Monday, 5 September 2011

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money


How can I get away with talking about Dr Samuel Johnson in a botanical blog? That’s today’s question and quest.

First up I am clearly a blockhead according to Johnson's well known dismissal of eighteenth century blog writers. I doubt he would have much time for my frivolous musings. But let's move on.

On Saturday I saw the heroic statue of Dr Johnson in St Paul’s. As my mother partook of Eucharist under the dome, I climbed it and explored the various alcoves and sanctuaries. Johnson was just one of the nobles and noted on show. 


As you can see, John Bacon’s 1796 tribute to Johnson is very odd.  I gather it was Joshua Reynolds and Edmond Malone’s doing.  The great man is wrapped in a toga and leaning on a scroll. Very Roman or Greek and very un-British.

That said, by its very contradictions it sums up his life. The back of a little booklet called ‘A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson’, a transcript of the play I saw at the Arts Theatre that same day, describes him as ‘irritable, generous, seriously depressed yet a great wit’. We are used these days to the seriously depressed being great wits, but perhaps less the irritable being generous.


According to Peter Martin, the most recent (2008) biographer of Samuel Johnson, the poet Christopher Smart compared Johnson’s Dictionary to St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘each the work of one man, each the work of an Englishman’.

So the connection with St Paul’s is fine, the scroll we can accept as a nod to his writing and learning, but the toga or curtain that seems to be wrapped around him? Maybe Reynolds and Malone thought this classical garb an improvement on his singed wig and grubby coats.

The connection between Johnson and the topic of this blog? Well I could quote some of his Dictionary definitions: I often cite his apt description of spring as being ‘the season in which plants rise and revegetate; the vernal season’ when arguing for my five seasons and recognising sprinter as when plants, as I would say, do their thing...


Today I'll add a quote from last night’s play – staring Ian Redford (as Johnson), Luke Griffin (as James Boswell) and Trudie Styler (as Mrs Thales) – not long after Johnson had bemoaned the lack of trees in Scotland.

"Boswell: But Sir, is it not true that the Scots make the best gardeners?

Johnson: Why, Sir, that is because gardening, is much more necessary amongst you than with us. It is all gardening with you. Things which grow in England here must be cultivated [there] with great care."

I don’t know what to make of this other than it is perhaps more irritating than witty. But I would say that if the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (below) be an example of Scottish gardening, it be done well.


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