I have always been curious to see the houses of antique dealers. I feel like either they should have the most extravagant wonderful furniture, all their best pickings on constant rotation as they find something better to replace each piece with, or their home should be so totally plain, simple and modern that you wonder why on earth they deal antiques in the first place. In the case of the Johnson Collection it is most certainly the former. William Robert Johnson started his love for antiques at the early age of eight when his Grandmother gave him a Minton teacup as a gift. Being a savvy investor he purchased property with the money he had raised from importing antiques to Australia from England and purchased Fairhall, renovating it to his favoured Georgian Style and dividing it into three rental flats. He then went on to open his own antique store, Kent Antiques on Armadale High Street. At the advent of his death in 1986 his house, estate and collection were donated to the people of Victoria and is now run as a museum.
A very secret museum.
So secret that I thought they might blindfold me so I wouldn’t know of it’s hidden location. At first looking at the brochure and website I was confused by the lack of address and then read the instructions on how to get there: you must meet at the Pullman in the Park where you will be escorted in the courtesy bus to the concealed location of the museum. And of course no photography so I’m afraid the images you see here are not what I saw myself, but then that’s part of the fun, you want a surprise when you arrive!
It was a crisp Winter afternoon when we awaited our lift to the museum outside the Pullman Melbourne on the Park, curious and excited about our upcoming adventure. After jumping into the courtesy bus, sans blindfold, we were driven the short distance to our destination. Once inside we had tea and shortbread whilst hearing an overview of the history of the Museum and Johnson himself. So far so good.
Then a short walk through a secret doorway and suddenly we were in the next house along, finally we were in Fairhall. And what a treat awaited us there. We were lucky to be there during Martin Allen’s arrangement of the collection. Martin Allen has a lot in common with William Johnson, also an antiques dealer who developed his passion at a young age. As a child he collected padlocks, an example of which is displayed next to Johnson’s Minton Teacup. Martin Allen arranged the collection in a maximalist style, which for me was particularly appealing, both because then you get to see a wide range of the collection, and because I am definitely a fan of maximalist interior decorating.
As much as I love to see a personal collection, this has an added interesting element. Not only are the works in the collection in Johnson’s taste, but they are also made up of items intended for sale in his antique store. So perhaps some of the items weren’t actually to Johnson’s tastes, but they were items that he thought would be saleable. And then on top of that it is Martin Allen’s arrangement, so not necessarily the items or positioning that Johnson would chose. This layering of influence means that the collection reveals Johnson’s personal taste, the taste of people collecting antiques during his day, and a contemporary taste and perspective. Little contemporary elements make an appearance such as screen printed Warhol-esque renditions of Thomas Chippendale on lampshades, pillowcases and framed on the walls.
Some of my favourite items were those made by William Johnson himself, like a fabulous set of lamps made from vases with handmade lampshades. He had very international tastes with fabulous furniture and art from Europe and Asia, including some stunning examples of Anglo Indian style furniture. He also had some impressive artworks including a beautiful Piranesi print. Again my favourite of his artworks was a collection of eight Anglo Indian watercolours. These works were created during the 1800s in India by Indian artists who were learning to incorporate European ideas of scientific perspective and shadowing to record daily life in India aimed at a European market. This style of painting is now known as Company painting, named after the British East India Company.
After our visit we were allowed to walk home. Now we are in on the secret, and what a secret it is! It is wonderful to see this diverse range of art, furniture and design, all displayed in a beautiful house, a symbol of taste now and then, truly my idea of a total work of art.
The Johnson Collection