Monday, 19 March 2012

Listening to Dr Johnson's House

Dr Johnson's House, photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of Dr Johnson's House Trust

Last week I visited Dr Johnson's House in order to record some sounds for the production of Sonic Wallpaper.

I was after creaks; old sash windows opening and closing; groaning doors; the sounds of old stairs; inky writing; pages being turned; and other sounds evoking The Past and Writing.

This may seem anachronistic, but in visual wallpaper designs ordinary tastes have often been somewhat nostalgic and to my mind it makes sense that my sonic project follows suit. In Little Palaces, house and home in the inter-war suburbs, I read that in the early 1920s when the first home-decoration journals in the UK appeared, those journals "sang the praises of the old and the antique", and these days one only has to look at how the past inspires contemporary designs - think of the 1950s-esque Cath-Kidston prints which are so popular at the moment - to see that there often seems to be a kind of nostalgia for a golden past inhabiting our home-decoration fantasies.

Accordingly, I have been asking myself the question what does sonic nostalgia sound like? And how could we decorate our homes sonically to recall the past in sounds in the same ways that we do with visual designs, patterns and colour-schemes? One way I can think of involves recording the sounds of old interiors, and finding simple ways of introducing such sounds into modern interiors. For instance, I could give you this sound, which you could play right now in your own home, momentarily experiencing the creakiness of doors which may - or may not be - older than the ones you currently have installed. Is deliberately introducing this sound from the past into your home any different from buying old things or nostalgic furnishings or textiles with which to adorn your home? How could you make the sound a semi-permanent feature, like wallpaper?

Dr Johnson's House is over 300 years old and has been furnished simply, retaining many surviving early features from wooden floorboards and panelling to its creaky, open staircase.

Staircase at Dr Johnson's House photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of Dr Johnson's House Trust

This means that the building is full of sounds which cannot be heard in an environment which has been modernised inside. The stairs, for instance, do not sound like modern stairs, and the building is a treasure trove for nostalgic and historic noises...

...It is however never possible to completely evoke the past in sounds, because even in the quiet recess of Gough Square where Doctor Johnson lived and worked as a writer in the 1700s, the sounds of the modern world pervade. Infiltrating the red bricks and insinuating their way through the beautiful, warped glass of the windows, today's sounds announce the presence of aeroplanes, street traffic, mobile phones and other sonic indications that we now live in 2012.

Window in Dr Johnson's House photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of Dr Johnson's House Trust

In this recording, for instance, you can hear the sounds of the old window and wooden shutters being opened onto the square below, and then a spate of sounds from the quiet, contemporary London backstreet outside drifting upwards.

One of the interviewees who consulted the MoDA wallpaper collection as part of the Sonic Wallpaper project discussed her dream of one day having a small writing garrett which she would decorate with said wallpaper.

Dr Johnson's Garrett photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of Dr Johnson's House Trust

Dr Johnson's Garrett is not exactly small, but he did compile a dictionary there, and I felt the creaky qualities of the building plus its writerly connotations would befit my friend's speculations on her yearned-for writing room.

I therefore sat at the old wooden table leafing through a facsimile copy of Dr Johnson's Dictionary, recording the sounds of writing with a fountain pen on a thick piece of paper, and researching the etymology of the verb "to record" in Johnson's own book.

Facsimile edition of Dr Johnson's Dictionary photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of Dr Johnson's House Trust

The last sound which I recorded at Dr Johnson's House was the impressive sound of the door locking mechanism; a long, heavy chain on a twisty bit of metal, and a rather serious looking bolt. You can hear them below!

It is a pity that Hodge - Dr Johnson's favourite cat - is no longer around, as my friend discussed how important the sound of cats disturbing and playing in her piles of papers would be as a sonic detail in her writing room, and I would have liked to have spent some time with this handsome feline, encouraging him to disarrange my handwritten papers in order to record the sound of this occurring.

The statue of HODGE outside Dr Johnson's House photographed by Felicity Ford with the kind permission of Dr Johnson's House Trust

I wonder if Hodge ever disturbed Dr Johnson's papers, knocking them to the floor with a brittle swoosh, and I wonder how far back in time writers have been listening to the antics of their cats in the contemplative quiet of their homes?

What sounds do your cats introduce into your homes, and what would you consider to be a nostalgic sound which you would like to hear regularly in your home?

Thanks very much to the Dr Johnson's House Trust for making these recordings possible, and stay tuned to see how they might become "sheets" of Sonic Wallpaper. For more information on Dr Johnson, on his dictionary and on Hodge, see the official website here.


  1. The sounds of cats: lapping milk; snoring loudly; clicking paws across the wooden floors (my favourite); scratching the window from outside to get attention; tearing paper; occasionally scratching paws on the door or furniture; growling at intruders; batting things across the floor; loud miaowing to be allowed in the bathroom window or for food.

    Writing this I realise that I have one cat who miaows more than the others; one whose sounds are of naughtiness; and the odd one.

    I very much like the sound of the door being locked, either comforting or scary depending on your mood

  2. Intriguing recordings! A nice reminder of how much of Johnson's world was made of wood, rather than plastic, MDF or concrete.

    I wonder if writing with a quill would sound different to a fountain pen?

  3. Thanks, Colleen, for that lovely list of cat sounds. I love the detail with which you recall the sounds of your cats, and that they each have different sonic signatures - loud, naughty, and odd.

    Thanks, too, for your comments, Ian. I did think about using a quill, but in the end settled on a calligraphy fountain-pen, because really it was the nib scratching on the surface of paper that I was after. I purchased some writing paper to make this recording which I would never normally have chosen; thick, brittle, parchment-esque, and embellished with a hideous but thankfully silent golden design. It is an interesting experience to shop for things on the basis of their sonic qualities rather than on what they look like! Isn't the creaking woodiness of Johnson's world appealing? The acoustics are so different from that of buildings lined floor to ceiling with electronics and formica.