A traveller’s tales – John Byrne in sacred Johnsonian territory

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  • Post published:November 27, 2005
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In the April and July issues of The Southern Johnsonian I previewed my planned journey to England for August and September. I was looking forward with a great deal of excitement to this journey during which I planned to take part in the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary. What my five weeks in England brought home to me was that we Johnsonians are part of a world-wide sodality of enthusiasts who love the 18th century. Everywhere I went I was welcomed with great kindness and generosity. I am proud to say that our own Society is held in very high regard by Johnsonians all over the world.

Some of you may know that the Royal Mint will release a 50 p piece later this year celebrating the 250th anniversary of Johnson’s Dictionary. This is not the first time that Johnson has featured in coinage. In the late 18th century, there was a shortage of copper coinage in England and a number of attempts were made to remedy this with groups of merchants producing copper tokens to take the place of the farthing, ha-penny and penny. One such set of tokens was struck for circulation in Birmingham, Lichfield and Wolvertonhamton. The persons producing these coins avoided the crime of coining by offering to redeem the tokens for a legal tender on demand. On the 15th of August of this year, I received from David Vander Muelen, who has a Chair in English at the University of Virginia, a most beautiful Johnson ha-penny bearing a fine impression of Johnson’s head. I have long wanted one of these beautiful little momentos and I was touched by David’s letter which accompanied this thoughtful gift. In his letter David said, referring to the coin, “It’s worn but perhaps that has its own charm, a symbol of how Johnson quickly became common currency”. This little token will take its place amongst the treasures of my library and I believe this gift illustrates what I said earlier about the great world wide friendship which exists between Johnson enthusiasts.


On my arrival in England on August 25, I headed for Oxford, and to a a beautiful room in Pembroke College on the second floor of an early 19th century building on Chapel Quad. The outer façade of the building has been very well preserved but the interior contains everything that one would expect to find in such student accommodation including access to computer terminals, a desk and a table

I was made very welcome by the college staff. I had arrived two days before the conference was to start and I spent those days exploring the bookshops, libraries and museums of Oxford. I found surprisingly little Johnson material and, in particular, I could find no copies of Rasselas to add to my growing collection.

I did find a beautiful reproduction of Johnson’s cider mug, the original of which is held at Pembroke College. The replica was produced in a limited edition in 1974 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the College in 1624. The original was on display in the library at Pembroke together with Johnson’s teapot.

What a delight it was to live in Pembroke College and to walk the corridors, to climb the steps and to wander the gardens which were frequented by Johnson in his all too brief stay at Oxford. Pembroke is often said to be one of the friendlier colleges in Oxford and I can vouch for that. Everyone from the gateman to the Bursar and, especially, Jane Richmond of the Bursar’s office, made me and all of the other visitors feel at home. One stepped in through the small gateway set in the main gates, leaving behind the busy bustling city of Oxford to enter a sea of calm and beauty. The gardens in Pembroke are magnificent.


The conferencewas an intellectual feast. There were approximately 48 delegates, mostly from England, but others had come from the United States, Canada, Europe an Japan and I represented Australia. One paper, in particular, was absolutely brilliant. How Johnson’s Dictionary was Made was given by Anne McDermott who teaches at the University of Birmingham, and who published the CD-Rom edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language in 1996 with Cambridge University Press. In her paper, she was able to show that, far from taking nine years to write the Dictionary, Johnson did most of the work in two and a half years and with the help of two and not six amanuenses. I have seldom had the good fortune to hear a revolutionary piece of research delivered, much less delivered as brilliantly as was this.


As brilliant and as intellectually stimulating as were the papers, it was the fellowship at the conference which gave me the greatest joy. All of the delegates were friendly and mingled together very well. Distinguished Johnsonian authors such as Peter Martin and Jack Lynch were there, Sir Roger Bannister (he of the Four Minute Mile), William Scheide (the third in his family to continue the traditions of the Scheide Library at Princeton University) and distinguished scholars in 18th century fields from all over the world were there for an event which was as much a social as it was an intellectual one.

The formal dinner on the Saturday night was a glittering event. Held in the great Hall, some 100 people firstly enjoyed a champagne reception with 18th century music played by a quintet on 18th century instruments. We then sat down to dinner at tables decorated with magnificent pieces of 18th century silver donated by Johnson’s contemporaries.

Under the benign gaze of Thomas Moore we enjoyed a sumptuous five course dinner accompanied by magnificent wines from the College’s justly famed cellar. The claret was 15 years old, the Madeira and the Port were 40 and 50 years old respectively. This was, as Samuel Johnson himself would have said, a dinner to invite a man to.

I left Oxford with great regret, feeling that I had made many new friends in the Johnson world and looking forward to a conference planned in 2007 which itself will be aimed at building up interest for a major conference to be held in 2009. I strongly urge all who have the chance to do so, to visit Pembroke College to see the Johnsonian treasures in the library and to work in Johnson’s footsteps. It is a joyful experience.


In London, I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Governors of Dr Johnson’s House, but before the meeting, I travelled down to Dorset to spend a weekend with Lord Harmsworth (the Chairman of the Trustees and Governors) and Lady Harmsworth at “The Old Rectory” in Stoke Abbott. I had expected a quiet weekend enjoying the beauties of Hardy’s Wessex country but found myself caught up in the excitement of a newly discovered Joshua Reynolds portrait of Arthur Murphy, the man who introduced Johnson to the Thrales.

This painting once hung with other portraits of members of the Johnson circle in the Thrales library at Streatham and formed part of a group known as “The Streatham Worthies”. It was last seen early in the 20th century. Of course, its sudden reappearance when it was listed for sale in a small auction house in Yorkshire created great interest.

Only days before going to Dorsett, I had visited the magnificent exhibition at the Tate Gallery entitled “Joshua Reynolds and the Cult of Personality”. The newly rediscovered Murphy portrait was estimated by the auction house to be likely to bring between fifty to eighty thousand pounds. Lord Harmsworth was anxious that the Trustees of Dr Johnson’s House should make an attempt to purchase the portrait. It would make a magnificent addition to the Johnsonian material on display in Johnson’s House.

Lord Harmsworth and I spent a frantic three days preparing applications to various funds in London and we were successful in raising commitments totalling a substantial six figure sum. Together with a large contribution from our own funds, we considered we could enter the contest with some confidence. Having satisfied ourselves as to the provenance and condition of the portrait, an appropriate professional was engaged to bid on behalf of the House.

We were the third highest bidder but had to drop out when the limit of our funds was reached. The auction battle continued with the losing bidder being a descendant of the portrait subject. The painting went to a major London dealer at well over 300,000 pounds.

The ultimate destination of the painting is not yet known and that will be watched with interest. It was a fascinating experience and a great privilege to be involved in the bid for this artwork. It very much brought home to me the respect with which Dr Johnson’s House and its collection is now regarded by senior museum and cultural figures in London.


The reaching of a milestone was announced by the Chairman at the annual meeting of the Trustees and the Governors of Dr Johnson’s House. Through the great generosity of the late Mary, the Viscountess Eccles, whose estate has now been finalised, the Trustees have received a very substantial bequest. This bequest with the other funds held on trust nows mean that we have funds in excess of 1 million pounds which will ensure the survival of the House into the future. Mary Eccles, as she was known to all associated with the House, has, by her generosity, guaranteed that future generations will have the great joy of visiting the House, observing its treasures and, perhaps more importantly, using it as is donor wished, as a living house and not a museum.


I have fulfilled a long held ambition to own a Johnson manuscript. Whilst in London during September, I visited Quaritch’s to thank Ted Hoffman and other members of the firm for their kindness and trust in leaving the books in Melbourne which they had brought out for me to view in October last year, the acquisition of which treasures was delayed by my accident after the Australian Antiquarian Book Fair. By co-incidence the firm had recently received a Johnson manuscript and a very fine Boswell letter. I was invited to view both of these objects. The Johnson manuscript is an autograph translation into Latin verse of a two-line epigram from the “Greek Anthology”. The epigram bears a date 28th of January 1784 and a reference to the edition of “The Anthologia” published in Basle in 1549, in an edition prepared by Brodaeus, as “BR241”. During the last year of his life, Johnson translated some 95 of these epigrams from the ancient Greek. These he gave to Bennet Langton to sell and to give the money raisedto some poor relatives.

The particular epigram can be translated in English as “Sailor, do not ask who lies in this tomb, ask only that you find a kindlier sea”. This struck an immediate chord. In my earlier life I was lucky enough to do a great deal of ocean racing and ocean passage making. It seemed that this manuscript and I were fated to meet. I am told that of the 95 epigrams which Johnson translated, only 6 are known to have survived in manuscript to the present day. The example which was before me had been for many years in the possession of Richard Monckton Millnes (the first Baron Houghton who died in 1885). It was sold by his descendants at auction in 1996 and had not been on the market since then. Quaritch agreed to hold the document for me whilst I considered the matter further and so that I could make the appropriate financial arrangements on my return to Perth. I also took advice from other dealers, all of whom urged the acquisition of the manuscript. I decided to bite the bullet and I now have this precious item in my possession. To the best of my knowledge it is the only Johnson manuscript in Western Australia and one of the very few in Australia. I am now in the process of having an appropriate protective housing made for what is really quite a fragile object. I hope to bring it with me to show you on my next visit to Melbourne in 2006. Anyone who wishes to look up a reference to the manuscript, should see “The Latin & Greek Poems of Samuel Johnson” edited by B Baldwin (1995) at page 211 and “The Poems of Samuel Johnson” edited by D Nichol Smith and E L McAdam (1774) page 244. This second reference is part of the Yale Works of Samuel Johnson.