By Professor of Philosophy Alexander George
Some bricks at AmherstCollege have felt the presence of Isaac Newton and Samuel Johnson.
The tale begins in the early 18th Century, when Newton moved into a house at 35 St. Martin’s Street, just south ofLeicester Square in London. He retained the house from 1710 until his death in 1727, lived there much of that time, and revised his Principia there. The house was eventually demolished in 1913.
At some point, George A. Plimpton ’76 purchased some surviving items from the demolished house, including the bricks and wood that were used to construct its fireplace. These he gave to an AmherstCollege fraternity on the occasion of its new house, for reconstruction in it of Newton’s fireplace, in the hope that “the members of this Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity may catch Newton’s spirit.” The opening of the house in 1915 was a grand event and President Meiklejohn likewise expressed the wish that “The spirit of Sir Isaac Newton should abide in this house.” The fireplace was located in what was then considered the house’s smoking room, though it was noted that it was suitable for dancing as well. On the walls were hung manuscripts in Newton’s hand as well as a large oil painting of the scientist (all believed to be gifts of Plimpton).
The Newton fireplace in Plimpton House, then (above) and now (below)
The room underwent further development in 1936 when it was transformed into the first College-supervised library in an AmherstCollege fraternity. Plimpton, now chairman of the Board of Trustees, once more donated materials he had purchased in England. This time, his gift was of old wood paneling, much of it coming from Jesus College, Oxford, but some also coming from the house of Lord North, Prime Minister to George III during the American Revolution. The room now had shelving for some 2,000 books. Photographs show that the Newton memorabilia was removed, though the oil painting remained over the fireplace mantel.
Over the years, the Newton Room in Plimpton has been neglected and it is now in a dismal state. The Newton portrait has vanished. Few books line the shelves. Dancing, however, survives.
But what is the connection between the Newton Room and Samuel Johnson? In 1774, Dr. Charles Burney settled into the house once owned by Newton; while there, he would write his famous history of music. Living with him was his daughter, Frances, who would herself become well known as the novelist Fanny Burney. Dr. Burney’s guests included the leading social and artistic lights of his day: Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke and many others. During the wet winter months, no doubt these luminaries took turns standing before Burney’s fireplace, warming themselves by its bricks – except for one evening around 1778 when Johnson had been invited.
Johnson was used to holding forth at gatherings. Some people loved him for it, while others did not, especially if they found themselves on the receiving end of his ferocious wit. But this particular gathering at Dr. Burney’s caught Johnson during one of his attempts to cultivate in himself a good-natured disposition and so Johnson had decided he would hold himself in check and allow others to fill the conversation. Unfortunately, Johnson’s reputation preceded him and no guest dared to say anything, including Fulke Greville, a supercilious man who had wanted to meet Johnson but who now feared to make the first move. And so Greville “planted himself,” Fanny Burney later reported, “immovable as a noble statue, upon the hearth, as if a stranger to the whole set.” As a long, strained, and tedious evening drew to a close, Johnson had not yet said a word. Finally, rousing himself from contemplation, he looked straight at Greville and made his first remark of the evening: “If it were not for depriving the ladies of the fire, I should like to stand upon the hearth myself.” Greville stood silent for a few moments before ringing the bell for his carriage “with force.” (This incident so amused Virginia Woolf that she wrote a short piece about it, “Dr. Burney’s Evening Party,” for her collection The Second Common Reader.)
And so it is that some bricks that warmed Newton and failed to warm Johnson find themselves at AmherstCollege.