Capital of Culture: Old Pals' Act Still Rings True; A Sponsored Walk from Lichfield to London Is Following in the Footsteps of the Former's Most Famous Sons, Dr Samuel Johnson and David Garrick. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery, Explains the Importance of These Two West Midlanders in English Cultural History
Byline: Desmond Shawe-Taylor
March 1737 two men set off from Lichfield to London with four pence in their pocket and a horse between them to carry their bags.
One was a schoolmaster and the other a young man with thoughts of going into the wine trade. Their names were Samuel Johnson and David Garrick.
When Garrick died 42 years later, Johnson wrote, without undue exaggeration: 'I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.'
When he wrote this, Johnson's fame was such that half the nation had his words by heart the next day.
The schoolmaster and the trainee vintner had come a long way.
Johnson found fame in London, but it was not easy. Like most 'scribblers' of the day he did his stint in 'Grub Street' (think Fleet Street but more disreputable).
He brought out his monumental Diction-ary of the English Language without assistance of any kind. When, at themoment of publication, Lord Chesterfield tried to take some credit for a venture he had done nothing to support, Johnson wrote him one of the most crushing letters in the history of the postal service, which included the famous line: 'Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?'
Johnson taught his contemporaries their language; he taught them what to think about poetry - in his Edition of Shakespeare and his Lives of the English poets - and about life in his essays. Few read him now: moral essays and literary criticism have fallen out of general favour and his dictionary has been superseded. Even his style achieves its considerable momentum through weight rather than velocity - he can take a while to get to the point. He is chiefly known through Boswell's biography and chiefly loved because he emerges from the pages as a great thinking, talking and performing bear - one part grizzly and three parts Teddy.
Besides, everyone wishes they had the chance, the courage and the wit to write in such a vein to that special Lord Chesterfield in their life.
David Garrick found fame and fortune in London. A very different character from his friend and teacher, Garrick knew how to please as well as to inform.
He was short, but handsome, and with the manners and deportment of a gentleman.
Dr Johnson claimed that success made Garrick too grand for his old friends and that he never joined a gathering without the excuse of something better to go on to. But for one who amassed so much wealth and adulation, he seems to have made astonishingly few enemies.
Garrick launched his career as an actor in the part of Richard III in 1741, which astonished London theatregoers with its vivid naturalism. He remained the star of the London stage until his retirement in 1778. For every carping criticism from one of his rivals, there were ten eulogies. What all commentators are agreed upon is that Garrick's acting followed the text phrase by phrase, finding expression and gesture for every nuance. …