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Samuel Johnson

4 of 50 portraits of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson, by James Barry, circa 1778-1780 -NPG 1185 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Samuel Johnson

by James Barry
circa 1778-1780
23 7/8 in. x 20 7/8 in. (606 mm x 530 mm) oval
NPG 1185

This portraitback to top

Barry, who admired Johnson’s ‘consistent, manly, and well spent life’ [1] painted this vivid study for 'The Distribution of Premiums in the Society of Arts', one of the six vast murals which make up The Progress of Human Culture, painted for the Society in the Adelphi between 1777 and 1784. [2] In the finished mural Johnson appears between the Duchesses of Rutland and Devonshire; the present study appears to show on the right (for all its masculinity) the erased profile of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu to whom, in the finished canvas, Johnson points (as she presents a young girl displaying her handiwork to the Duchess of Northumberland). When Smith's engraving was published in 1808 it was puffed as being 'a speaking likeness, and by much the best portrait of Dr Johnson which has yet been set before the public: it makes all others, notwith-standing that those after Reynolds and Opie are among their number, look sottish, blinking, or imbecile'. [3]

Footnotesback to top

1) J. Barry, Works, 1809, II, p 339.
2) Illus. W. L. Pressly, A Catalogue of Paintings in the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1981, p 105; engraved J. Barry 1791.
3) The Review of Publications of Art, 1808, I, pp 221-22 (quoted in W. Pressly, James Barry, The Artist as Hero, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, 1983, p 98).

Referenceback to top

Pressly 1981
W. L. Pressly, A Catalogue of Paintings in the Folger Shakespeare Library, p 239, no.50.

Physical descriptionback to top

Blue-grey eyes, grey wig, dark brown coat; to the right a profile head has been overpainted.

Provenanceback to top

Barry’s sale, Christie’s, 10-11 April 1807, lot 102 ‘A Portrait (the Head only) of Samuel Johnson, A striking likeness’, bought Manson;1 bought in 1842 by George Tomlinson (d. 1863), Bishop of Gibraltar;2 his daughter, Miss May Tomlinson, from whom purchased 1899.

1 The NPG copy of that sale cat. bound in with Barry’s Works is annotated ‘since engraved’. That the buyer was Manson seems apparent from the engraving, as described above.
2 An obscured label on the stretcher reads: Johnson/by Barry now in/the possession of the/Bishop of Gibraltar Decr 1842. Tomlinson had been made Bishop in August that year.

Exhibitionsback to top

Garrick, Johnson and the Lichfield Circle, Lichfield, 1953 (1); Johnson, Birmingham, 1959 (181); Dr Johnson's House, London, 1973-75 and 1976-83; The Georgian Playhouse, Actors, Artists, Audiences and Architecture 1730-1830, 1975, no.94; Barry, Tate Gallery, 1983 (44); Johnson, Arts Council, 1984 (92).

Reproductionsback to top

A. Smith (pub. J. Manson, 1 March 1808, and exhibited RA 1808, no.568 as fac-simile of a study, now in the possession of Mr. Manson, by the late J. Barry Esq ...).


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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