Portrait of Samuel Johnson

Burney, Edward Francesco, after Joshua Reynolds. Portrait of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson was well aware of the powerful relationship between portrayal and memory. As Hester Thrale Piozzi recounts, he had trenchant views on how he wished to be represented and understood:

When Sir Joshua Reynolds had painted his portrait looking into the slit of his pen, and holding it almost close to his eye, as was his general custom, he felt displeased, and told me ‘he would not be known by posterity for his DEFECTS only, let Sir Joshua do his worst’. I said in reply that Reynolds had no such difficulties about himself, and that he might observe the picture which hung up in the room where we were talking represented Sir Joshua holding his ear in his hand to catch the sound. ‘He may paint himself as deaf if he chooses’, replied Johnson, ‘but I will not be BLINKING SAM.’

The portrait, shown here in facsimile, is the copy by Edward Francesco Burney of an original by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Beinecke Call Number: Art Storage u.1978.18

Bozzy and Piozzi, or, The British biographers, a town eclogue

Pindar, Peter, 1738-1819. Bozzy and Piozzi, or, The British biographers, a town eclogue. London : Printed for G. Kearsley, at Johnson’s Head, no. 46, in Fleet street, and W. Foster, no. 348, near Exeter Change, in the Strand, 1786. Price half a crown.

Johnson’s many lives became the subject of pointed satire. Writing under a pseudonym, John Wolcot penned one of many satires of Johnson’s several biographers. Here Sir John Hawkins presides over a lawsuit between Piozzi and Boswell. As the caption, deriding Piozzi’s “anecdotic itch,” makes clear, the anecdotal style of Boswell’s and Piozzi’s lives of Johnson was not uncontroversial.

Beinecke Call Number: 1972 92 1

John Hoole, Unpublished manuscript

The public appetite for “Johnsoniana” continued throughout the decade. This is the original manuscript of John Hoole’s description of Johnson’s last 23 days, during which Hoole visited him daily. The published version, which appeared in the European Magazine for 1799, is shorter; Hoole omitted many of Johnson’s speeches concerning Hoole’s own spiritual welfare, possibly as too personal, although he did include Johnson’s more traditional memento mori injunctions:

He begged me repeatedly to let his present situation have due effect upon me, and advised me, when I got home, to note down in writing what had passed between us, adding, that what a man writes in that manner dwells upon his mind.

Beinecke Call Number: Uncat MS Vault Hoole

Portrait of Samuel Johnson

Rede, Leman Thomas, 1754 or 5-1810. Biographical anecdotes of one thousand distinguished characters & personages : including many in the circles of fashionable life ...., 1800.

Shown here is an entry for “Samuel Johnson” in an unpublished volume of biographical anecdotes compiled by Leman Thomas Rede. Rede, an impoverished teacher of elocution who once published a book titled The Art of Getting Money, was attempting to repeat the slight success he had had with a 1799 collection of Anecdotes and Biography. By this time, not only had the publication of literary anecdotes and gossip become commonplace, there was a wealth of them available in a variety of forms. Rede’s collection includes recent letters to the editor, newspaper and magazine “filler” anecdotes, and of course quotations from the several full-length biographies.

Beinecke Call Number: Osborn d30

[Boswell and the ghost of Johnson]

[Boswell and the ghost of Johnson]. [London? : s.n., 180-?]

“Thou art a Retailer of Phrases; And dost deal in Remnants of Remnants, Like a Maker of Pincushions,” reads the citation from Congreve at the foot of this illustration of Boswell, haunted by Johnson’s ghost.

[Boswell and the ghost of Johnson]

Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University


Lewis Walpole Library Call Number: 791.0.1

Frontispiece for the 2d edition of Dr. J-----n’s letters

Sayers, James, 1748-1823. Frontispiece for the 2d edition of Dr. J-----n’s letters. [London] : Publ. by Thos. Cornell, 7th April 1788.

This mock frontispiece for a second edition of Piozzi’s Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson (1788) shows Piozzi haunted in turn by Johnson’s ghost.

Madam, my debt to Nature paid I thought the Grave with hallow’d shade Would now protect my Name, Yet there in vain I seek Repose, My Friends each little fault disclose And murder Johnson’s Fame: First B...ll with officious Care Shew’d me as Men would shew a Bear And call’d himself my Friend. Sir J..n, with Nonsense strew’d my hearse, And Co...y pester’d me with Verse, You torture without End:

“The ghost of Dr. Johnson threatening Mrs. Piozzi for writing his life,” by James Sayers and published by Thos. Cornell, 7th April 1788

Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Lewis Walpole Library Call Number: 788.04.07.0

[Boswell and the ghost of Johnson]

John Courtenay, A poetical review of the literary and moral character of the late Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. : with notes. London: for Charles Dilly, 1786.

John Courtenay—an Irish author, politician, and admirer of Johnson—penned a verse tribute to Johnson which figured in Sayer’s satirical engraving on Johnson’s biographers, also shown. He concludes:

Thus sings the Muse, to Johnson’s memory just, And scatters praise and censure o’er his dust; For through each checker’d scene a contrast ran, Too sad a proof, how great, how weak is man!

Beinecke Library Call Number: 1990 +134

Posthumous Work of Dr. Johnson

A Posthumous Work of Dr. Johnson, An Ode. 1786 April 15th.

In the spring of 1786, shortly after the Anecdotes appeared, the dramatist and poet George Colman considered what Johnson’s ghost might have to say about the many biographies, anecdotes, quotations, and “sayings” then in circulation. The answer was not flattering to the biographers, as Johnson’s ghost cried “No more of your fugacious stuff, /Trite Anecdotes and stories.” The ode was printed in 1787; this manuscript copy of it is in an album that includes several items related to Johnson and his circle.

The cry once up, the dogs of News,
Who hunt for paragraphs the stews,

Yelp out Johnsoniana!

Their nauseous praise but moves my bile.
Like tartar, carduus, camomile,

Or Ipecacuanha

Next Boswell comes (for ‘twas my lot To find at last one honest Scot)

With constitutional vivacity.

Yet, garrulous, he tells too much,
On fancied failings prone to touch

With sedulous loquacity.

At last—Job’s patience it would tire,
Brew’d on my lees, comes Thrale’s Entire,

Straining to draw my picture.

For she a common-place-book kept,
Johnson at Streatham dined and slept,

And who shall contradict her?

Beinecke Call Number: Accession Number 22873