The Johnston Collection


William Robert Johnston, borrowed from


Not much good has come out of the Queensland floods. Even less is going to come out of this terrible storm. Jane (who lived in Circus Street as a child and, given her current residence is in Brisbane, probably wishes she still does) did the sensible thing. She got the hell out and went to stay with friends in Melbourne, and while she was there made a little discovery. 

She went to visit a charming little house-museum, The Johnston Collection, which is stuffed to the gills with fabulous antiques, many of Greenwich extraction. Apparently the collection’s so massive that it doesn’t all fit at once and it gets rotated four times a year.

Born in 1911 in Lilydale, Australia, William Johnston was obsessed by antiques from a creepily early age – his grandma gave him a Minton bone-china mug when he was eight and that was it. He was going to be a collector. And since the only way the son of a boot maker is going to become an antique collector is by being an antique dealer, that’s what he did.

And the guy was savvy. Australia’s still a young country. They prize their antiques. Britain, after the Great War, was a different place indeed. And by the end of WWII, the landed gentry were at financial breaking point. Just the kind of point that if a persuasive art dealer knocked on the door of their country pile and very nicely offered to take their old junk off their hands in a discreet fashion, they might well be tempted. He shipped the best stuff back to Australia by the container-load and dealt the rest out of his shop in Greenwich.

I’ve been trying to find out where that shop would have been – there were many antique/secondhand/junk shops in South East London in the sixties and seventies (if you want to know what one might have looked like, check out the seedy store David Hemmings visits in Blow Up (it’s implied it’s in Charlton, but could, frankly ,be anywhere; the film’s geographical accuracy is about is reliable as Thomas’s memory.) Jane thinks it was in King Edward Crescent – but I can’t see that there ever was a King Edward Crescent in Greenwich.

The romantic in me wanted to think it’s the Creek Road Shop that Geoffrey Fletcher sketched and which now resides in the Museum of London Store, but it turns out Kent Antiques was actually at 14, King William Walk. 

Apparently he was yet another  Greenwich Character (where have all the characters gone?)  Jane says “he was rumoured to be a taciturn chap who wouldn’t sell you a piece if he didn’t like you.  With that attitude, I’m sure there must be someone remaining in Greenwich  who remember a bad tempered  git in Kent Antiques.”

But for all his git-hood, the guy was basically a good egg, who was absolutely sure what he wanted to happen to his collection when he died. He wanted the public to enjoy it as much as he had. He left his collection, house – and, very sensibly, enough cash to endow it forever – to a Trust on his death in 1986. And it looks utterly charming. It’s gone on the list of Phantom fantasy visits.

Jane’s not the only person who is wondering if anyone remembers Johnston. The museum is currently creating a book to celebrate its 25th Anniversary this year and is keen to hear from anyone who remembers him. I bet Dick Moy would have known him. Sadly he’s not around – but the seventies really wasn’t that long ago (as we were talking about yesterday) and I’m guessing there are still antique dealers out there who might recall him, or even one or two people who got thrown out of his shop because he didn’t like the cut of their jib.

If you remember Kent Antiques do contact the museum. They point out they’re not actually allowed to publish their postal address (not sure how you’re supposed to visit; presumably you call ahead) so you have to phone or contact them via one of those annoying internet forms (which I personally refuse to fill in) rather than a straight email address, which is a shame. But perhaps not everyone’s as paranoid about personal info as me…

And if you do remember him don’t forget to tell us here too…

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William Robert Johnston, borrowed from
Johnston collection

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