The Making of Dr Johnson, the latest book by JSA President John Wiltshire, officially launched by John Byrne at the 2009 seminar, traces the development of the public image of Samuel Johnson since the publication of Boswell’s Life.
The book shows there was much more to Johnson than is revealed by Boswell, who simply did not know much about important stages of Johnson’s life, and who also tended to gloss over, or hide, some aspects which did not accord with his virtual canonisation of his subject.
John Wiltshire draws proper attention to other 18th Century biographies and memoirs of Johnson, notably those of Sir John Hawkins and Mrs Thrale, which draw a much different picture of Johnson’s character and behaviour. In addition, due weight is given to contemporary criticism of his work, his literary style, and his aggressive argumentation.
Some of the book’s most fascinating material concerns the ways in which, particularly in the 19th Century, writers and artists sought to revive Johnson as an idealised image, summoning him up in fiction and illustration to represent him and his circle as they were projected in the Life.
The book is richly illustrated with portraits of Johnson and examples of his representation in both contemporary and subsequent stories, cartoons and illustrations in a variety of media from print to sculpture and pottery.
Particularly interesting, too, is a chapter contributed by Daniel Vuillermin on the relationship between Joshua Reynolds and Johnson.
The Making of Dr Johnson is published by Helm in the series “Icons of Modern Culture.”
When the book was launched a number of John Wiltshire’s friends, colleague and students joined the audience and gave it an enthusiastic reception.