The Cabinet of Dr Johnson

This essay was written for the book accompanying the exhibition at Dr Johnson’s House ‘The House of Words’, curated by Tessa Peters and Janice West in 2009. [ Built in 1700, 17 Gough Square, London was a home and workplace for Samuel Johnson from 1748-1759, and it was here that he compiled the first comprehensive English Dictionary. ]

external link icon The book is available from Amazon.

Where does the building end and the book begin? There is room for confusion in the opening and folding of pages, covers and doors. Turn a book with its spine upwards and open it to make a gabled roof. Inside the cupboards (the covers) in this house there are further cupboards, sub-entries, definitions within definitions. Dr Johnson’s Dictionary was made to fix language, to pin down words; but it turns out that no book can do this because language changes with people, place and time. And the same is true of buildings. The nature of a house changes with its surroundings. Inhabitants change and the fabric decays. The dwelling in Gough Square doubled as a study, then became a hotel, a printer’s workshop, a social club and a museum. No one lives there now and yet it is still called a house. The front door is seldom opened during the day; to most visitors it is merely a symbol of a front door, a reminder of a different kind of habitation. It looks like an entrance but a sign tells us to enter elsewhere. Inside, it is securely barred and chained while alongside it a much smaller door conceals and reveals what could act as a spy-hole or a letterbox. It may even be both. As if to reinforce the ambiguity of the front door, the window two floors above on the outside is the ghost of a window made of bricks.

Houses are fragile. They are bombarded from outside and are dismantled internally. When this house was bought by Cecil Harmsworth in 1911 much of the panelling had been moved from its original positions and been re-used. The separate pieces of the panelling had to be sorted, re-classified and re-arranged like index cards. Inside the solid brick house there is a house that has been shuffled and put back in order.

The house is hundreds of years older than most of its neighbours and it has been preserved by virtue of its associations and history. But around the corner a plaque records another house subsequently occupied by Dr Johnson: ‘In a house on this site Doctor Samuel Johnson lived between 1765-1776’… so maybe his Gough Square dwelling has survived by chance as much as by design. In fact it has only just (and only partially) survived. Struck by incendiary bombs and a barrel of burning oil on the night of December 29th 1940, the roof and the floorboards of the Dictionary Garret were destroyed. Books burn, buildings burn. The temporary corrugated iron roof was repeatedly blown off by nearby explosions in subsequent air raids. In between these events, Fire-fighter Gathergood had his photograph taken tending the tomato plants on the roof. An aerial garden to counter aerial warfare.

Another photograph from around the same time shows a concert being held on the first floor. A quartet of firemen musicians can be seen through a door with some of the audience standing behind them visible through another door. In the room from which the photograph is taken the rest of the audience sit in rows facing one another. This space does not correspond to one that can be seen in the house today and yet none of the room’s fabric has been removed. Rather, the walls that appear fixed in the photograph have been opened on their hinges to remake the space. There are, in fact, two hinged ‘walls’ each with two hinged doors set into them. They are designed to ‘open’ and make one large room running the length of the first floor with a tiny leftover slip room facing the front window. This room is a pre-echo of the slender space made by John Soane on the first floor of his house/museum on Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1812. Soane first built in front of the façade to make a loggia, then glazed the space to extend the room. In their thin-ness both the room in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the one in Gough Square occupy a space that is neither wholly in nor wholly out.

Axonometric drawing of Dr Johnson's House

When the ‘walls’ are closed they create two rooms and a central landing opening off the staircase, which has a total of six openings (one onto the stairwell, four doors in the movable walls and one window looking out onto the square). This arrangement has something in common with Marcel Duchamp’s work Door, 11 rue Larrey (1927) in which a single door swings between two openings at right angles to one another. The door can, therefore, be ‘closed’ and ‘open’ simultaneously. On the other hand the door is never entirely closed nor is it entirely open. These combinations of doors and walls engender a lack of certainty at odds with the fixity of old houses. It is also possible, theoretically at least as the doors no longer move, to swing open just one of the door/walls to make two spaces divided into unequal parts. So there are four possible sub-divisions of the rooms.

The walls on the floor above, under the attic, mimic the arrangement of doors in the movable walls, yet these are fixed and only two doors are operational. In the small central room on this floor a reminder of ambiguity disguises itself as an artefact. Dr Johnson is recorded as having expressed a desire to visit the Great Wall of China and, in an elegant vitrine, a ‘brick’ from the Wall is displayed. It is there as a stand-in for a trip that never took place, but once again the tables are turned as that which is stable is turned into something free-floating. The ‘wall’ here has been removed from ‘use’ and has become, instead, a curiosity. It can no longer be expected to keep anything out (or in). It is itself imprisoned, caught behind glass. And, instead of Dr Johnson visiting China, the Wall has made the journey, too late, to visit Dr Johnson.

Calum Storrie  13.iv.09

external link icon Dr Johnson’s House