Now you see it, now you don’t and Samuel Johnson

THE GROUNDS OF KENWOOD House in north London are delightful at any time of the year. Here you can enjoy the marvels of a fine country house in magnificently landscaped grounds, rivalling rural spots like, for example, Stourhead, Blenhheim, and Compton Verney, without leaving the metropolis. Amongst Kenwood’s many horticultural attractions are the superb flowering bushes such as camellias, azaleas, and rhododendrons.

Kenwood House

Kenwood was within about half an hour’s brisk walk from my family home in Hampstead Garden Suburb and even nearer Highgate School, which I attended between 1965 and 1970. In amongst the flowering bushes, I remember that there used to be an open-fronted, small round hut with a conical roof.  Inside it, there were benches that served as seats. This edifice was labelled ‘Dr Johnson’s Summerhouse’. The Dr Johnson to which this referred was one of Britain’s greatest literary figures, the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). When I used to see this hut during visits to Kenwood in the late 1960s and the 1970s, I used to try to imagine the great Johnson sitting, resting and enjoying the view of the lawns and trees, some of which we can still see today. But, in those days, I was unaware that he never did enjoy these views from this spot.

It turns out that Dr Johnson used his summerhouse not in Kenwood but far away at Streatham Place in what used to be countryside south of London during Johnson’s lifetime. Shaun Traynor wrote:

“Streatham Place, the grand country house of the brewer Henry Thrale and his wife Hester, became for a time in the mid to late 18th century a setting for some very distinguished literary and artistic company. To this house, then sitting amid extensive grounds in the countryside south of London, came leading figures of the day: Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds (who was to paint the Thrales), Oliver Goldsmith and – most significantly – Dr Johnson.” (https://www.johnsonsocietyoflondon.org/resources/Documents/Dr%20J’s%20Summerhouse%20-%20Shaun%20Traynor/Sam%20J%20summerhouse%20Shaun%20Traynor.pdf).

He added that the grounds of Thrale’s home contained a secluded summerhouse in which Johnson used to read and write. When Henry Thrale (born between 1724 and 1730) died in 1781, his widow Hester remarried, and the Streatham Place with its summerhouse were sold. Thrale’s daughter Susannah, who had been fond of Johnson, moved the hut to her home in Knockholt, Kent in 1826.  According to Traynor:

“She erected it on rising ground in the very centre of the grove making all paths lead to it, and making the grove a kind of shrine to Dr Johnson’s memory.”

The years passed, and the summerhouse fell into disrepair. In 1962, a local man, who had great feelings for its historical significance, bought it and then presented it to London County Council (‘LCC’) so that it could be displayed to the public. After restoring it, it was placed in Kenwood at the spot where I recall seeing it, in 1968 (http://www.thrale.com/samuel_johnsons_summer_house). Although it is not inconceivable that Johnson might have visited Kenwood, it is not at all likely that he passed much if any of his spare time in a summerhouse in that garden.

In about 2017, after not having visited Kenwood for two or more decades, I paid it a visit. One of the first things I looked for was Dr Johnson’s summerhouse. I knew exactly where to look, but it was no longer there. After peering in amongst the large clumps of bushes in the spot where I remember that it used to stand, I found an octagonal concrete base. I wondered whether the summerhouse had once stood there. On enquiring at the information desk within Kenwood House, I learnt that the base was all that remained of what I had remembered seeing. I was told that the summerhouse had been destroyed by fire. This fire occurred sometime after 1984, probably 1991 (www.moruslondinium.org/research/dr-johnsons-streatham-park-mulberries). I was saddened to learn of this.

However, all is not lost. Alan Byrne, an artist who used to love sitting in the original Johnsonian summerhouse in Kenwood, has created an accurate replica of the refuge that the great writer used to enjoy. Using detailed plans of the original and other records, he produced an accurate reconstruction during the years 1997 to 1999 (https://www.johnsonsocietyoflondon.org/Dr-Johnson-summerhouse-photos-and-narrative). It stands in his garden in Islington.

Even without Dr Johnson’s summerhouse, Kenwood is well-worth visiting. The gardens alone are splendid, but when it is open, Kenwood House is a ‘must-see’. It contains some fine rooms decorated by Dr Johnson’s contemporary, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) as well as a collection of fine-art paintings that is, after the National Gallery, one of the best in London. When you feel that you have seen enough of Kenwood, then treat yourself to a stroll through its grounds and the contiguous Hampstead Heath to historic Hampstead, a place which offers a great range of eateries and pubs. And, incidentally, Samuel Johnson was no stranger to the place as the historian Thomas Barratt revealed:

“‘Mrs. Johnson for the sake of the country air,’ writes Boswell, ‘had lodgings at Hampstead, to which Johnson occasionally resorted. ‘For his own part, Johnson would doubtless have preferred Fleet Street; but he was fond of his wife, and felt in duty bound to minister to her pleasures as far as his limited means admitted.”

I can sympathise with Mrs Samuel Johnson. I much prefer Hampstead to Fleet Street, even if the former has less countrified air than it did in the 18th century.