Big Talkers

drawing of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell by Max Beerbohm
Dr. Johnson’s House Trust, London
‘In the Shades’; drawing of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell by Max Beerbohm, 1915

The Literary Club, known simply as “The Club,” was established in early 1764 after the portrait painter Joshua Reynolds became worried about his friend Samuel Johnson, who was sinking into a black depression. An old Oxford friend, William Adams, had visited Johnson the previous autumn and “found him in a deplorable state, sighing, groaning, talking to himself, and restlessly walking from room to room.” Johnson told Adams, “I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits.” An evening of talk with friends, Reynolds suggested, was a less drastic remedy.

This was an age of clubs, when men met in inns, coffeehouses, and homes, sharing interests ranging from scientific experiments to glee singing—and drink, which played an important part in the Club’s weekly meetings. These took place every Friday in a private room at the Turk’s Head Tavern in Gerrard Street, in Soho. In addition to Johnson and Reynolds, the nine founding members of the new Literary Club included Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and the magistrate and historian of music Sir John Hawkins (who left after a quarrel with Burke), as well as Burke’s father-in-law, Christopher Nugent, a stockbroker, Anthony Chamier, and two other friends, Topham Beauclerk and Bennet Langton.

The guiding idea, apart from cheering up Johnson, was to have members from leading professions—politicians, lawyers, doctors, and artists—so that they could draw on a wide range of knowledge in their discussions and debates. But the main criterion for members was affability, as Thomas Percy, the first collector of English ballads and a Club member from 1765, later said: “If only two of them chanced to meet, they should be able to entertain each other without wanting the addition of more company to pass the evening agreeably.” The mood of their meetings was loud and convivial. While Johnson hardly drank at all, Reynolds was happy for friends to do so, writing later to James Boswell, “I love the…viva voce over a bottle, with a great deal of noise and a great deal of nonsense.” (That particular evening Reynolds and three others had finished eight bottles of wine, six of claret, and two of port between them.) As for the noise and nonsense, Johnson relished the cut and thrust of argument, or “talking for victory,” as Boswell put it. “There is no arguing with Johnson,” said Goldsmith, “for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”

At Club meetings the talk ranged widely. In one session recorded by Boswell in 1778, topics swung from a statue of Alcibiades’ dog to the price of sculpture (and, thereby, the relationship of cost to value), emigration to the colonies, the way travel revealed different sides…

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