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The Real Deal Deal Desk?

From July 3rd 2024, visitors will be able to come and see the desk on which Johnson was said to have written his celebrated Dictionary. Since 1867, this has been carefully preserved in Pembroke College, Oxford, where Johnson studied as an undergraduate.

 

Johnson’s humble desk – made of ‘deal’ or pine -- often features in accounts of the Dictionary Garret. Yet when Johson left Gough Square in 1759, it disappeared. Our new exhibition explores its history, journey, and return – as well as the mystery that still surrounds it.  



Lost from sight for almost a hundred years, we next see the desk in April 1855 in Deptford, in the poverty-stricken home of Ann Elizabeth Lowe, Johnson’s godchild. She had been left £100 – but not a desk – in Johnson’s Will. On the 100-year anniversary of the Dictionary, Ann decided to ask for help from the writer Thomas Carlyle. Her mention of the desk, and the link to Johnson, would trigger an international appeal for money and support – steered by Carlyle and his close friend Charles Dickens. This brought enough money for Ann and her sister, Frances to live in comfort. The Desk was saved, too, eventually coming to Pembroke College. 



Yet poverty had long been a problem for the Lowes, and an earlier set of letters has recently been discovered. Sent to the King and the Prime Minister (among others) and written by Ann in the 1820s, these letters make plain that – in the Lowe family’s desperation—all their possessions have been sold. There is no mention of Samuel Johnson, or a Dictionary Desk. There was a real deal deal Desk. But was it the one Anne Lowe produced in 1855? Come and see the desk, experience the full story, and vote!


Desks, Drudgery and the Dictionary Samuel Johnson’s Garret Lexicography will be open from July 2024 at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, London.

​From July 3, 2024. Free with standard admission


Copyright Lynda Mugglestone

 

 

 

 

 

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