London during the second half of the eighteenth century was a place where extremes met. It was full of things to do and see, of people and, of excitement. It was all about poets, painters and polite society. It was also at the heart of affairs both great and small.
A young, impressionable, and opinionated budding poet Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) wrote that London was the place where
… falling houses thunder on our head,
and here a female atheist talks you dead
prepare for death, if here at night you roam,
and sign your will before you step from home.
A man of some influence in eighteenth century polite society, Dr Johnson could be brutish and witty. Based on his ditty, he believed it was far better to be ambushed by thugs, diddled by lawyers and buried under yards of rubble than talked to death.
Why we know so much about him is because of a biography written by James Boswell (1740-1795) The Life of Johnson.
This expansive work is considered by many scholars one of the most important and influential biographies ever written about one of the most distinguished ‘men of letters’ in English History, Samuel Johnson is remembered best for compiling the first definitive English dictionary.
James Boswell came from an aristocratic Scottish family. From 1758 he wrote an astonishingly frank and self probing Journal. When he was 18 he ran away to London in the spring of 1760 and had a fateful meeting with Dr. Johnson. It took place on the 16 May 1763 at Tom Davies Bookshop in Russell Street.
They became instant friends with eventually Johnson calling him ‘Bozzy’. By all accounts Bozzy was a handsome fellow, with an engaging character and great deal of charm evident in his portrait by George Willison (featured) painted during the early summer of 1765. The biography of Johnson records the first conversation between Johnson and Boswell
Boswell: “Mr Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it”
Johnson: “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help”
By outstandingly gatecrashing himself into literary circles James Boswell managed to introduce himself, during extended travels on the continent from 1763 – 1766, to two of the eighteenth centuries, and history’s most important civil liberty protagonists. They were a dynamic duo, the self styled wit Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet), and political philosopher, educationist and author Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Writing at Paris in the 1760’s Rousseau, originally from Geneva, drew attention to the informality of the dress of English gentlemen and the relative liberty they enjoyed under the British constitution.
In England young English gentlemen were abandoning convention and wearing a riding coat, a mode of dress that reflected his roots were essentially with the land.
Rousseau wanted to change the traditional attitude of the French aristocrat hoping that all men, like him, would discover true happiness if they were in closer contact and communion with the earth. In France he wanted to reflect a commitment to change by adopting a simplicity of manners and modesty.
The idea, put forward at a time in France when the majority of men still powdered, painted, wore jewels, shimmering silks, and/or slippery satins, didn’t quite take hold and many were quite appalled by the suggestion. However it would become a reality following the Revolution and its aftermath, proving Rousseau a visionary.
By then, however, it was just too late for many who instead had quite literally lost their heads. James Boswell returned to England from his Grand Tour in February 1766 accompanied by Rousseau’s mistress. Three years later he married his cousin Margaret Montgomerie with whom he had six children.
In 1773 Boswell and Johnson shared a tour of the Hebrides. Boswell published an account of their journey in 1785, including a description of Johnson merrily swinging a broadsword and wearing traditional Scottish garb.
He and Johnson had an extraordinary friendship and he was both a diligent companion and enlightened observer of history in the making.
Dr Samuel Johnson, the subject of Boswell’s most famous work, lived in the streets just off The Strand, which had been part of a route to Silchester, a village in the English county of Hampshire, in Roman times. During the Middle Ages the Strand linked the City of London with the Royal Palace of Westminster.
The south side of the street was lined with mansions with their own river entrances. Property developers moved in during the seventeenth century knocking down the derelict mansions replacing them with much humbler tenements.
However by the early nineteenth century on moonless nights the area was dangerously dark with beggars, thieves and prostitutes hanging about. Mugging had become so commonplace it was hardly worth mentioning, except as it affected trade.
Shopkeepers and coffee houses constantly complained to the City Marshal that ‘their customers are afraid when it is dark to come to their houses and shops for fear their hats and wigs should be snatched from their heads or their swords taken from their sides or that they may be blinded, knocked down, cut or stabbed’.
Distinguished painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) images of Dr Johnson confirm the validity of the astonished reactions of contemporaries when meeting him for the first time.
Reynolds, like Boswell was a huge admirer. He said of Johnson ‘he qualified my mind to think justly. No man had, like him, the faculty of teaching inferior minds the art of thinking’…and of his virtues the most distinguished of them was his love of truth’.
It was this basic quality of guide and mentor, even more than the stimulus of his ferocity and wit, which was most admired and valued by his contemporaries.
Joshua Reynolds infused his portraiture of the time with an unprecedented sophistication, intelligence and dignity and his paintings proved popular.
Not the first favourite of the court, he became the first President of the Royal Academy and London’s most fashionable painter, a part he embraced with alacrity; most of his contemporaries believing he was the outstanding leading painter of their day.
He recognized that if painters were to be treated as more than mere artisans or servants instead of changing their practices (although this was important) he hoped they would develop a justification to make their artistic endeavours acceptable to other creators, collectors, connoisseurs and patrons.
His ideal painter was a master of theory, as well as practice. A painter therefore had to ‘stand in need of more knowledge than is to be picked up off his palette’. Basically singlehandedly he wanted to extend the view of the observer and bring about a revolutionary refinement of taste. Because of Reynolds efforts a separation grew between commercial artisans and academic painters.
From 1769 through to his retirement in 1790 each year at the Royal Academy’s prize giving Reynolds delivered his Discourses, a group of fifteen lectures in which he attempted to establish the credentials for British Art, for that of being as important as a corpus of paintings.
He defined the hierarchy of artists pointing out whatever aesthetic values he felt they needed to embrace, laying down a path he thought other painters should follow him if they were to become artistic inheritors of the renaissance.
When Reynolds (self portrait) died polite society offered him homage; at his funeral, before his interment in St. Paul’s Cathedral, forty two mourning coaches attended the cortege followed by nearly fifty carriages filled with nobility and gentry.
For much of James Boswell’s life his father despaired of him. He didn’t follow his father’s profession and practice law, preferring his writing above all. However he did became 9th Laird of Auchinleck, but in the end his years of enjoying the good life finally caught up with him.
Manuscripts written by him were discovered in 1927 and 1930 in two different country houses and sold to American interests. They have been published by Yale University Press as proof of his literary industry and integrity. Today his name has passed into the English language as terminology.
To be ‘Boswellian’ means to be a constant companion and observer.
Acclaimed Scottish physician and writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) honoured his fellow countryman and writer Boswell in his works.
His celebrated detective Sherlock Holmes said ‘that talent instantly recognizes genius’ and referred to his own cherished companion and observer, Dr Watson, as ‘my Boswell’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010-2014