31 March 2014

Art for Lent (27): ‘Samuel Johnson’ (1976),
a mosaic in Lichfield by John Myatt

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

For my work of Art for this morning [31 March 2014] I have decided to look at a mosaic of Samuel Johnson on a street corner on Bird Street, opposite New Minster House in Lichfield.

This mosaic by the controversial artist John Myatt is based on a portrait of Dr Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was donated to Lichfield in June 1976 by Lichfield District Arts Association and Berger Paints.

The mosaic depicts the recognisable face of Samuel Johnson in small blocks painted in a variety of colours. Myatt produced the mosaic in a studio at the now closed Arts Centre which stood near the street corner. Initially, the finance for the work was provided by Berger Paints. However, the company went out of business halfway through the project and after its completion the mosaic was left in the Arts Centre for four years until the present site was chosen. The mosaic was unveiled by the Mayor of Lichfield, Councillor Bob Blewitt.

A plaque beneath the mosaic says: “Dr Samuel Johnson / Born in the City of / Lichfield 1709 died 1784 / this mosaic by John Myatt after / a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds / was donated to the Citizens of/ Lichfield in June 1976 by / Lichfield District Arts Association / and Berger Paints.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) ... the portrait by Joshua Reynolds inspired John Myatt’s mural in Lichfield

The mosaic is made of plywood blocks, emulsion, marine varnish, and measures 2.32 metres high x 3.36 metres wide.

It was restored in 2005 by John Myatt and Stephen Sanders. The restoration was instigated by Lichfield Civic Society with additional funds from the Conduit Lands Trust, Lichfield District and City Councils, public and private donations.

Although Myatt has twice re-varnished the mosaic, the tough marine varnish probably needs replacing again.

A street view of John Myatt’s mural in Lichfield commemorating the cathedral city’s favourite son (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was one of the most important writers of the 18th century. Due to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), Johnson’s personality has often eclipsed his writings and many famous Johnson quotes actually come from Boswell’s recollections of conversation, rather than Johnson’s own writing.

John Myatt is a controversial artist and a convicted forger. With John Drewe, he carried out what has been described as “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century.”

Myatt was born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1945, the son of a farmer. He attended art school in Stafford and discovered a talent for mimicking other artists’ styles, but at first only painted for amusement and for friends. After art school in Stafford he began teaching art in Wilnecote, on the edge of Tamworth, in 1968. In the 1960s, a grant also allowed him to open a studio in Lichfield, where he created original works.

Three years after painting this mural of Samuel Johnson, he wrote the single ‘Silly Games,’ which was a No 1 hit for one week for Janet Kay in 1979.

Meanwhile, John travelled from Lichfield to Birmingham each weekend to study the paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and by artists like Pissarro. It fuelled a passion which turned into quite a skill – undetectable fakes.

His first wife left him in 1985, and he gave up teaching to spend more time with his children while he tried to make a living by painting original works in the style of well-known artists. In 1986, while still struggling to raise his two children on an art teacher’s wage, he placed a notice in Private Eye offering genuine “19th and 20th century fakes for £200.”

At first he was honest about the nature of his paintings. But John Drewe, a regular customer who claimed to be a professor of nuclear physics, resold some of his paintings as genuine works. When he later told Myatt that Christie’s had accepted his “Albert Gleizes” painting as genuine and paid £25,000, Myatt became a willing accomplice to Drewe’s fraud, and began to paint more pictures in the style of masters like Roger Bissiere, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Matisse, Ben Nicholson, Nicolas de Staël and Graham Sutherland.

Drewe then sold them to auction houses, including Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s, and to dealers in London, Paris and New York.

Myatt was arrested by Scotland Yard detectives in September 1995. He quickly confessed, stating that he had created the paintings using emulsion paint and K-Y Jelly. He estimated he had earned around £275,000, and offered to return £275,000 and to help to convict Drewe.

On 16 April 1996, police raided Drewe’s gallery in Reigate, Surrey, and found materials he had used to forge certificates of authenticity. Drewe had also altered provenances of genuine paintings to link them to Myatt’s forgeries and added bogus documents to the archives of different institutions to “prove” their authenticity.

Myatt and Drewe went on trial in September 1998. On 13 February 1999, Myatt was sentenced to a year in prison for a conspiracy to defraud and was released the following June after four months in Brixton Prison. Drewe was jailed for six years for conspiracy and served two years.

On his release, John’s arresting officer from the Arts and Antiques Squad in Scotland Yard contacted him and became the first customer for one his “Genuine Fakes.” Since his release, Myatt has continued to paint commissioned portraits and clear copies, and he has exhibited his works. His paintings are now marked indelibly as fakes, and can be bought on-line. Some have sold for up to £45,000.

His first originals exhibition in London in 2005 was opened by Anne Robinson and Magnus Magnusson and was a complete sell out. He is a well-known Sky Arts presenter, and is happily married to his second wife Rosemary and together they have between them five grown-up children. He is a committed Christian, is back living in Lichfield and plays the organ in his local church every Sunday. His story is told in a book by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, Provenance (Penguin, 2010); it is a story with a happy ending, and a story for Lent about wilderness times, fall, redemption and restoration.

Not so for Drewe though, it appears. In 2012 at Norwich Crown Court, he was convicted of defrauding a 71-year-old retired music teacher of her life savings of £700,000 and leaving her penniless. He was jailed for eight years by a judge who told him: “In my view you are about the most dishonest and devious person I have ever dealt with.”

Samuel Johnson’s birthplace in Breadmarket Street, now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum ... Lichfield loves Samuel Johnson as much as Stratford on Avon loves William Shakespeare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Lichfield loves Samuel Johnson as much as Stratford-upon-Avon loves William Shakespeare. I find Johnson’s last prayer, as he was about to receive Holy Communion for the last time, is an appropriate prayer to mediate on during Lent:

Almighty and most merciful Father,
I am now, as to human eyes it seems,
about to commemorate, for the last time,
the death of your Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer.
Grant, O Lord,
that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits and his mercy;
enforce and accept my imperfect repentance;
make this commemoration confirm my faith,
establish my hope and enlarge my charity,
and make the death of your Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption.
Have mercy upon me and pardon the multitude of my offences.
Bless my friends, have mercy upon all.
Support me, by the grace of your Holy Spirit,
in the days of weakness and at the hour of death;
and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness,
for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Samuel Johnson bemoaned the fact that the observance of Lent had fallen into neglect in his time, and in Abyssinia he wrote: “During the great Lent, they eat neither butter nor milk, not any thing that has had life. They fast all Holy Week upon bread and water; … Thus Lent is observed throughout Abyssinia, men, women and children fasting with great exactness.”

On the other hand, he noted in contrast: “Abstinence from lacticinia [milk foods], which included butter, cheese, and eggs, was never strictly enforced in Britain, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries because of the lack of oil and other products that could serve as substitutes.”

Boswell notes that Johnson fasted so strictly on Good Friday that “he did not even taste bread, and took no milk with his tea; I suppose because it is some kind of animal food.”

Johnson’s diaries show that such fasting was a regular practice for him, including the anniversary of his mother’s death (23 January 1759), during Lent, and from Good Friday until Easter morning.

Samuel Johnson first went to school at Dame Oliver’s School in Dam Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Next only to Shakespeare, Johnson is perhaps the most quoted English writer. He was born in Lichfield, in 1709. A childhood infection left him deaf in his left ear, almost blind in his left eye, with impaired vision in his right eye, and with scar tissue that disfigured his face.

One day in his childhood, Johnson started home from school by himself. Coming to an open ditch across the street, he got down on all fours to peer at it before attempting to cross. Throughout his life, he feared that ill health would tempt him to self-indulgence and self-pity, and constantly resisted that temptation.

In his 70s, on a return visit home to Lichfield, he looked for a rail that he used to jump over as a boy.

The former Lichfield Grammar School in Lower Saint John Street where Johnson later went to school ... now the offices of Lichfield District Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the age of 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford, 1728, but was forced to leave a year later because of poverty and unpaid fees. But during that year he was deeply influenced by reading William Law’s Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life.

In 1735, he married the widowed Elizabeth (“Tetty”) Porter, who was 20 years older than him.

The newly-married Johnson opened a private school at Edial Hall, west of Lichfield, where one of his first students was David Garrick, who became a life-long friend and was the foremost actor of his day.

When the school closed, Johnson and Garrick decided to seek their fortune in London, where Johnson began writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine.

In the next few years, he wrote short biographies, poems in Latin and English; monthly articles on politics and other current affairs, and on literature, politics, religion, ethics, agriculture, trade, business, philology, classical scholarship, aesthetics, metaphysics, medicine, chemistry, travel, exploration, and Chinese architecture.

In 1746, he began work on his Dictionary of the English Language. He wrote definitions of over 40,000 words, with different shades of meaning, illustrating the meanings with about 114,000 quotations he had gathered. His work has served as the basis for all English dictionaries since.

Johnson completed his task in nine years, and his Dictionary was published in 1755. Oxford University honoured his work with an MA degree.

When his wife Tetty died in March 1752, his grief was overwhelming. In January 1759 his mother died at the age of 89, and the following Easter his diary records the following prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father, look down with pity upon
My sins. I am a sinner, good Lord,
but let not my sins burden me for ever.
Give me the Grace to break the chain of evil custom.
Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth;
to will and to do what thou hast commanded,
grant me to be chaste in thoughts, words, and actions;
to love and frequent thy worship,
to study and understand thy word;
to be diligent in my calling, that I may support myself and relieve others.
Forgive me, O Lord, whatever my mother has suffered by my fault,
whatever I have done amiss,
and whatever duty I have neglected.
Let me not sink into useless dejection;
but so sanctify my affliction, O Lord,
that I may be converted and healed;
and that, by the help of thy Holy Spirit,
I may obtain everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And O Lord, so far as it may be lawful,
I commend unto thy Fatherly goodness my father, brother, wife, and mother,
Beseeching thee to make them happy for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

For two years, from March 1750 to March 1752, he published the Rambler, a periodical, every Tuesday and Saturday. Each issue included one of his essays, and he wrote 208 essays in all.

Before writing these essays, Johnson offered the following prayer:

Almighty God... without whose grace all wisdom is folly, grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the Salvation both of myself and others.

Johnson also wrote a series of sermons for his friend John Taylor.

In 1756, after finishing his Dictionary, he was asked to supervise a new periodical, the Literary Magazine. But the magazine did not last. In 1759 he wrote a short novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

In 1762, he was awarded a pension for life of £300 a year.

Dr Johnson’s house in Johnson Court, off Fleet Street, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In Easter 1764, he wrote in his diary:

Almighty and most merciful Father, who hast created and Preserved me, have pity on my weakness and corruption. Let me not be created to misery, nor preserved only to multiply sin. Deliver me from habitual wickedness, and idleness, enable me to purify my thoughts, to use the faculties which thou hast given me with honest diligence, and to regulate my life by thy holy word.

Grant me, O Lord, good purposes and steady resolution, that I may repent my sins, and amend my life. Deliver me from the distress of vain terror and enable me by thy Grace to will and to do what may please thee, that when I shall be called away from this present state I may obtain everlasting happiness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

He began working on a new edition of the works of Shakespeare in 1756. It took nine years and was published in 1765.

In 1766, his friends Henry and Hester Thrale found him agitated, with acute depression. He became part of their family and he recovered his sanity.

He died quietly on the evening of Monday 13 December 1784.

Wise words from Dr Samuel Johnson in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)


Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know your Presence and obey your will; that, following the example of your servant Samuel Johnson, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what you give us to do, and endure what you give us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Tomorrow:The Ship of Fools’ by Hieronymus Bosch.

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