Stephanie Pickford - Curator of Dr Johnson's House, London, EC4

Interview by Sally Kindberg for Cityguide Magazine

Stephanie Pickford, young (she’s 29), dynamic and full of enthusiasm, is curator at Dr. Johnson’s House.   We met in her office in the warm basement of 17 Gough Square, north of Fleet Street.  Number 17 was once home to a huge shambling bear of a man, an 18th century celebrity with tics and scrofula, possibly better-known for his personality, friendships and sharp-tongued sayings than his writing.  It was in the attic of this house that Samuel Johnson, with the aid of 6 helpers, compiled his famous Dictionary.

However, we were in the basement and we were talking about tea.  Dr. Johnson loved the stuff – he drank at least 25 cups a day.  Stephanie admits to drinking a fair amount though not on the Johnsonian scale.  One of her many projects is an exhibition,  planned for this autumn,  about tea and coffee and the part it played in 18th century life.  Dr. Johnson spent a lot of time in coffee houses, discussing the state of the world, but taking tea was more of a domestic affair.

Stephanie was born in Birkenhead and grew up in Dorset.  How did she come to be here? “My career took a bit of a wiggle,” she explained, “I studied History of Art, then spent 2 years doing management consultancy, but I wanted to get back into the art world.  I did an MA in gallery management, then worked for the Estorick collection.  Now … I’m in my ideal job … the 18th century has always been my thing.”  She lives in the tiny curator’s cottage next door.  “It’s wonderful,” she smiled, “only a 5-step commute.”

I asked Stephanie about other future events.  She’d like to raise the House’s profile …  it’s hidden away amongst courtyards and alleyways … although that’s part of its charm.  Next year is the Tercentenary of Dr. Johnson’s birth and there are big plans afoot.   On 2nd March 2009 Johnson and his friend David Garrick … 21st century versions, complete with shared horse … are going to re-enact the journey from Lichfield (Johnson’s birthplace) to London.  It’s going to take 10 days. They hope to be joined by other walkers along the route, and there’ll be involvement with local schools.  Their walk will end in the City, at a reception at the Guildhall.

Dr. Johnson, by all accounts, had such a strong personality … I wondered if and how it affected the curator of his home.  The house has a peaceful and friendly atmosphere, and one can easily imagine him wandering round its creaking wooden interior and chatting endlessly with his many friends.  “You have to like him, “ said Stephanie, “Samuel certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he was a kind and compassionate man.”  I asked her if she’s ever done anything as curator that he would have criticised.  She hesitated then admitted Dr. Johnson might have taken exception to her occasional wittering.  Wittering isn’t in his Dictionary, by the way.

The house is sometimes hired out for private parties.  Recently it was used for a birthday party and a noisy troop of little girls ate McDonalds here. What would have Dr. Johnson have thought of this fast-food consumption?  Well, when not up in the attic compiling his 42,773-entry Dictionary, he was quite fond of nipping out to the local bakers to fetch a pie, according to Stephanie.

Dr.Johnson’s House
17 Gough Square, London, EC4
 Open Monday – Saturday
11 – 5.30 (May – September)
11 – 5 (October – April)
Admission for adults £4.50
For more information phone 0207 353 3745

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