International Museum Day: 30 Objects – Samuel Johnson’s Pension

15 May 2017

For International Museum Day on 18 May our Head of Collections, Alice, has chosen her top 30 objects from Mount Stuart’s Collections which we’ll bring to you throughout the Month. Ranging from books, furniture, silver-work, paintings and documentation from hundreds of years of Stuart family life, this barely scratches the surface of our Collections so make sure to plan your visit and experience it for yourself! Today one of our former interns from Oxford University, Paul, looks into a fascinating letter regarding literary figure Samuel Johnson. We’ll be welcoming a new bunch of eager interns this June.

The 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792) is widely regarded as one of the eighteenth century’s most prominent patron of the arts. He brought the renowned portraitist Allan Ramsay to the attention of King George III (later securing him the position of Painter to the King in 1767), acquired diverse collections including  paintings by Canaletto and Raphael for the royal collection, and supported candidates for various academic positions.

The document pictured is part of a letter found in our archives, and marks the beginning of another of the 3rd Earl’s contributions to intellectual society. Written by an unidentified contact in Cambridge in November 1761, the letter asks the Earl (“as a man of letters, & a patron of all useful arts”) to consider petitioning the King for a pension on behalf of Samuel Johnson. The letter is apparently written “from feelings of the heart” and advocates rescuing Johnson “from the approach of poverty, & all its sad attendant circumstances.”

Samuel Johnson Letter

The letter’s author speaks of Johnson (1709-1784), who was certainly one of the most influential literary figures of his day, with great respect. He praises Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) for having “immortalised as it were our language.” During the latter half of the eighteenth century Johnson’s Dictionary was indeed seen as the authoritative text on the English language, and has had a profound effect upon our understanding of linguistics and the standardisation of English ever since. Yet despite the Dictionary’s intellectual importance, Johnson struggled to maintain a steady income, and the letter bemoans how he has been “left to procure himself a precarious subsistence by the bounty of booksellers.” By 1761 he was in the process of editing an annotated edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, but financial difficulty and procrastination had drastically slowed his writing.

Fortunately for Johnson, the 3rd Earl paid attention to the letter’s request. After becoming Prime Minister in 1762 the Earl convinced George III to pay Johnson a state pension of £300 per annum, and this secure source of income provided the writer with the motivation he needed. He published the Shakespeare collection shortly afterwards, in 1765.

The stability of this pension even allowed Johnson’s literary career to extend into his later life. Between 1779 and 1781 he produced his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, which gave detailed biographies and criticism of writers such as Milton, Dryden and Pope.  In writing this volume Johnson became the first major literary critic to draw attention to the circumstances of an author’s life as a way of contextualising their writings. This analytical method is often taken for granted in modern literary studies and such was the initial popularity of his approach that Johnson’s work spawned an obsession with literary biography that continued into the nineteenth century. The 3rd Earl’s role in securing his pension and facilitating this later career cannot be understated, and is just another example of how the Stuarts of Bute and their seat at Mount Stuart has played a vital role in the development of British culture. As for the letter, the author claims never to have met Johnson – but we’ll never know who really wrote it.