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Norfolk piano man Bill is looking for a home for his collection

PUBLISHED: 13:30 31 December 2014 | UPDATED: 13:30 31 December 2014

Bill Kibby Johnson with his collection of pianos which are in need of a new home to house the large collection.

Picture: James Bass

Bill Kibby Johnson with his collection of pianos which are in need of a new home to house the large collection. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2014

Stacked in teetering piles and taking up every cobweb-filled corner is what is reckoned the world’s largest collection of pianos and piano-related ephemera.

Bill Kibby Johnson with his collection of pianos which are in need of a new home to house the large collection.

Picture: James Bass Bill Kibby Johnson with his collection of pianos which are in need of a new home to house the large collection. Picture: James Bass

Shoe-horned into a shed away from admiring eyes are at least 35 instruments and tens of thousands of documents relating to all things musical.

The collection, amassed over more than 50 years is one man’s personal passion.

But retired musician and piano tuner Bill Kibby-Johnson, 67, dreams of a day when the public too can enjoy his lovingly-amassed hoard in a museum setting.

So far he has only encountered false starts having moved to Great Yarmouth seven years ago to take up what seemed a solid offer of space in an historic seaside building.

Bill Kibby Johnson with his collection of pianos which are in need of a new home to house the large collection.

Picture: James Bass Bill Kibby Johnson with his collection of pianos which are in need of a new home to house the large collection. Picture: James Bass

“It is a unique collection and probably the biggest and best in the world,” he said. “There is a wealth of archive material and people email from all over the world asking for information about pianos. Ideally we need 150ft of wall space with enough floor to match.”

Mr Kibby-Johnson and his wife Beth, a singer, want to display their pianos in period settings, evoking scenes from when they were widely played among the emergent middle classes by flickering candlelight.

Most of the piano’s are impossible to get to in their current, cramped setting and some are not in good working order.

But their value lies in their historical interest - tracing the development of the instrument from early 1700’s Italy to the electronic keyboards of the 1970s.

For those in the know there are names to fire the imagination like Henri Pape, maker to the French Royal family who was renowned for his invention and Broadwood, the most famous British maker.

The oldest in the collection is a square piano dating from 1790.

Mr Kibby-Johnson said it started with a few historical documents but moved onto collecting the instruments including pianos, organs and harmoniums, in the 1970s when many were being scrapped, spoiled by central heating.

He now has over 3,000 photographs, 40,000 digital images, and thousands of receipts, documents, sheet music, old books, newspapers and much more.

“Working with pianos and tuning them I just became attached to their history,” he said. “The pianos are not all in a playable condition, they are there as pieces of history. We try to save all sorts of bits of paperwork and enhance them. It is a neglected area of history but a lot of people want information about pianos.

“There are piano museums but they do not have the wealth of information that we do. It is a niche market but amounts to many people around the world.”

Keeping the records in good order, cross-referencing and chasing new leads is both fun and challenging he said, adding: “I am planning displays all the time but there is no space.”

His wife Beth Kibby-Johnson, 62, said: “All our pianos have their own character and a lot of them are from famous makers. Bill is getting older and at some point this collection will die. From my point of view I would like to see him get an apprentice to learn about it so the collection can carry on. We cannot do anything more with it or raise funds until we have a building. Because everything is so crammed it is soul destroying even to go and look at it.”

What made the piano so appealing, she said, was its “complete sound” which gave such so much scope for expression making it the perfect companion for singer/songwriters like the Beatles and Elton John.

The couple, who met in 2000, are always on the lookout for more material, uncovering a whole seam of information to mine on honeymoon in Jersey.

The collection also contains copies of receipts and bills from the Royal archives, dating back to the 1700s, as well as mini-ornaments and curios.

Having recently mounted a small display in the Minster the couple are desperately hoping for a permanent home for the pianos and their reference library.

To help call 01493 658732, email bill@pianohistory.info or visit pianohistory.info.

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