Let us breakfast in splendour

Charles Nicholl

  • The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir by Michael Bundock
    Yale, 282 pp, £20.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 20710 1

The engraving called A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s shows nine men seated around a table convivially cluttered with decanters and after-dinner debris. From left to right they are James Boswell, Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Pasquale Paoli, Charles Burney, Thomas Warton and Oliver Goldsmith. Their names appear below the image, cursively engraved, appositely placed: one might almost be looking at a signed group photograph of 18th-century luminaries. In fact the picture is Victorian, painted in about 1845, but the artist – James William Doyle, an uncle of Arthur Conan Doyle – was known as a meticulous historian, and the figures are vividly and accurately presented, using known 18th-century likenesses. Dr Johnson is holding forth, with the professional eavesdropper Boswell at his shoulder; Sir Joshua has his ear trumpet in, to catch the flow of Johnsonian wit and wisdom; at the far end of the table Warton leans away from the group to mutter confidentially in Goldsmith’s ear.

James William Doyle, ‘A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s’ (c.1845)
James William Doyle, ‘A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s’ (c.1845)

Nine celebrities, nine names inscribed below – but there is a tenth man in the picture, who does not apparently merit a namecheck: a black servant. He is in the background, visible between the heads of Burney and Warton, carrying a salver with a pair of wide-bodied decanters on it. His shoulders tilt slightly forward; he moves with the butler’s measured plod as he bears the precious cargo of wine or port to the table. This anonymous figure is almost certainly Doyle’s depiction of Francis Barber – Dr Johnson’s ‘faithful negro servant’, as Boswell calls him. We cannot be quite sure, because Reynolds himself had a black servant, but he was a good deal younger and less prominent and Barber is a more likely candidate for the rather melancholy, dignified (and perhaps slightly tipsy?) waiter shown by Doyle. It is not a documentary likeness – there are no certain portraits of Barber – but it catches a truth about him: peripheral but indispensable, silent among the talkers, moving just beyond the arc of light that falls from the candelabra onto the faces at the table.

The story of Francis Barber is indeed a mixture of light and shadow, in parts vicariously illuminated by his proximity to Johnson but elsewhere obscure both in tone and circumstance. Johnson mentions him often, in scattered diary entries and letters and in conversational comments recorded by others, but the best introduction to him, predictably enough, is in Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791), where one finds a footnote giving a brief account of his career, and many casual and often affectionate references to him in the course of his duties in Johnson’s London household. Sometimes he plays a small, ushering role in the narrative, like a butler in a country-house murder mystery, his announcement of a visitor, or an invitation, or a package just arrived from the post office, opening the way for another Johnsonian episode or anecdote. He was also a source of useful information for Boswell – particularly about the years before Boswell himself knew Johnson – and sometimes is acknowledged as such: ‘From Mr Francis Barber I have had the following authentick and artless account …’ These words introduce a long paragraph about Johnson’s acquaintances in the early 1750s, which is indeed ‘authentick’, being essentially a transcript of Barber’s own words in an interview with Boswell in 1786: the interview notes survive, three sides of cramped Boswellian scrawl which testify to the reportorial diligence of the biographer and to the retentive memory of his interviewee more than thirty years after the event.

In these ways Barber features both in the text and in the making of Boswell’s Life. He has a bit-part, perhaps (one of many in this marvellously populous biography), but his frequent reappearances, brief and often unremarkable, give him a sort of cumulative presence. He’s the one who is simply there, the attendant always within earshot, the trusty factotum. He is there in the morning, when Boswell pays an early visit to Bolt Court and Johnson barks ‘briskly’ from his bed: ‘Frank, go and get coffee and let us breakfast in splendour.’ And he is there late at night, when Boswell is too tired and tanked-up and talked-out to go back to his lodgings, and is settled into the spare room ‘by honest Francis with a most civil assiduity’.

Other members of Johnson’s circle left notices and glimpses of him. Almost without exception he is spoken of with affection, or anyway approval. The chief exception is Sir John Hawkins, the author of the first proper biography of Johnson (published in 1787, four years before Boswell’s), and also the man for whom Johnson invented the word ‘unclubbable’ (a nice way of saying he was a crusty old snob who seldom had a good word for anyone other than himself). Hawkins gave his opinion in a private letter that ‘Francis Barber is an exceedingly worthless fellow,’ and insinuated as much in various comments in his biography, referring to Francis’s ‘craft and selfishness’ and his ‘inattention to the interests of his Master’. His sneering treatment of Barber was widely condemned, not least by Boswell, who instanced it as an example of the ‘dark uncharitable cast’ of his competitor’s book. Boswell was always grateful for a leg-up to the moral high ground, so here is another little service ‘honest Francis’ has done him.

Barber was noticed by his eminent contemporaries, his life brushes against theirs, and yet there is a missing dimension in their descriptions of him. They wish him good day as they hand him their coats and their walking canes, but they do not really see him. He is a servant, which tends to limit what they might say about him; and he is black, which is usually the first and sometimes the only thing they do say about him. He is Johnson’s ‘black footman’, or his ‘good negro’, or his ‘Ethiopian’; he is ‘Francis the Black’, or ‘Black Frank’, or simply ‘Blacky’. Other than his colour, there are hardly any descriptions of Barber’s physical appearance. Johnson gives us a hint, in a letter quoted by Tobias Smollett in 1758. He describes the teenage Frank as a ‘Lad of a delicate frame’. He also says he is ‘sickly’, and ‘subject to a malady in his Throat’, and though these belong to a particular occasion, we know that in later years Barber was dogged with health problems. We later learn that Frank was considered attractive, for Johnson describes him, now in his early twenties, enjoying ‘success among the girls’ of Lincolnshire, ‘and when we returned home together, I found that a female haymaker had followed him to London for love.’ This reminiscence is recorded by Mrs Thrale in her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786), which are not always considered reliable, but we know that she herself thought Frank was handsome, and noted in her journal, in her typically tart manner: ‘The other Day speaking of his Negroe Francis, I observed that he was very well-looking, for a Black a moor.’ The fullest description of Frank is much later, some years after Johnson’s death, when a schoolmaster and part-time journalist called John Holt published a short interview with him in the July 1793 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine. He described him thus: ‘Francis is … low of stature, marked with the small-pox; has lost his teeth; appears aged and infirm, clean and neat, but his cloaths the worse for wear; a green coat, his late Master’s cloaths, all worn out.’ Again there are particularities which belong to the moment of description. This is an ailing, ageing Frank, toothless and infirm – though actually not much older than fifty. The green coat is noticed: perhaps it is his best coat, donned for the occasion, though now much ‘the worse for wear’. Beneath it are those cast-off clothes of his ‘late Master’, which must have been ill-fitting, as Johnson was neither ‘delicate’ nor ‘low of stature’. The vision of Frank which this conjures up is faintly comic but also, in the context of his last years, faintly heroic.

This missing visual dimension extends to portraiture. A lovely painting by Joshua Reynolds, probably from the late 1760s, is often said to be a portrait of Barber. It shows a fine-featured, rather dreamy-looking young man in three-quarters profile, with a high forehead and finely curled black hair somewhat receding at the temples. If this is a portrait of him, it is in at least one respect an idealised image – the skin is smooth, with none of the markings of smallpox, which Barber caught in his first years in London. But the identification is anyway problematic – Barber’s name was not attached to the painting before the mid-19th century. The earliest documentation, in a sale catalogue of 1796, calls it Study of a Black Man’s Head, and the painting’s first owner, Sir George Beaumont, who had known both Johnson and Reynolds, asserted that it was a portrait of Reynolds’s black servant. There are a number of later copies or versions of the painting, one attributed to Reynolds’s pupil and amanuensis, James Northcote. These are inferior to the original, lacking its soft, nuanced brushwork, but make the man in the picture more palpable, more ordinary and thus more believable; but it remains uncertain that they really show us Francis Barber. The current owners of the Reynolds painting – the Menil Collection in Houston – play it safe, and list the painting as A Young Black.

A small watercolour by Charles Tomkins, dated 1801, shows Barber standing in the doorway of Johnson’s house in Bolt Court. Tomkins, born in 1757, could well have known him, but any hopes that this is an eyewitness portrayal are short-lived. Tomkins’s forte was topographical drawing, and the painting is mostly of interest for its view of Bolt Court, now long since demolished. The actual figures are unconvincing. Johnson stands at the foot of the front steps, a corpulent figure with a walking stick; both his pose and his costume echo a popular engraving showing him ‘in his travelling dress’, published by Thomas Trotter in 1786. Barber stands at the top of the steps, framed in the doorway: a skinny figure with slightly bandy legs. The latter are a stereotype: not an unrealistic one – rickets was prevalent among ex-slaves – but generic. The depiction of his face is also disappointingly generic – a round black visage, a vague thatch of hair and two white circles for eyes. The figure is small – little more than an inch high, in a painting of about eight inches by six – and Tomkins has gone for a shorthand ‘sambo’ caricature rather than any kind of miniaturist detail. A magnifying glass reveals the presence of a smiling mouth but it is obscured by what seems to be a blot or smudge of black paint. Only the clothes have any documentary value. He wears a green coat with a red lining, and beneath it a long grey waistcoat with lapels, suggestive of (but not yet known as) a ‘cardigan’. His thin legs are encased in red breeches and grey or white stockings. This is at least informed contemporary guesswork: the kind of get-up Frank might have worn. It is piquant to find him once again in a green coat.

*

The first full biography of Barber, a very good one in some respects, appeared in 1912. It was by Aleyn Lyell Reade, an old style gentleman-scholar and genealogist who lived with his sisters in a house in Blundellsands, near Liverpool, and devoted much of his life to a fastidiously documented part-work, Johnsonian Gleanings, published in 11 volumes (1909-52); the Barber study (‘Francis Barber: The Doctor’s Negro Servant’) was the second in the series. It aims, Reade writes, ‘at being exhaustive as regards references to him in contemporary biographies, memoirs and published letters’. He trusts that ‘the piecing together of this rather fragmentary evidence into a continuous story … will not be considered to have been an unworthy task,’ and even dares to hope he might ‘bridge the gulf that often separates dry research from human narrative’. It is a short book: even with all the appurtenances of private publication – spacious margins, long trailing footnotes – it runs to little more than a hundred pages. It is sometimes patronising in tone and occasionally unpalatable in phrasing – ‘this simple-hearted “blacky”’ – but remains an invaluable dossier.

A century later Barber has a new biographer, Michael Bundock, to wrestle once more with the fragments and lacunae of that hard-to-grasp ‘human narrative’. Bundock is a dyed-in-the-wool Johnsonian, a director of the Dr Johnson’s House Trust, and a former editor of the Johnson-themed journal, the New Rambler, though this is his first venture into the more testing terrain of book writing. The Fortunes of Francis Barber is concise, clear-headed, sympathetic and scholarly – though it is not without defects. Both its qualities and its problems have been of particular interest to me because I have worked this patch myself. I once intended to write Barber’s biography, and gathered a good deal of material for it, but for various reasons the book never got written. It has now, I am glad to report, evolved into another book (in which Barber features but is not the sole subject) so I am free to enjoy this admirable account with something approaching equanimity.

Barber’s story is a remarkable one. He was born into slavery in Jamaica in about 1742, and was brought to England in 1750 by his first master, or ‘owner’, Colonel Richard Bathurst. He was probably baptised in England, though no record of this has been found. At Orange River, the sugar plantation where he spent his childhood, he was called Quashey, a very common slave name which he exchanged for a very ordinary-sounding English name. The colonel’s son Dr Richard Bathurst was a close friend of Johnson, and through this connection Francis entered Johnson’s household in 1752, aged about ten; Johnson, then in his early forties and recently widowed, was working on the Dictionary. Johnson saw to his education, and treated him ‘with great tenderness’ (this is Johnson’s own phrase). The earliest tangible evidence of his presence in the household are some fragments of handwriting – they survive by chance because the paper was later used for inserts when a new edition of the Dictionary was in preparation. He is in the attic of the house in Gough Square, off Fleet Street (Johnson’s first proper house in London and the only one still standing). He is practising the skills he has learned at Jacob Desmoulins’s writing school near Leicester Fields; he writes, ‘Francis Barber Francis Barber’ and ‘England England’ and ‘antigue’, though whether the latter is a miscopied ‘antique’ or a memory from the West Indies is uncertain. We glimpse, Bundock says, ‘a young child struggling to come to terms with a new identity, a new home, and an unknown future’.

Yet that uncertainty was in a sense what the young Francis embraced, for in 1755 his status changed after the death of Colonel Bathurst, whose will included the bequest, ‘I give to Francis Barber a negroe whom I brought from Jamaica aforesaid into England his freedom and twelve pounds of money.’ To the adolescent Francis these two gifts must have been momentous – though in reality the liberty of a freed slave was still precarious in England – and it is surely no coincidence that shortly after the will had passed through probate he left Johnson’s household. He went first to serve as an assistant to an apothecary: Boswell wrote down the apothecary’s name as Farren, but Bundock’s researches reveal that it was in fact Edward Ferrand, who ran a prosperous business on Cheapside. From there he ranged further, and in 1758 joined the navy. Johnson, who thought life onboard ship was worse than in prison, ‘for being in a ship is being in a jail with the chance of being drowned’, assumed he had been press-ganged but Barber insisted to Boswell it was his own ‘inclination to go to sea’, and naval records confirm that he volunteered, one attraction of which was the bounty of five pounds that volunteers received. If he hoped for action and prizes in the Seven Years’ War, he was disappointed; much of his time was spent guarding North Sea fisheries. He served as a ‘landman’ – essentially a trainee sailor – aboard various ships, received regular pay and good but not glowing reports, saw the coast of Britain from Leith to Torbay, and acquired a taste for tobacco. He was discharged (as he punctiliously recalled) ‘three days before George II died’, in other words on 22 October 1760, and with a pipe between his teeth and a roll in his gait, he returned to London and to Johnson.

After this spell as a runaway – a word with considerable resonance for an ex-slave – he remained with Johnson until the latter’s death 24 years later. (The interlude of further education at Bishop’s Stortford in the late 1760s was a physical separation but not an interruption of service like the absconding.) In the last years of Johnson’s life the household also accommodated Barber’s young English wife, Elizabeth, née Ball, whom he married in 1773, and the first two of their three children. Betsy Barber was a great favourite of Johnson, and even wrung a compliment from Mrs Thrale, who thought her ‘eminently pretty’, though some others – notably Hawkins – cast doubt on her respectability. The Barbers nursed Johnson through his last sickness, and Frank was at his bedside when he died. To everyone’s surprise – and to the consternation of some, who criticised such ‘ostentatious bounty’ and ‘favour to negroes’ – Johnson made him his residuary heir, with a substantial legacy in trust which provided him with an annuity of £70.

The relationship between Barber and Johnson is full of nuances and complexities. It has long been suggested that, for the childless Johnson, Frank was a kind of surrogate son. In a letter of 1756 he writes sadly, ‘My Boy is run away’; and in a letter of 1768 – with Frank now in his mid-twenties – he tells him: ‘Be a good Boy.’ The word ‘boy’ is full of difficult ironies: in one sense an uncomfortable echo of the plantation, where black males of all ages were ‘boys’, in another sense a genial indication of Johnson’s fatherly feelings. What Frank felt about this paternalist relationship we cannot easily say. That period of absconding in the 1750s may suggest that he found it irksome at that stage of his life, but there is plenty of more general evidence that he reciprocated Johnson’s affection. He named his first son Samuel, undoubtedly after Johnson, and when that child died in infancy he named his next son Samuel as well. And then with the will, the father-son metaphor becomes concrete, and Frank becomes his heir. Bundock adds a further interesting subtext, suggesting that one of the foundations of this relationship was a shared sense of outsidership. Johnson identified with Barber because he too felt himself to be an ‘an exotic oddity’, with his ramshackle appearance and strange compulsive tics which made people stare and laugh at him in the streets. His ‘looks and manner were often the subject of ridicule’, Bundock says, ‘and the terms of such comments are revealing of how he was perceived: he was “monstrous”, “barbarous”, “a savage”. This was exactly the language used by many travel writers at the time to characterise … people of African origins – such as Barber.’

A detail from the Tate’s copy of ‘A Young Black’, painted in the manner of Reynolds, date unknown.
A detail from the Tate’s copy of ‘A Young Black’, painted in the manner of Reynolds, date unknown.

And then there is the sequel, the post-Johnson years, which Boswell neglected to chronicle, and which most Johnson biographies have ignored ever since. He moved with his family to a rented terrace house in Lichfield, Johnson’s birthplace, where – as the Gentleman’s Magazine correspondent reported – he spent his time ‘in fishing, cultivating a few potatoes, and a little reading’. Later he opened up a small village school in nearby Burntwood. But life in Middle England did not seem to suit him. The money from his inheritance, as many had tuttingly predicted, did not last; he sold off his store of Johnson memorabilia to defray his debts; his eyesight began to fail; and so began the last sad chapter of ill-health and poverty. In December 1800, ‘distressed’ by an unspecified ‘disorder’, he was admitted to Staffordshire General Infirmary; an operation followed, painful and unsuccessful, and he died there on 13 January 1801, aged about 58.

*

Francis Barber is of interest in and for himself, as Bundock’s account makes clear, and he is also historically notable as an early black immigrant to Britain, one of the first whose life can be studied in any detail. There were probably several thousand black people in London at this time but few have left much record of their lives: they are a name in a parish register, a face in a street scene by Hogarth or Rowlandson. Barber is an example of black emancipation in the pre-abolition period, but perhaps we should not push him too far on this. We do not know that he was in any way vocal on the subjects of slavery and liberty. Unlike his black contemporaries Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, Barber was not a writer, at least not in any literary or propagandist sense. He wrote letters competently and at times eloquently, and one hears something of his voice in them, but they were not the kind of letters which described his experiences or expressed his views on the issues of the day. There is no evidence of his involvement in the anti-slavery cause – except, perhaps, in the sense that Johnson’s involvement in it, which is very evident, was in some measure due to Frank’s presence in his life. His own Jamaican ‘boy’ cannot have been far from Johnson’s mind when he startled a university dinner party in Oxford by proposing a toast: ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.’ And we know that Barber was present at Dr Taylor’s house in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, in September 1777, when Johnson delivered his famous legal opinion on behalf of Joseph Knight, a black slave fighting for his freedom in the Scottish courts. ‘After supper,’ Boswell writes, ‘I accompanied him to his apartment and at my request he dictated to me an argument in favour of the negro who was then claiming his liberty.’ Speaking with a marvellous lucidity Johnson marshals his lifelong opposition to the slave trade into the clarity and compactness of a logical proposition:

The sum of the argument is this: No man is by nature the property of another. The defendant is, therefore, by nature free. The rights of nature must be some way forfeited before they can be justly taken away. That the defendant has, by any act, forfeited the rights of nature we require to be proved.

This abolitionist aspect of Barber’s story has led to a recent upsurge of interest in him, championing him in a modern multicultural context of immigrant history. In a 2003 poll of Great Black Britons he was placed a respectable 31st (his contemporary Equiano was the only early migrant in the top ten, where he rubbed shoulders with Trevor McDonald, Courtney Pine and Shirley Bassey; the winner was Mary Seacole). This new interest redresses a long historical neglect, but does little for biographical accuracy. Barber’s entry on the Great Black Britons website is full of errors, including an implausible birthdate and a curious claim that as part of his duties he ‘kept Johnson’s diary’. The first is a mistake imported direct from Barber’s Wikipedia entry, and the second a misinterpretation – Barber did not ‘keep’ Johnson’s diary in a secretarial sense, though he did rescue one of Johnson’s diaries from destruction, as is attested by the publisher of it. It is also often stated that Barber was a writer. In Robert Winder’s book about immigrants, Bloody Foreigners, he is further puffed as the ‘poet and protégé’ of Johnson, and so another half-baked factoid is fed into the misinformation factory.

One is grateful to Bundock for his calm and careful sifting of the biographical data, but it is in this ambit of immigrant history that his book is rather critically defective. Barber was a Jamaican, and though he was only (by his own computation) seven or eight when he left for England, his formative childhood years were spent on the island, and more precisely at Orange River, the Bathursts’ 2600-acre sugar estate in St Mary’s parish, where he is listed in 1749 as one of the ‘house-negroes’. The archives of Kingston and Spanish Town have a small trove of material relating to Orange River in the 1740s – estate maps, field-plans, inventories, slave lists – of which Bundock seems unaware. As it is, his chapter on Barber’s Jamaican years is a disappointing amalgam of righteous indignation and predictable secondary sources, and a half-hearted floating of the idea that Barber was Colonel Bathurst’s bastard son (which is unlikely, given that Bathurst specifically refers to him as a ‘negroe’ rather than a mulatto). His chief source for material about Orange River itself is, as he acknowledges, the American academic Lyle Larsen, author of Dr Johnson’s Household (1985). Larsen is one of the few scholars who has troubled to look into Francis’s Jamaican childhood. It was he who first read the deeds of the 1749 sale of Orange River and all its ‘appurtenances’; who noted that Bathurst retained ownership of four of the estate’s 143 slaves; and who deduced on pretty good grounds that one of them – ‘a negroe boy named Quashey’ – was the lad Bathurst later brought to England. But Larsen’s research was not entirely flawless, and his identification of a slave called Grace as Barber’s mother is unsound. The document in question is another deed of sale in the Island Record Office near Spanish Town. It is listed under the name of Richard Bathurst and dated 23 September 1747; it records the ‘conveyance of a Negro Woman Slave named Grace and her two children Luckey and Quashy’; the ‘consideration’ for the sale was £5. Larsen believed this was the same Quashey who was retained by Bathurst in 1749 and brought with him to England the following year, but there is no reason to think he was. First, these three people were not, as Larsen states, being conveyed to Colonel Bathurst; rather, they were being sold by him. Second, though the deed was entered on the register in 1747, the entry clearly states that the actual sale had taken place nine years earlier, on 16 May 1738. This Quashy would have been at least 12 years old in 1750, not seven or eight as Barber said he was. We must remove Grace, however reluctantly, from his early life story. The only thing we know about his parents is that they were themselves born in Jamaica: he was a second-generation islander with no personal knowledge of Africa. This information comes from a little-known statement he made in 1799 to a court in Lichfield: ‘He was born … in the island of Jamaica in the West Indies, of which island his parents were natives.’

One discerns in Barber’s life a powerful sense of contrasts and vicissitudes. It is a story of migration. In this journey from a Caribbean slave plantation to the household of one of England’s greatest and best-loved writers he seems to touch two extremes of what life had to offer a man in the latter half of the 18th century. Bundock is splendidly informative on Barber’s life with Johnson, but tells us little about his first life in the rugged uplands south of Port Maria, on a dogleg bend of the river, a world away from those London literary gatherings which would become his habitat.