Francis Barber in the Birthplace collection

Francis Barber died on 13 January 1801 and was buried in Stafford. Born into slavery on a Jamaican Plantation in c.1742, Frank became a surrogate son and ultimately heir to Samuel Johnson. You can hear more about his life in our introduction to Francis Barber video.

To commemorate the 220th anniversary of his death this month’s blog post brings together a selection of items from the Museum collection relating to Francis.

Portrait of Francis Barber (?)

The Birthplace holds one possible portrait of Barber, an early 19th century stipple engraving by an unidentified printmaker, after the original painting by Joshua Reynolds. The painting is in the Menil Collection in Texas and there are copies in other collections, such as Tate and Dr Johnsons House in London. It has been suggested that James Northcote, Reynolds’s pupil, may have been one of the copyists.

There is no conclusive evidence that Barber is the sitter, and it is possible that it is a portrait of Joshua Reynolds’s servant, who was used as a model in other paintings. We may never know for sure, but the image has long been described as a portrait of Francis Barber.

Adventures to Lichfield

On Thursday 20th June 1771 Samuel Johnson wrote to his friend Hester Thrale to tell her of his plans for travelling to the Midlands. The tone of the note conveys the warmth of the relationship between Sam and Frank:

“This night at 9 o clock Sam: Johnson and Francis Barber Esquires set out in the Lichfield stage. Francis is indeed rather upon it. What adventures we may meet with, who can tell?”

The men spent six weeks on this trip to Staffordshire and to Derbyshire, visiting Johnson’s old school friend John Taylor in Ashbourne.

A gift from Johnson’s Library

Amongst the possessions which Francis inherited from Samuel was this small 1626 edition of Juvenal’s Satires, published in Amsterdam. The book has an interesting story which is told by a note written in the flyleaf:

“This book was formerly the property of Dr Samuel Johnson. It was given to me by Dr Wright of Lichfield, who received it from Frank Barber Dr Johnson’s servant who he attended in his last illness.

Charles Nutt September 14th 1818″.

Charles Nutt was a Lichfield Cathedral verger. Dr Richard Wright was the grandson of Richard Greene, the owner of the Lichfield Museum. Greene was a good friend of Samuel, and also of Francis after he moved to Lichfield. In addition to his work as a Surgeon, Richard Wright also re-opened his Grandfather’s Museum, but the collection was dispersed after his death in 1821. Whether the book was given as payment for surgical care or as a gift is unclear.

The copy was donated to the Birthplace by the genealogist Allen Lyell Reade in 1912. Reade dedicated a whole volume of his work ‘Johnsonian Gleanings’ to the story of Francis Barber, published in the same year.

Francis Barber’s letter to Thomas Percy, December 1788

This copy made by Barber of a letter that he sent to one of Johnson’s executors allows us to hear his voice directly. Unfortunately, it is in rather dire circumstances: a period of “fierce illness” struck Francis, Betsey and their eldest daughter and he applies to Percy for fifty pounds from Johnson’s legacy.  He gives the reason that: “Christmas is drawing near and it is customary for apothecaries and other Tradespeople to bring in their accounts.” Barber’s bills were larger than he had anticipated, and he was not able to settle them from the quarterly annuity that he received from the executors.

Barber and Boswell

Three letters in our collection were sent to Barber by James Boswell in the late 1780s, while Boswell was working on his Life of Johnson. Boswell searched for any information he could add to his biography, and his friend Barber was an essential ally for Boswell in his research.

The biography of Johnson written by his executor John Hawkins appeared in March 1787. Hawkins was vehemently unkind to Barber in the text. Boswell tells Barber that he believes Hawkins had:

“done gross injustice to the character of the great and good Dr Johnson, and having written so injuriously of you and Mrs Barber, as to deserve severe animadversion”

In his biography Hawkins boasts about having unique access to fourteen notebooks that had escaped Johnson’s fire, but Bowell points out that these should rightly be the property of Barber. He suggested that Barber write to Johnson’s executors to demand the papers back, to be returned to Boswell on his behalf. He was happy to assist, replying that he was “agreeable to your request with a heart full of Joy and gratitude.” The letters worked, and Hawkins sent the items a week later.

However, they were not all returned and a few months later Boswell wrote to Barber again, requesting a further letter to the executors. Barber obliged and asked for some financial assistance from Boswell in return. Boswell send him some funds, and he ends his letter with a display of concern for Barber: “Some of your old master’s friends have thought that your opening a little shop for a few books and stationery wares in Lichfield might be a good thing for you, you may consult, and consider of it.”

Francis Barber’s Poor Law examination record

The Barber family continued to struggle financially and in 1799 Barber made an appeal to the Poor Law examination board. Signed by Barber, his statement is a significant record of black presence in late 18th century Staffordshire and provides valuable information about his life, including details of his birth, residences in the area and the names of three of his children. It is significant that he is referred to as a ‘Yeoman’ in the document, which suggests that he was respected in his community. Records do not show that the Barbers were given any financial assistance after the examination, but they were able to remain in the Parish.

Betsy Barber’s book and ring

Elizabeth Ball and Francis Barber married in 1776. She was called ‘Betsey’ by Francis, and was described as “eminently pretty” as well as “sensible and well-informed”. Elizabeth signed her name in a 1739 copy of the Book of Common Prayer book which was originally owned by Elizabeth ‘Tetty’ Johnson. Another personal item which came into Elizabeth’s possession was Tetty’s wedding ring. After arriving in Lichfield Francis attempted to return the ring to Lucy Porter, Tetty’s daughter, but she declined to accept it. The ring had been enamelled as a mourning ring in memory of Johnson and worn by Elizabeth Barber.

After Francis Barber’s death in January 1801 the annuity from Johnson’s will ended, and Elizabeth had to make her own income. She eventually moved back to Lichfield and opened a school on Stowe Street. Her last resort was to sell items that had an association to Johnson including this book and ring, doubtless precious possessions for Betsey Barber. Both items were given to the Museum collection in 1909, on the bicentenary of Johnson’s birth.

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