Monday, December 13, 2010

Samuel Johnson

Last year's post covered Samuel Johnson's death on December 13, 1784.  Walter Scott was an admirer of Johnson and his works.  In "Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott", author John Gibson Lockhart's discusses Scott meeting an individual whose life bridged the two: '... (May 9, 1828) This day, at the request of Sir William Knighton, I sat to Northcote, who is to introduce himself in the same piece in the act of painting me, like some pictures of the Venetian school. The artist is an old man, low in stature, and bent with years—fourscore at least. But the eye is quick and the countenance noble. A pleasant companion, familiar with recollections of Sir Joshua, Samuel Johnson, Burke, Goldsmith, etc. His account of the last confirms all that we have heard of his oddities...'

James Northcote is best known for his portraits.  The reference above describes Northcote's self portrait of himself painting Sir Walter Scott.  Northcote was among Johnson's circle of friends, and William Hazlitt's "Conversations of James Northcote, R.A." includes anecdotes in which Johnson appears:

' ...I remember once being at the Academy, when Sir Joshua wished to propose a monument to Dr. Johnson in St. Paul's, and West got up and said, that the King, he knew, was averse to anything of the kind, for he had been proposing a similar monument in Westminster Abbey for a man of the greatest genius and celebrity—one whose works were in all the cabinets of the curious throughout Europe—one whose name they would all hear with the greatest respect—and then it came out, after a long preamble, that he meant Woollett,1 who had engraved his Death of Wolfe. 

"I was provoked, and I could not help exclaiming, 'My God! what, do you put him upon a footing with such a man as Dr. Johnson—one of the greatest philosophers and moralists that ever lived? We have thousands of engravers at any time !' — and there was such a burst of laughter at this—Dance, who was a grave gentlemanly man, laughed till the tears ran down his cheeks; and Farington used afterwards to say to me, 'Why don't you speak in the Academy, and begin with "My God!" as you do sometimes 1" I said, I had seen in a certain painter something of this humour, who once very goodnaturedly showed me a Rubens he had, and observed with great nonchalance, "What a pity that this man wanted expression!" I imagined Rubens to have looked round his gallery. "Yet," he continued, "it is the consciousness of defect, too, that often stimulates the utmost exertions. If Pope had been a fine, handsome man, would he have left those masterpieces that he has 1 But he knew and felt his own deformity, and therefore was determined to leave nothing undone to extend that corner of power that he possessed. He said to himself, They shall have no fault to find there. I have often thought when very good-looking young men have come here intending to draw, 'What! are you going to bury yourselves in a garret 1' And it has generally happened that they have given up the art before long, and married or otherwise disposed of themselves."

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