Samuel Johnson John ObieDr. Samuel  Johnson (1709-1784) 


Once again, may I recommend that the reader listen to the following piece of music while reading about James Boswell: Life with Doctor Johnson.

     The  music  is  Handel’s   Water  Music:   Air-Menuet-Bourree;   performed   by   The English Bach Festival Orchestra  and   Directed by the Solo Violinist, Christopher Hirons.




james-boswell-at-age-25 croppedJames Boswell at 25 years of age (1765); painted by George Willison (1741–1797)




Walking up the High Street by Thomas RowlandsonWalking Up High Street



Throughout history, there have been a number of times when the paths of certain people crossed and resulted in changing the world:

Michelangelo's MosesMoses by  Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).  The sculpture is housed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome and was commissioned in 1505 by Pope Julius II (1443-1513) to form part of his tomb.  However, Pope Julius II is not buried here, his remains were lain to rest in St. Peter’s Basilica.

      • When the Three Wise Men observed a new star in the night sky, they followed it and were led to a small village where the star hovered over a cow shed.  Here, they found a child who would grow up and change the world.Three Wise Men
      • In 452 A.D., Leo The Great (c. 400-462 A.D.) traveled from the Papal Palace in the Vatican together with two other emissaries of Emperor Valentinian III  (419-455 A.D.) to negotiate with Attila The Hun (died 453 A.D.).  Attila and His Horde had recently crossed into Italy and sacked several cities and were now threatening to subject Rome to a similar fate.  After meeting Leo The Great, Attila and His Horde turned back and did not continue onto Rome.  What was actually said at this Meeting remains a mystery and has been food for speculation ever since.  A number of theories have been proposed to account for Attila’s change in direction and subsequent saving of Rome ranging from the practical (i.e. traveling further into Italy, which was suffering from famine at the time, would bring The Horde the necessary supplies needed for their maintenance) to Divine Interventionwhich according to Raphael’s (1483-1520) interpretation, involved the presence of St. Peter and St. Paul.  After The Meeting, The Horde withdrew and went back across The Danube and resulted in Rome being temporarily spared.*  Whatever was said and negotiated at The Meeting, it no doubt altered the course of history.

*Unfortunately, Rome was not saved for too long, as in 455 A.D., The Vandals sacked the City.


The Meeting of Pope Leo the Great and Attilia the Hun by Raphael and his assistant, Giulio Romano (c. 1499-1546), in 1514.  The Fresco is located in the Stanza di Eliodoro, part of the Stanze di Raffaello in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.


Although the meeting of Doctor Johnson and James Boswell does not rank with the other Meetings mentioned here, nevertheless, it was of great significance and holds an important place in English history.


On the 16th May, 1763, Boswell and Doctor Johnson were introduced in the back shop of the bookshop of Tom Davies at No. 8 Russell Street, Covent Garden.  This was also the site where on earlier visits, Boswell first met Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) and Robert Dodsley (1703-1764), the publisher of Boswell’s poem, The Cub at Newmarket.

Balthazar Bakery No. 8 Russell StreeBalthazar’s Bakery, No. 8 Russell Street, Covent Garden


As a result of their meeting, we have an insight into 18th Century London Life and have become privée to the life of England’s greatest man of Letters to date.  This record has allowed subsequent generations of readers to appreciate Doctor Johnson’s brilliance and wit through both serious and amusing anecdotes recorded by James Boswell and to learn much of the man through observations of his foibles, quirks, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies.

We are indeed fortunate to have such an account of the man who signifies his time and helped influence his future.


The Georgians: The Monarch of Words (Samuel Johnson)Doctor Johnson & James Boswell in a Coffee House 


Boswell was greatly impressed by Doctor Johnson and had wanted to meet him for a while.  Apparently, it amused Tom Davies to bring the youthful James Boswell into the company of Doctor Johnson, now The Great Man of Letters and who had gained a reputation for being unfriendly and intolerant of many.


Despite Doctor Johnson’s initial comments about Boswell’s coming from Scotland, the young man was not discouraged.  Eight days later, on the 24th May, Boswell called on Doctor Johnson at his home, No. 1 (Inner) Temple Lane (which today, are Criminal and Regulatory Law Chambers).

johnson-reading-the-manuscript-of-the-vicar-of-wakefield-by-edward-matthew-wardDoctor Johnson reading a Manuscript while at Home

During this second meeting, Doctor Johnson pressed Boswell to stay; and on a subsequent visit, on the 13th June, told him to come as often as he could.  A few days later, Boswell gave Doctor Johnson a sketch of his life, which was accepted with extreme warmth.  Apparently Doctor Johnson behaved demonstratively and told Boswell that he had taken a liking to him and began to call him Bozzy!  Having now become instant friends, the pair spent time in each other’s company every day from June 1763 onwards for 270 consecutive days.


It comes as no surprise that Doctor Johnson’s favourite pastime was to talk!  During their meetings, which took place in Coffee Houses, Clubs and various homes, Boswell was able to elicit memorable conversation from Doctor Johnson, which he then transposed to his Journal.  He became reporter, interviewer, researcher and collector of any- and everything Johnsonian!

Johnson and Boswell at a clubDoctor Johnson, James Boswell & Friends at a Club

Boswell arranged meetings for Doctor Johnson and prepared topics for him to discuss where he would freely give his opinion.  Boswell asked him questions on matters of the day and noted his answers along with his thoughts, ideas and beliefs.  He gained access to some of the more important letters that Doctor Johnson had written and was even treated to a detailed report of his audience with the King, all of which found their way into Boswell’s Journal.  Doctor Johnson once remarked that being with Boswell oftentimes felt like an interview!


Ye Olde Cheshire Chesse CollageYe Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, rebuilt in 1667


A Chop House by Henry Bunbury, 1781A Chop House, 1781, by Henry Bunbury (1750-1811; Caricaturist)


Boswell’s encounters with Doctor Johnson formed a memorable part of his life and were given account in the biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D., which he published in 1791.  Seemingly, he did not wish to publish his account until after the death of Doctor Johnson, which occurred in the early evening of 13th December, 1784.




Three months after Boswell’s first meeting with Doctor Johnson in 1763, he left for The Netherlands to study Law at Utrecht University.

Academiegebouw UtrechtAcademiegebouw Utrecht (The Academic Building Utrecht)


Boswell did not remain at his studies for long and soon left The Netherlands to undertake a Grand Tour, which was to last until 1766.  During his time abroad, he maintained a Journal and this together with numerous letters formed the basis of two books, Boswell in Holland and Boswell on the Grand Tour.

During his European travels between 1764 and 1766, Boswell sought out a number of prominent personalities with the possible intention of making one or more the subject of his writings, but such recounting is not for this time.  Boswell’s other interactions will be discussed in the section, LIFE APART FROM DOCTOR JOHNSON.

James Boswell's Friends CollageSome Friends of James Boswell – To be Discussed Later



James Boswell returned to London, he spent a little time in London and then went up to Edinburgh to sit his final Law examination.  He was successful and was Called to The Bar and was to practise Law for over a decade.   In November 1767, Boswell published the pamphlet, The Essence of the Douglas Cause, which dealt with the legal battle over the Douglas Estates that was heard in the Scottish Law Courts, and the small book, Dorando, which gave account of the Douglas Case in the form of a Spanish story.

Law Books Collage

During the years that he practiced Law in Edinburgh, he rarely earned more than one hundred pounds per annum from his practice, which produced a strain on his family life.  Throughout this time, his relationship with his father did not improve.


In actuality, Boswell would have preferred to pursue a literary career rather than practice Law.  Each year he managed to travel to London and spent about a month with Doctor Johnson and London’s literary group.  On the 30th April, 1773, he was admitted to the Literary Club, an honour proposed by Doctor Johnson.

boswells-introduction-literary-club1Engraving of Boswell’s Introduction to the Literary Club by Eyre Crowe (1824-1910), 1858


On the 25th November, 1769 after a short tour in Ireland, Boswell married his cousin, Miss Margaret (Peggy) Montgomerie (?-1789) at Lainshaw in Ayrshire.  Throughout his married life, Boswell indulged in frequent liaisons with prostitutes, but seemingly always returned to his wife in a tearful state and offering promises to change his ways.  The Boswells had four sons, two of which died in infancy, and three daughters.  Boswell also had two children from his extra-marital flings, both of which died in infancy.

JOHNSON-BOSWELL-AND-FAMILYDoctor Johnson at Table with James Boswell, His Wife, His Father & Maid



Doctor Johnson was no traveler and spent most of his adult life in London and that it was not until 1771 that he traveled for the first time.  Therefore it may seem odd to the reader that he chose, during the late summer and autumn of 1773, to go to Scotland accompanied by Boswell and traveled through the Western Islands (The Hebrides) to collect material for his Travel Narrative.  Their travels resulted in addition to Dr. Johnson’s book, one by Boswell, which dealt more with reflections on Dr. Johnson’s reflections, reactions and comments on what he saw.  Their tour of the Western Islands was to last eighty-three-days and will be discussed under, Doctor Johnson & James Boswell: The Trip to Scotland.



Doctor Johnson published his Travel NarrativeA Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1775 where he included his observations.  In 1785, Boswell published his interpretation of the journey, A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrideswhich was much less of a travel narrative than his observations of Doctor Johnson.  It has become the practice of publishers of these two accounts to produce a tome containing them both since they represent two different viewpoints of the same journey.

Boswell’s account could be seen as a foretaste of his biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., which was published in 1791.  His account included some amusing  antidotes of Doctor Johnson including his brandishing a Broad Sword, Wearing a Tartan and dancing a Highland Jig, for which I would gladly have paid money to witness!


On the 30th August, 1782, Boswell’s father died, leaving him an estate worth £1,600 a year.  I have not found any writings to confirm that father and son ever resolved their issues, of which there were many.

In 1786, two years after the death of Doctor Johnson (13th December, 1784), James Boswell together with his family moved to London.  It was his hope of becoming a more successful lawyer at the English Bar than he had been in Scotland.

In 1789, his wife, Margaret (Peggy), died from Tuberculosis.  Mrs. Boswell died in London and left five children and her husband.  Following his wife’s death, James Boswell indulged in even greater excesses of drunkenness and debauchery.  Unfortunately for him, his attempts to become a successful Advocate in London did not prove fruitful.



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