’s House then you might like to visit Benjamin Franklin’s House and George Handel’s House. If you’re more into the history of literature then try the Charles Dickens Museum and Treasures of the British Library exhibition. There’s an interesting museum at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as well.
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