Tuesday, January 22, 2008


A Very Valiant Trencherman

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. (August 5, 1763):
At supper this night he talked of good eating with uncommon satisfaction. 'Some people (said he,) have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.'

He now appeared to me Jean Bull philosophe, and he was, for the moment, not only serious but vehement. Yet I have heard him, upon other occasions, talk with great contempt of people who were anxious to gratify their palates; and the 206th number of his Rambler is a masterly essay against gulosity. His practice, indeed, I must acknowledge, may be considered as casting the balance of his different opinions upon this subject; for I never knew any man who relished good eating more than he did.

When at table, he was totally absorbed in the business of the moment; his looks seemed rivetted to his plate; nor would he, unless when in very high company, say one word, or even pay the least attention to what was said by others, till he had satisfied his appetite, which was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible.
A friend sent me a postcard from Johnson's Gough Square house with part of this quotation, plus a caricature by Henry Bunbury of Boswell and Johnson eating at a chop house. Note how Johnson is "rivetted to his plate."

Bunbury's drawing, dated October 15, 1781, is supposed to be one of only a few caricatures of Johnson made in his lifetime. Figure 176 on p. 188 of Peter Hyland, The Herculaneum Pottery: Liverpool's Forgotten Glory (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005), shows a 19th century earthenware plate with Bunbury's drawing reproduced on it.

Related posts: See also Patrick Kurp's remarks on this passage from Boswell's biography of Johnson.

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