Lichfield – An Enlightenment City

Last week 7 of us from the Enlightenment! team visited  Lichfield.

We started our day at the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, which is a fantastic museum in the house where Samuel Johnson lived.  The museum opened in 1901 and houses a great collection of personalia, manuscripts and art relating to Johnson and 18th century Lichfield.  In the attic there is a first edition copy of his most famous work, his dictionary which was published in 1755 after 9 years of research and revision.

Although Johnson spent most of his life living in Lichfield and London, he was no stranger to Derbyshire.  His father Michael Johnson was born in Cubley, Derbyshire and Samuel Johnson visited the County many times, even getting married at St Werburgh’s in Derby in 1735.  It is not known why he wed in Derby, but it may have been to escape disapproving family members– his wife Elisabeth was 20 years his senior and considerably wealthier than him and neither side of the family were thrilled with the match.

Joanne the Museum Officer  got out various Derbyshire related manuscripts for us to look at, including Johnson’s wedding certificate – front row, second from the left.

Johnson visited Derbyshire many times with his friend and biographer James Boswell.  He was good friends with Dr John Taylor who lived at the Manor House in Ashbourne and Taylor’s table from the Manor House is on display at the Birthplace Museum.

On a bit of a tangent, but earlier this week I came across a fab watercolour allegedly featuring Samuel Johnson.  ‘Vauxhall Gardens’ painted in 1784 by Thomas Rowlandson depicts the fashionable gardens during a concert with people eating, drinking and gossiping.  The supper box below the orchestra on the left hand side apparently contains Dr Johnson, Boswell, his friend Mrs Thrale and the novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith.  (There seems to be some debate about the accuracy of this, not least because by 1784 Goldsworth was a decade dead).

One of the women under the tree has been identified as Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire – Rowlandson has been somewhat kinder in his depiction of her here than in the caricatures that he well known for.

Anyway back to Lichfield…. We had a lovely lunch at Chapters, the Cathedral Café and we managed a very quick look into the Cathedral itself. It is an amazing building which we didn’t have to time to do justice.  They had on display some of the Staffordshire Hoard plus there is a sculpture by Francis Chantrey, who was born in Norton which was then part of Derbyshire (Yes, I am shamelessly plugging yet another Derbyshire link).

In the afternoon we visited Erasmus Darwin’s House.  Erasmus  was a surgeon, poet and general Enlightenment thinker who amongst other things was the founder of Lichfield’s Botanical Society, Derby’s Philosophical Society and the Lunar Society.   The Erasmus Darwin house is an impressive Georgian town house with great views over to the Cathedral. The highlight of the visit for me was Erasmus’ Commonplace Book which was full of drawings of his inventions, scientific musings and medical records.

Among his many achievements E.D had a progressive stance on female education. He helped his two illegitimate daughters Susan and Mary set up a school for girls in Ashbounre in 1794.  Three years later he published Plan for the Conduct of Female Education, in Boarding Schools.

E. Darwin was a serious procreator and had 14 children and many grandchildren including Charles Darwin and  Francis Galton.

By 1782 Darwin had moved to Derby where he continued to practice medicine.  He died in 1802 and is buried at Breadsall Church.  Derby Museums and Art Gallery hold collections including his microscope and his portrait by Joseph Wright.

Enlightenment! poem – Luminary by Ann Atkinson



 Set the scene with a full bright moon,

 note Flamsteed’s Crater in the Ocean of Storms,

 the impact; now think of the tide-swell,

 the collision and ferment of curious minds,

 a beginning, then, of modern times.


So at full-moon they come to Erasmus,

unfolding ideas like charts, maps to a future,

these friends – the maker of buckles, the potter,

the clock-maker working with minutes,

but dreaming of eons, engineers, mechanics,


and you, Joseph Wright, artist and witness,

 frame new perspectives, cast your light

 on these moments advancing the times.

 We think of you stretching your canvas, mixing

 a spectrum of colour, planning balance and form.


Those intimate nocturnes – faces, keen and alight,

 drawn close by the candle’s flame; and there,

 a lamp is the sun, and the orbit of planets, moon,

 demonstrates an eclipse; in the foreground,

 another – the dark silhouette of a child.


 There, is the clamour and heat of the air

 in the blacksmith’s forge, a glimpse of moon

 behind clouds; and the same moon shines

 as the Alchemist kneels, like prayer, and gasps

 at the instant, the phosphorous flare.


You write from Italy, wishing John were there

 to see Vesuvius redden the sky, say

 that he would think deeply into the mountain

 while you skim the surface, the glare in darkness,

 the moon floating palely over the bay.


John is our clock-maker. He explains the heave

 and uprising that opened up strata, like pages

 recording the layers of time. You paint him,

 pen and diagram in his hands, a smoking volcano,

 the image you choose for the power of his mind.


You give us your views in the changing light,

 Arkwright’s Mill, Matlock Tor, Dovedale

 by day, by night, and the stories you frame

 come like news from your time. You set these scenes,

 the storm and the vision of these luminous minds.


Ann Atkinson: Derbyshire Poet Laureate: 2009 -11

Luminary was commissioned to celebrate ‘Faces in the Crowd: Joseph Wright and Friends in Georgian Derbyshire’, an exhibition at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery from 5th March to 30 May 2011. 

Ann Atkinson was Derbyshire Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2011 and before that Poet Laureate of the Peak from 2008 to 2010. Her book From Matlock to Mamelodi: 5000 miles of poetry is available from Ali Betteridge, Literature Development Officer on 01773 831359 or email  Ann’s pamphlet Drawing Water is available from Smith/Doorstop.