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James Boswell

Author, diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson

A painting of a person sitting wearing fine clothes, including a gold waistcoat and a fur-lined gown. They have their legs crossed and are looking confident.

Painting of James Boswell, author (1740-1795) - © Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Licensor SCRAN


5 James' Court, Edinburgh
Plaque inscription
James Boswell
Lawyer, diarist & biographer lived here 1773–1786

James Boswell, ninth laird of Auchinleck, is best known as the biographer of his friend, the writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

Boswell’s account of Johnson’s life has often been regarded as one of the most influential biographies ever written. In the twentieth century, a large quantity of Boswell’s diaries, letters and private papers were recovered, and their publication has added even further to Boswell’s reputation as a key personality in the history of English literature.

Boswell was born in Edinburgh, where he went to university from 1753-58. Five years after graduating he moved to London where he met Johnson for the first time, the pair soon becoming firm friends. After travelling in Europe, where he met progressive philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire, Boswell returned to Edinburgh. From there, he would regularly travel down to London to spend time with Johnson and other literary figures.

Boswell’s great work was his Life of Samuel Johnson, which he worked on after Johnson’s death in 1784 and which was published in 1791. Stylistically, it was radical. Boswell painted an intimate portrait of his friend, complete with directly quoted snippets of conversation, rather than the more austere, factual approach common with biographies of the period.

In the 1920s, Boswell’s private papers were discovered at Malahide Castle, near Dublin, and their subsequent publication by Yale University reveal a complex figure – one who struggled with drink, repeatedly contracted venereal diseases, wrote verse in support of slavery, and experienced prolonged episodes of depression. His frank writings paint a vivid picture of the era and demonstrate Boswell as a significant literary figure in his own right.

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