By Calvin Liu, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford
The figure of Dr Samuel Johnson has come to be seen as the canonised cliché of a certain type of stuffy Englishness. His very name evokes scenes from a Blackadder episode where an august but temperamental enlightenment gentleman, draped with a flamboyant powdered wig, raves to his friends in a coffee house about the sorry state of ‘demotic Anglo-Saxon’ as it stands in the modern age. Not to mention the lexicographical feat that is Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, often touted as the grandsire of modern English dictionaries from the OED to Merriam-Webster – and bane to the lives of English Literature students ever since its publication! What is, however, less well-known is his remarkable friendship with Francis Barber, a Jamaican freedman who first arrived in rural Yorkshire as a child. Barber became a close companion to Johnson during a period of deep depression after the death of his wife and was named the executor and ‘residuary legatee’ (as James Boswell puts it in his 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson) of Johnson’s estate after his death (Gale platform p.226).
Francis Barber was born a slave in Jamaica. After being brought to England by Colonel Richard Bathurst (father to Johnson’s friend of the same name), he was baptised and sent to school in North Yorkshire. Barber was freed at the death of Bathurst and was employed by Dr Johnson as his manservant by the time he turned ten. ‘So early and so lasting a connection was there between Dr Johnson and his friend’, according to Johnson’s biographer James Boswell (who was himself good friends with Barber) that the two remained close confidantes to each other up till Johnson’s death, despite at least two major rows and arguments during the course of their friendship. Johnson paid for Barber’s education, wrote to his friends to help Barber gain his discharge from the navy after he was press-ganged to join up (Gale platform p.322), and left to his ‘dear Frank’ his wedding ring, his house in Litchfield, along with the rest of his estates after his death.
Barber’s intimate relationship with Johnson led him to become one of the biggest contributors to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson – a biography of Johnson that is now increasingly considered a major piece of life-writing in its own right. In the facsimile of the first edition of the book, now included in Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Boswell attributes Francis Barber as the main source for his account of Johnson’s depressive episodes after the death of his wife:
‘That his suffering upon the death of his wife were severe, beyond what are commonly endured, I have no doubt, from the information of many who were then about him, to none of whom I give more credit than to Mr. Francis Barber […] who came into his family about a fortnight after the dismal event.’ (Gale platform p.227)
The memory of Barber’s companionship must have stood out with particular significance to Johnson, who, when drafting his will decades later, would leave his wedding ring specifically to Barber as a ‘memorial of tenderness’ for Barber’s service. According to Boswell, Barber found the ring with a handwritten note from Johnson and ‘had it [sic] enamelled as a mourning-ring [for Johnson] and presented it to his wife, Mrs. Barber, who now has it’ (Gale platform p.225). In his Dictionary, Johnson defines the term ‘Melancholy’ using a quotation from his contemporary Alexander Pope: melancholy is the ‘shade’ that one enters when ‘the flames of friends and lovers cease to glow’ (Iliad, xxii, 488). It is almost too tempting to conjecture if Johnson specifically had Barber in mind when he chose this example – the man who helped him through the depths of despondency after his wife’s death and to finish his Dictionary just three years later.
The surviving correspondences between Johnson and Barber reveal a surprisingly private and tender side to the sharp-witted Augustan literary giant. In a letter Johnson wrote in 1770 when Barber was away at the grammar school at Bishop Stortford, Hertfordshire, he self-laceratingly confesses:
‘I am at last sat down to write to you, and should very much blame myself for having neglected you so long, if I did not impute that many other failings to want of health. I hope not to be so long silent again […] Do not imagine that I shall forget or forsake you’ (Gale platform p.366)
Indeed, several anecdotes and first-hand accounts present Johnson as a loving, if not slightly embarrassing, parent figure to his younger friend. The great Welsh diarist Hester Piozzi (née Salusbury) records a visit from Johnson in which he boasts to his hosts: ‘I must have you know, ladies […] that Frank has carried the empire of Cupid further than most men’ (Gale platform p.217) – before proudly recounting a story about how Barber was so admired during their brief stay in Lincolnshire in 1764 that a local ‘female haymaker’ followed them all the way to London after their departure!
With Johnson’s help, Barber was able to start a life of his own in his adopted country. After a brief stint as apprentice to an apothecary in Cheapside, then a sailor on the HMS Stag during the Seven Years’ War, Francis Barber returned to act as secretary and carer to an aging Johnson. Johnson settled on his friend and companion a ‘noblissimus’ annuity of £70 per year, in addition to the charge of his books and papers – making Barber the heir and owner of all of Johnson’s literary work. After Johnson’s death, Barber spent the remainder of his life in Johnson’s old house in Litchfield with his wife Elizabeth Ball and their three children.
We should perhaps end with the thought that friendships like Johnsons and Barber’s were as unlikely as they were remarkable. Johnson’s death in 1784 was three decades before the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and nearly half a century prior to the Christmas Rebellion in Barber’s native Jamaica in 1831 that brought about the full-scale abolition of slavery in the British Empire. The life of Francis Barber thus stands as an anomaly of individual friendship and kindness in an age of oppression.
Blog post cover image citation: Francis Barber was long thought to be the subject of Joshua Reynolds’s unfinished portrait ‘A Young Black’, started in roughly the same period as Reynolds’s portrait of Johnson. This image was reproduced in an issue of the Financial Times for an Old Masters’ Exhibition in 1986.
Thorncroft, Antony. “Old Masters in the Marketplace.” Financial Times, 11 Jan. 1986. Financial Times Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/9Wg482