A POTTED HISTORY OF JOHNSONS ISLAND
When the Grand Union canal was built in 1790 - stretching from its start at the junction of the river Thames, near the studio, all the way up to Birmingham - it cut a straight line through the meandering curves of the River Brent, forming islands and Johnson's Island was born.
The island was named after Dr Wallace Johnson (1730-1813), a medical doctor and factory owner who lived in the Butts. He owned 6 acres of land and property around Catherine Wheel Yard which ran down to the River Brent.
The footbridge that links the island to Catherine Wheel Road used to be a picturesque arched bridge, which allowed access to the wharf for cargo boats. However, in 1905, an overladen barge passed under the bridge and broke it clean away! It came to a rest a few yards up the canal, the bridge perfectly balanced across its stern.
The river looping around Johnsons Island now forms the Town Wharf, named because it gave closest access to Brentford High Street. It is now home to a picturesque cluster of canal boats, which you can see as you cross the footbridge to your left. Several of our artists live here,
At some point, the island became home to the lock keeper's and station master's offices of Brentford. The offices now form the art studio's main building, having been given a new lease of life by James Bissell-Thomas in the 80s...
THE BIRTH OF THE JOHNSONS ISLAND ART STUDIOS
In the 70s and 80s, the island lay derelict; rooves leaked, trees grew through walls and rubbish was strewn throughout the courtyard. James Bissell-Thomas was inspired by its possibilities. In a leap of imagination, he took out a lease from the Waterways and began a transformation.
The original old brick buildings were repaired and brought back to life. Scouring skips he collected a huge load of materials and built the white clad buildings, including the mushroom house and gallery. He is proud to say it cost about £800 using recycled and 'unloved' materials.
Slowly the island emerged from its cocoon...
James set a business on the island repairing old oars and creating spectacular globes. In the 90s, his business expanded and so he moved it to the Isle of Wight.
He and his wife Rosie then opened up the island to artists, refitting the buildings to become studios and a small purpose-built gallery space. In the process he created what he describes as 'the best artwork of his life'.
Now the eclectic mix of buildings, framed by the shimmering waters of the river Brent are home to seventeen artists, a grumpy old heron and several kingfishers.
Pictures right - building the studios with Noel Wilkes and other helpers.