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Samuel Johnson

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Samuel Johnson

by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvas, 1756-1757
50 1/4 in. x 40 in. (1276 mm x 1016 mm)
Given by an anonymous donor, 1911
Primary Collection
NPG 1597

Sitterback to top

  • Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Poet, critic and lexicographer. Sitter associated with 50 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), Painter and first President of the Royal Academy. Artist associated with 1413 portraits, Sitter associated with 38 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Massively ungainly and plagued with nervous tics, Dr Johnson was a victim of melancholia and could not bear solitude. He had an immense circle of friends and was one of the greatest conversationalists of all time. This portrait of him as a man of letters was painted by his friend Reynolds shortly after the publication of his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755, a prodigious labour which remains a monument to his scholarship as well as to his forthright personality. It was about this time that Johnson wrote his famous letter to Lord Chesterfield rebuking his former patron for his neglect.
The painting was never finished and remained in Reynolds’ studio until 1798, when it was given to James Boswell, Johnson’s biographer. Since then, it has had a complicated history. Several conservation campaigns have attempted to improve the troubled appearance of this image of an important national figure. The intention has always been to return the work to its ‘original’ appearance, although ideas about how Reynolds intended the painting to look have changed over time.
The portrait was given to the National Portrait Gallery by an anonymous donor in 1911. It had been subjected to a number of restoration campaigns in the nineteenth century which had attempted to improve the decayed surface, which was badly faded. In 1976 the Gallery decided to embark on a significant restoration treatment. Using the technical and research tools available at the time, conservators decided that the prominent wooden card table, books, inkwell and second quill were later additions to the composition, as they were painted in different media and clearly by a different hand. The card table was removed to reveal a table with a green tablecloth beneath it, while the books, inkwell and quill were covered up using easily removable paint.
In 2007 the painting was damaged by a member of the public, and this prompted the Gallery to undertake another programme of restoration. In advance of this, an academic symposium was held, and experts discussed the issues arising from the painting’s history and conservation. New research indicated that when the painting was engraved for the frontispiece to Samuel Boswell’s Life of Dr Johnson (1791) this process was acknowledged by Reynolds, despite the fact that he was developing blindness during this period. A recently discovered series of proofs annotated by Reynolds suggests a number of changes to the printed portrait, including the addition of the books, inkwell and second quill on the right hand side of the image. Johnson’s face was also aged, transforming a youthful portrait into an image of an older, celebrated literary figure. It is likely that the additions to the painting were carried out by someone working with Reynolds’s knowledge to bring the canvas in line with the engraving, although it is not clear whether these were added in Reynold’s studio or by a separate artist. However, given that Reynolds was aware of these details being added to the composition as well as Johnson’s more aged appearance in the print, it is likely that he also approved of these changes to the painting. These findings contributed to the decision to reveal the books, inkwell and quill which can be seen in the portrait today.
Information about the conservation of this work is available on the Gallery's website at www.npg.org.uk/drjohnson

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Audio Guide
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Ingamells, John, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, 2004, p. 288
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 340
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 104 Read entry

    This portrait of the poet Samuel Johnson, by his close friend Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), was painted shortly after the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755). While not the first dictionary of English to appear, Johnson’s work was by far the most ambitious, and his infamous wit and intellect shone through the definitions, making it his most celebrated work. The success of this project was hard won. In 1737, when Johnson first came to London from Lichfield, he was so poor that, for the journey, he had to share a horse with his friend, the actor David Garrick. Johnson would become acclaimed as an essayist, critic, biographer and editor, despite suffering greatly from nervous tics and recurrent bouts of depression. A man who also could not bear solitude, he was a most entertaining conversationalist and intellectual with a wide circle of friends. Reynolds founded the Literary Club in 1764 to give Johnson unlimited opportunities for talking.

    This portrait remained unfinished in Reynold’s studio until after Johnson’s death. In 1789 it was given to Johnson’s close friend and biographer James Boswell, who was looking for the most incisive likeness of the writer to engrave for the frontispiece of his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), the book that secured Johnson’s enduring reputation.

  • Woof, Robert; Hebron, Stephen, Romantic Icons, 1999, p. 9

Events of 1756back to top

Current affairs

Government falls after criticism of its handling of the Seven Years War. Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle is succeeded by William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, who forms a ministry effectively run by William Pitt the Elder.

Art and science

Satiristist Thomas Rowlandson is born in Old Jewry in the City of London. His main rival James Gillray is born exactly a month later in Chelsea.
Completion of William Edwards' Old Bridge, Pontypridd; the longest single span bridge in Britain for the next forty years.

International

'Black Hole of Calcutta': a group of British prisoners, including East India Company servant John Zephaniah Holwell, are locked in a small, overcrowded dungeon overnight when Fort William in Calcutta is captured by troops of the Nawab of Bengal. Holwell claims 123 of the 146 prisoners died.
Outbreak of the Seven Years War in which Britain, Hanover, Prussia and Denmark are pitted against France, Austria, Russia and Sweden.

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