By John Rogan
My first contact with Bill Johnston was late in 1970 when I accidentally happened upon a preview of an auction of house contents in the present museum at 154 Hotham Street, East Melbourne. The house looked occupied - food in the refrigerator, the crumpled tea towel on the bench, a few unwashed cups and saucers on the kitchen sink and the house a little 'down at heel'. The house was over-furnished with a generous sprinkling of lavish William IV and Victorian pieces. At the time, I was planning an Exhibition of Victorian Room Settings for the National Trust and realised that a number of the pieces on offer would be spectacular additions for it. I approached the auctioneer, Graham Joel, and asked if the buyers of these particular lots would lend them for the Exhibition, but all were to be passed in and remain in the hands of the vendor, Bill Johnston.
The 'house auction' was, in fact, contrived by Johnston to sell his most recent shipment of antiques brought in from England. Never would I have suspected that the house was really a 'stage set'. (The auction predated the opening in 1972 [sic] of Kent Antiques in Armadale which was later to provide a retail outlet for the countless shipments of fine and decorative arts imported by Bill Johnston in the 1970s and the 1980s). Later the auctioneer arranged for Bill and me to meet, and in the end, Bill lent the bulk of the Exhibition!
During the years that followed, I came to know Bill professionally in many capacities’ dealers, collector, decorator, enthusiast, property investor and storyteller and I was to become his solicitor until I retired from practice in 1974, after which I too was active in the antique trade in Melbourne for 12 years. From then until Bill's death, I knew him as one of the more colourful members of the local trade, whose presence was felt at every worthwhile sale. He always remained helpful as a lender for the many decorative arts exhibitions with which I was associated and was most encouraging over the preparation of a book which I wrote in the mid-1970s about private collections in Australia.
For a period of about three years in the late 1970s, I rented an apartment from Bill at 90 Gipps Street, East Melbourne; the late Joseph Burke, Professor of Fine Arts at Melbourne University, described by ground floor rooms, forming part of a large terrace house, as ‘The closest thing to living in London he had seen outside London'. This was largely due to Johnston's understanding of buildings, his elegant furnishing of the common hallway, his awareness of the interrelationship of windows and gardens, his innate sense of detail and simplicity, and his way of making rooms live able and dignified. His apartments were awash with French grey and white, black and white tiled floors, simple linen blinds, cool louvred shutters and elegant Georgian style fireplaces. One's own possessions seemed to look just right in the distinguished framework established by this particular landlord. There was no formal lease, but the unwritten agreement insisted that tenants be of a 'certain mature age group', avoid noisy music and have a genuine interest in living in the buildings of East Melbourne which Bill bought and decorated. Some residents stayed for 20 years and more.
It was around 1972 that Bill Johnston approached me to prepare a will 'along the lines of the Como set up' to ensure that his highly decorative collection would be preserved for the benefit of future generations [initially] under the umbrella of the National Trust of Australia (Vic), with the management and control [then] vested in a board of trustees on which the National Trust would be represented.'
Johnston was anxious that his collection would be presented in the comfortable, eclectic style which he often referred to as 'Country Life 1950s' the style synonymous with what was, and is still from time to time, revealed in that unique English weekly magazine. He wanted museum visitors to enjoy what he had enjoyed. For Bill, interesting and pleasing possessions were part and parcel of daily living and he wanted his museum to be a delightful and pleasurable experience, tinged with freshness accessible, tactile and alive.
It was a style made tangible by John Fowler, the fabled English decorator who demanded the highest standards but remained respectful of tradition and of the intrinsic quality of the architectural setting, who understood the interrelationship of objects and the nuanced subtleties of finely balanced scale. Fowler also accepted the propriety of proper economies, reusing existing upholsteries and possessions, re-dyeing and re-cutting the old curtains when appropriate, creating harmony with new and existing ingredients. There was always respect for the softness of the timeworn and patinated. Nothing was contrived. All who knew Bill will confirm that these same principles underpinned his approach to collecting and decorating.
Johnston not only admired this English style but also emulated it in his own homes with originality and flair. He had a taste for colour and pattern, for the purely decorative, for drama, for harmony, for surprises, for simplicity, for a little shabbiness, and of course for wonderful quality as well as for the whimsical. He understood the power achieved through the placing of over scaled objects in small spaces and the strength of small objets massed in organised profusion. He also loved pairs and respected classical balance. He delighted, too, in the occasional rearrangement of the familiar, discovering new pleasure in fresh juxtapositions. He had no patience with minimalism in his decorating.
Johnston was not a purist. He simply enjoyed beautiful things for their own sake, for their decorative quality, for their rarity, for the way they interrelated and made for a better living environment. He was not concerned to achieve perfectly reconstructed period rooms; the matched suite was not necessary. Nor was he particularly concerned with authenticity, although he had profound respect for the perfect and original example when he happened upon it. A confirmed devotee of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as periods of the finest artistic expression in England and France, Johnston was always open to the attraction of other periods and cultures in which he also freely indulged.
If something appealed to Bill for whatever reason, his delight in the object remained undiminished whether it was cracked, chipped or restored. Often, he saw possibilities where many of us would have discarded something as useless. Bill threw nothing away as his executors were to discover in the years following his death!
Johnston delighted, too, in the bargain. His stories of the constant chase for things fine and beautiful entertained many a gathering of his friends the 'Chippendale' style writing table found under layers of thick cream enamel in the kitchen of an English country house, the French Empire Desk from the collection of Earl Ducie of Tortworth Court, sold as a side table, in the Drawing Room of the house, the matching cartonniere offered as a separate lot from where it had been discarded in the garden shed and to be put together again by Johnston, the jubilant buyer. (Interestingly, recent research has revealed a much altered 'married' piece but nevertheless a highly decorative and appealing combination and that was what mattered to Bill).
Johnston was an inveterate traveller to remote corners and out of the way places; as a younger man, he travelled to Split on the Adriatic coast, seeking inspiration from the ancient classical ruins which had had profound effect on the work of the 18th century Scottish architect Robert Adam, whose influential neoclassical legacy Johnston so admired. India, where Bill was to die in 1986 at the end of a buying trip, featured prominently in his travels over many years and provided much of the more exotic content of his collection, not to mention the opulent appearance of his antiques business, Kent Antiques; Tunisia added to his collection the very fine Blackamoor Console and Mirror (now in the Yellow Drawing Room) [sic]. The exceptional Louis XI Bureau Plat, believed to be from the collection of King Farouk, came from Cairo a piece which Bill used as his worktable near the front door of Kent Antiques and which, like many other pieces, he would never sell regardless of how persistent the potential buyer might be; the Bureau Plat now forms a centrepiece for the Green Drawing Room in the Museum.
On one occasion after a long flight from London, Bill told how he left the aircraft to stretch his legs during a refuelling stop in Perth and was attracted by an interesting newspaper advertisement for an auction in Perth that morning. He immediately broke his journey, cleared Customs and rushed by cab to the suburban auction. That excursion introduced to his collection the outstanding suite of Regency rosewood brass inlaid tables which remains a highlight of the Yellow Drawing Room.
But England remained his great hunting ground and for many years he maintained a house at Greenwich, where he lived for part of most years. The house underwent a number of decorative treatments and from there he also sold many of his 'bargains' to friends and acquaintances; they, in turn, still entertain with stories of Bill as the consummate salesman. In the 1950s and 1960s, they say, everything seemed to be a hundred pounds and could always be 'paid off.
In his later years, Bill divided his time between what is now the Museum, where he lived through the week, and Chandpara at Tylden, where he indulged his dream of being the 'gentleman farmer'. He loved the garden where he exercised another of his gifts: Bill was a gardener of some stature. The beautiful framework of the late Victorian park-like setting was gradually rediscovered under decades of undergrowth and slowly became a natural theatre for dramatically sited garden statuary and great classical vases; the wonderful Gothic Revival cast iron furniture, which is believed to have been collected in India, surrounded the pool with an air of dignified formality. The expansive Edwardian home quickly filled with more of the ever growing and changing collection, windows dressed with modified faded silk and damask curtains from Toorak house auctions.
Thus, The Johnston Collection is best approached as a decorative one, where one is delighted by shape and colour, by texture and by surprising combinations, where the fine and the exquisite sit comfortably with the occasional amusing trifle which may well be rejected by the purist or the academy.
Knowing Bill Johnston and with an awareness of the content, varying quality and extent of his collection, the basic question of why people collect must be asked. Perhaps for some it is a simple need to possess; that was not the case with Bill. For others, it may serve the need for furniture and the necessary aids to daily living; Bill's collecting instinct took him much further than meeting simple needs' Certainly for him there was the 'thrill of the chase', particularly when a desirable treasure was found at a modest price or perhaps achieving the acquisition of some special and long desired rarity but that is a short lived satisfaction and does not explain the lasting pleasure of handling and experiencing fine and interesting things as part of daily life. It is here, I suggest, that we begin to understand Bill Johnston's approach. He lived with his collections in all their variety, displayed them to show them in their best light, and took unashamed delight in the process. Bill Johnston collected for pleasure.
Here we discover the driving motivation behind Johnston the Collector. Bill collected to experience lasting pleasure through the quality and beauty of objets d'art. He sought pleasure in discovering the variety and riches of human creativity. He enjoyed pieces for their sentimental and personal associations. He sought the pleasurable reassurance gained from moving through a familiar place filled with familiar objects, the arrangement orchestrated to achieve harmony through the combination of colour, shape, scale and beauty, and occasionally even great rarity. Finally, he left his collection for the pleasure of all who still visit his home today.
For Bill's eyes to rest on the fine and beautiful was no mere indulgence. For one so aesthetically aware and sensitive, it was a sure and necessary source of enthusiasm and creative energy.
John Rogan was an Inaugural Trustee of The W R Johnston Trust from 1 June 1987 to 5 June 1991