A Character Study


There is perhaps no greater English character than Dr. Johnson. The shambling, obsessive, melancholy figure has become representative no less of London than of literature; he walks through both accompanied by a fluent and sharp-witted Scotsman. In his bad temper and solicitude for others, in his prodigious learning and no less prodigal speech, in his hack work and in his high endeavours, in his gregariousness and in his melancholy, he is characteristic and unmistakable. He attempted every form of writing and excelled in each one of them. In his essays for The Rambler and TheIdler, in his commentaries upon Shakespeare, he evinces a kind of sublime common sense—literally communis sensus, the feelings common to mankind—so that his poetry and prose are marvellously freighted with general reserves of taste and judgement. His gravitas lies also within the weight of his language, which contained all of its classical affiliations. When introduced to French scholars and divines he spoke in Latin; like More and Milton before him, he trusted the efficacy of European humanism and what has been called “the Anglo-Latin tradition.” His two greatest poems, “London: A Poem” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” are imitations of Juvenalian satire; he translated Horace, and wrote poetry in Latin. In his own tone of dignified melancholy he adverted to his position as “scholar” rather than “author”:

There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail, Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Jail

He was possessed by the idea of translation as a major force within English letters, therefore, and in the second volume of Lives of the Poets he wrote that “the affluence and comprehension of our language is very illustriously displayed in our poetical translations of the Ancient Writers; a work which the French seem to relinquish in despair.” This concluding note suggests a certain nationalism of response, even in so learned a context, and once again the English genius seems to spring out of a confluence of European or classical influences. It is what Johnson remarked of Pope, when he declared that the earlier poet’s translation of the Iliad was “certainly the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen; and its publication must therefore be considered as one of the great events in the annals of Learning”; it was “a performance which no age or nation can pretend to equal.” This is high praise, but praise for an English poem rather than a Greek epic.

That Johnson understood the dimensions of his national culture is not in doubt. Of the proposal to establish a society for the reformation and standardisation of language upon the French model, Johnson wrote that “such a society might, perhaps, without much difficulty, be collected; but that it would produce what is expected of it may be doubted.” In England its proposals “would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them.” He understood the native sensibility too well to imagine its renovation in a Gallic or neo-classical spirit. Of course his own Dictionary might be seen as an exercise in authoritarian linguistics but, like his work upon Shakespeare and his Lives of the Poets , it is more profitably to be regarded as an attempt to restore a native tradition. In his preface to that great enterprise Johnson insisted that he wished to recall English to its “original Teutonick character” and that he felt obliged to take “examples and authority from the writers before the restoration [1660] whose works I regard as the wells of English undefiled, as the pure sources of genuine diction.” In that sense the Dictionary might be considered to be a project filled with the spirit of English antiquarianism—what Johnson himself termed “my zeal for antiquity”—and the learned lexicographer did indeed insist upon “making our ancient volumes the ground work of stile.” This reverence for “the genius of our tongue” is then entirely consonant with his deep regard for history and the historical process, or what one biographer has called “Johnson’s lifelong concern for historicity.” 1 The Dictionary itself is devoted “to the honour of my country” whose “chief glory . . . arises from its authors.”

His declaration that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” has been widely regarded as a “typically” English statement of disregard for theoretical or ideal aspirations. It is an aspect of his pragmatism or, at least, of his practicality. The tone is continued in his reply to James Boswell’s enquiry about the meaning of human activity—“Sir (said he in an animated tone) it is driving on the system of life”—upon which he further elaborated in an essay for The Rambler. “We proceed, because we have begun; we complete our design, that the labour may not be in vain.” It is possible to glimpse here, also, that peculiarly native combination of fatalism and melancholy inherited from the Anglo-Saxon poets and continued ever since.

Perhaps Johnson’s most famous gesture was his kicking of the stone in contempt of Bishop Berkeley’s theory concerning the non-existence of matter. “I refute it thus” is a sufficiently English rejoinder to have entered what might be called the canon of native sensibility. It also touches upon the most perplexing aspect of his Englishness or, rather, his English reputation. Samuel Johnson is better known for his character than for his writing. It is part of a native tradition.

The English were preoccupied with character as the determining force in human relations and the agent of social change. It was conjectured, for example, “that English educators were obsessed with the development of character rather than the inculcation of knowledge.”We may find its traces within the texture of English common law and religious thought, both of which emphasise individual rights and responsibilities, while one historian finds its origins in the English language and its “individualism of style, which corroborates a passion for individuality.”These are profound matters indeed, suggesting the transmission “of some common substance of thought from a dim and forgotten past.”The English language will not yield to the blandishments of academic discipline, and English literature is marked by “an absorption in character and its development.”These concerns are to be found in Elizabethan drama no less than in the comedy of “humours,” in the historical characters who populated Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion or Burnet’s History of My Own Times, and in the philosophy of Locke which sustained the natural rights of the individual. They are, in short, to be found everywhere.

It is the merest truism to note, in this context, that the art of portrait-painting became for all intents and purposes a national pursuit. Hogarth once surmised that “portrait painting ever has, and ever will, succeed better in this country than any other” and an historian of art has confirmed this observation with the remark that “portraiture set the agenda for other forms of painting.”It is a practical art; it is a useful art; it is a commercial art. These may be considered English virtues. The obsession with character may be traced in medieval babooneries and misericords, in Rowlandson’s cartoons and in Frith’s crowded paintings. No other European nation has a National Portrait Gallery.

It has been said of Holbein’s portraiture that “his sense of character in itself gives an English appearance to his work,” 7 which suggests that there is something in the soil or air or atmosphere of England which impregnates even a foreign genius. Roy Strong has also written of Holbein that “the longer he stayed, the more his work moved away from being three-dimensional towards being flattened into a two-dimensional pattern”which is also part of a native aesthetic. There is a continuity, therefore, manifested in thirteenth-century manuscripts which display a “purely English skill in portraiture”and in the carved heads of Early English architecture; it has been observed, of these artefacts, that “in no other country are such heads found in such quantities, a fact that indicates the English interest in physiognomy, an interest which in the future was to lead to the prominence of portrait painting.”10

The English Renaissance has been called “an age of portrait-painting” 11 so that in the sixteenth century there was a “near monopoly by portraiture.”12 The twin ideals of the Renaissance and the Reformation, if such intellectual shorthand be permitted, encouraged the presumption that religion was the domain of the individual and that history was the arena of the hero. It is of some significance, too, that “in all its varied aspects only the formalised linear portrait is to be found in England”13 so that the preoccupation with the hard or simple outline is of a piece with the interest in character. English miniatures of the period are also entranced by the individual sitter, with “the insistence on the facial likeness, on the vocation or status of the sitter, on the memorial nature of the works”;14 the practicality of the exercise is not in doubt. In these miniature portraits an exquisite individuality is to be found, complementing the rich colour and decoration so that there is an exact equivalence between face and surface.

In the seventeenth century “family portraits and portraits of friends and political associates predominated,”15 while the most interesting sculpture is to be found in funereal effigies and portrait busts; the head of Sir Christopher Wren by Edward Pierce is justly celebrated. One of the attributes of English painting in this period is that of “a fresh approach to character,” and the sojourn of artists such as Anthony Van Dyck and Daniel Mytens in England is often invoked to explain their deepening sense of individual or at least courtly personality. The work of a native painter like William Dobson, on the other hand, has been exemplified in the remark that his “feeling for character is entirely English.”16 In the single heads of the early seventeenth century, as opposed to the full-length portraits, “the beginnings of what may perhaps be called a native British tradition can first be found.” 17 Cornelius Johnson, for example, was “the first to seize (as only an Englishman could) upon that shy and retiring streak in the English temper, whose presence in a portrait is a sure sign of native English art.” 18 This is an interesting perception, and does much to explain the feeling of hesitancy and awkward formality in subsequent portrait-painting. In many of Gainsborough’s portraits, it might seem that the sitter did not wish to be painted at all. It is a form of English embarrassment, manifest in Gainsborough’s delicate and ambiguous line.

The exception may be made here for seventeenth-century “family pieces,” or “conversation pieces,” in which tribal or social imperatives triumph over the individual sensibility. That is why Steele could write in the Spectator that “no nation in the world delights so much in having their own, or Friends or Relations pictures. . . . We have the greatest number of the Works of the best masters in that kind [portraiture], of any people,” which compliment he followed with “Face Painting is nowhere so well performed as in England.”

His own likeness by Godfrey Kneller emphasises the sociability of the English portrait: he was painted as one of the forty-eight members of the “Kit-Cat Club,” a club of Whig notables which met in Shire Lane. These portraits are not representations of the isolated or self-communing individual but of something close to a collective identity. When Jonathan Richardson elaborated upon the theory of portrait-painting in the early eighteenth century he chose to emphasise the importance of “beauty, good sense, breeding and other good qualities of the person,” as if he were constructing a racial or national model to which the representation of the sitter must aspire; they are social rather than personal qualities.

One collector of contemporaneous English art was asked by his son why he had not purchased one of Benjamin West ’s classical compositions, to which came the reply, “You surely would not have me hang up a modern English picture in my house unless it were a portrait?” He might have included in this category the somewhat more formal portraits of actors in role, or actors in costume, which form a significant part of the English canon. They reflect the national appetite for theatrical illusion, and in the work of such artists as Zoffany and Wright the tinctures of stage lighting reveal action as if it were on a proscenium. Hogarth’s renditions of The Beggar’s Opera, and Highmore’s representations of the more dramatic moments in Pamela, are also part of this tradition.


Bust of Sir Christopher Wren by Edward Pierce, c. 1673

Yet Hogarth was equally capable of composing individual portraits which are suffused with a certain homeliness or intimacy of response; the portrait heads of his servants are sufficiently well known but, in his representations of Captain Thomas Coram or The Graham Children, the expressions and gestures of the subject manifest Hogarth’s extraordinary alertness to the springs of human character. It has always been said of him that he specialised in the English face, with The Shrimp Girl as one of the more notable examples, but this abiding interest is connected with what has been called Hogarth’s “rugged individualism” of style and manner19 as well as the “homely simplicity”20 upon which the English prided themselves. He is preoccupied with the trajectory of the living character, and with the practical expression of life itself beyond the range of authority and theory. England is a biographical nation.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!