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Samuel Johnson

5 of 50 portraits of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson, by John Opie, based on a work of circa 1783-1784 -NPG 1302 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Samuel Johnson

after John Opie
based on a work of circa 1783-1784
20 3/8 in. x 16 7/8 in. (517 mm x 429 mm)
NPG 1302

This portraitback to top

NPG 1302 is a thinly-painted version, possibly contemporary, of the Opie portrait of 1783-84 in the Houghton Library, Harvard; [1] it differs only in showing the eyes less hooded.
Johnson told Mrs Thrale he had sat for his picture on 16 June 1783, and that evening had suffered a stroke. [2] On 7 August Michael Lort wrote that Johnson was recovered, ‘and gone to Mr Langton’s at Rochester. Before he went he sat to Opie, the famous self-taught Cornish painter, for his picture, and who I am told has given a just but not flattering likeness’. [3] On 3 September 1783 Johnson wrote he had sat to Opie ‘as long as he desired, and I think the head is finished, but it [is] not much admired. The rest he is to add when he comes again to town.’ [4] According to Sir John Hawkins, in 1784 Johnson ‘resumed sitting to Opie for his picture, which had been begun the year before, but, I believe, was never finished’. [5]
A replica is in an English private collection. [6] Copies in London include those in the Athenaeum and at Dr Johnson's House (an oval). [7] A miniature copy by William Patten was sold Christie's, 15 October 1996, lot 153; a weak half-length portrait, derived from the Opie type, is in Trinity College, Oxford, [8] and a pencil head by Cosway was said to derive from the Opie. [9]

Footnotesback to top

1) Illus. B. Redford ed., The Letters of Samuel Johnson, III, front.; engraved C. Townley 1786.
2) B. Redford ed., The Letters of Samuel Johnson, IV, p 151
3) Johnson, Arts Council, 1984, p 132 (from J. Nichols, Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth century ... intended as a sequel to The Literary Anecdotes, VII, p 459).
4) B. Redford ed., The Letters of Samuel Johnson, IV, p 193.
5) Sir John Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1787, p 569.
6) Exhibited Johnson, Arts Council, 1984, no.99; engraved J. Heath 1786 (from an Original Painting by Opie in the Possession of Mr Harrison).
7) Others include two in private English collections, and one sold Christie's, 5 June 1888, lot 83, said to have come from the King’s Head Collection at Lancaster, where it was mentioned by Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller.
8) Mrs R. L. Poole, Catalogue of Portraits in the possession of the University, Colleges and City and County of Oxford, III, p 134, attributed to Frances Reynolds, illus. Illustrated Catalogue of a loan exhibition of Portraits of English historical personages who died between 1714 and 1837, exhibited in the Examination Schools, Oxford, 1906, f.p.72.
9) J. J. Rogers, John Opie and his Works, 1878, p 117.

Physical descriptionback to top

Blue eyes, grey wig, wearing a brown coat and waistcoat.

Provenanceback to top

Bought in Tunbridge Wells by Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower 1901, and presented by him that year.1

1 Illegible Christie’s stencils remain on the stretcher, and the frame bore the inscription ‘by Gainsborough’ in 1901; for such an attribution.

Exhibitionsback to top

Johnson and the Lichfield Circle, Lichfield, 1959 (58); Johnson and the Midlands, Lichfield, 1984 (58).


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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