Michael's Blog

12 January 2015

The quest for information on Pohlman continues. His earliest known complete piano has been at Shibden Hall, Halifax, since 1922. It is a pretty little instrument dated 1769, but appears to be sitting on a later stand. How did it come to be there? Well, it seems that it was bought by the Pohlmann family, who set up as pianomakers in Halifax in Victorian times. They made standard upright pianos, at a time when every home had to have one. Like many nineteenth-century businesses they hoped to enhance their status by appearing long-established, and therefore to be trusted and respected. Here's an amazing example of the mischief that can happen.

I first heard about this 1769 piano from Mrs Rosemary Fletcher who lived in Harrogate. Her grandfather, Henry Pohlmann, was the last in the line of piano technicians and tuners associated with Pohlmann & Son of Halifax. And from their billheads and other literature issued by the firm she saw that her great grandfather claimed that they were the successors to 'Johannes Pohlmann of London, 1772'. Mrs Fletcher was so confident of this she contacted everyone who ventured into the field of pianoforte history, volunteering the information that it was her ancestor who made the first square pianos, in London in 1765. David Wainwright, author of 'Broadwood by Appointment' first told me about this. He read my paper 'The Twelve Apostles?' and saw my statement that John Pohlman of London, though married, had no children. 'Can this be true?', he asked, with more than a hint I had got my facts wrong.

He told me he had been giving a lecture (I don't know where) when Mrs Fletcher accosted him. She told him emphatically that it was not Zumpe, but her ancestor Pohlmann who made the first square pianos in London. He admitted that he wasn't sure whether to believe her or not. 'We have the proof', she said. 'My cousin has the remains of one, with the inscription 'Johannes Pohlmann fecit Londini 1765'.

When this was relayed to me it was clearly time to check this out. So in 1993 I took a trip to see this cousin. She lived in Bexley, Kent. I arrived, by appointment, and was shown a nameboard, mounted on the sitting room wall, much as a Victorian 'sportsman' might set up some deer antlers, as a trophy, or the head of whatever else he'd shot.

Well, it was undoubtedly a genuine antique nameboard, and the inscription was excellent and unaltered. But it read: 'Johannes Pohlman Londini fecit 1768'. Apart from the final digit it was exactly like the one showing below. Why Mrs Fletcher ever came to believe it was 1765 I can't say. Notice the other inaccuracies too. The word order is different from what she'd reported, and like so many others she had added an extra letter to the end of the surname, without comment. The results of this lady's zeal linger to this day. On Calderdale Council's website you'll find the same misinformation repeated - 'In 1765, Johannes Christoph David Pohlmann, a native of Hanover in Germany, manufactured the first piano in England. In 1823 his grandson, Henry William Pohlmann (d. 1874), came to Halifax to set up a piano making business.' Brilliant!

So on Wednesday I'm off to see the oldest known complete piano by Pohlman, inscribed with the date 1769. It looks promising. More news later.

15 January 2015: On our journey to Halifax we had an unwelcome reminder of the unpredictability of British weather. The M62 motorway is surrounded by bleak moors, sprinkled this morning with snow from an overnight blizzard. Isolated cottages and farms remind one of the forbidding landscapes of Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'. At one memorable location the eastbound carriageway passes in front of one of these moorland farms, while the westbound carriageway passes fifty metres behind the back of the farm. Yet for miles around there is no-one. Motor traffic racing past, day and night, but the nearest neighbour - who knows where? Arriving at Halifax we found the car park closed, with several inches of snow, and an icy walk down the steep slope to the house.

At Shibden Hall you find a 500 year-old manor house, set in a wonderful quasi-natural landscape. Collections manager Angela Clare showed us into the Savile Room, where the Pohlman piano resides. Unhappily its documentation is very sparse, but what they have seems to suggest that what Mrs Fletcher told me, that it had been presented by the Pohlmann family of Halifax, appears to be true. On some of their advertisements from the 1880s and 90s they say that their firm was founded in 1823, in Hamburg, and that they are descendents of 'Johannes Pohlmann of London', sometimes adding '1772', a seeming contradiction. This information must have been taken from some contemporary publication - possibly the report of the 1851 Great Exhibition in which the famous pianist Sigismund Thalberg was shown a Pohlman piano of that date, which reportedly had been owned by Gluck.

My guess is that Halifax Pohlmanns were offered the 1769 piano at a later date, and snapped it up eagerly, as you would! Whether they ever truly believed that they were descended from John Pohlman of London is very doubtful, but Rosemary Fletcher was more than happy to provide me with her family tree and heaps of documentation to support her statements. Actually, when I studied these documents, it proved beyond doubt that the 'Johann Pohlmann' in her family [correctly Christoph Johann David] died in 1786, apparently in Celle, Germany, where he was a minister of religion, a pastor -- whereas the London piano maker was still alive in Great Russell Street in 1792. Nevertheless, the legacy of Mrs Fletcher's enthusiasm is still evident today. At one time her son, John Fletcher, set up a basic website showing a black-and-white photo of a very remarkable Pohlman piano, with gilded carving in Louis XV style, owned by Mrs Nellie Ionides, who is featured with great approval in my book on the River Thames. But I have had no luck at all in tracing that instrument. I'm sure it exists somewhere.

The good news is that little or nothing has been done to the 1769 piano. It has lost its original stand, and now sits on an early twentieth-century one with four square tapering legs, but this harmonises very happily with the wainscot panelling at Shibden Hall. Externally it has what antiques dealers love to see: dark, dirty polish obscuring the inlay. It has never been cleaned. Internally nothing is lost. Many of the hammers are hanging loose, and the dampers too. A large percentage of original strings survive, some of which I was able to get a micrometer to. Unhappily the nameboard is jammed very tight and the [original] damper cover rail was impossible to remove. So I couldn't gather any details of the keyframe, or the carving under the keys, but I can say that the key guidance is by front pins. There are only 2 handstops, and no harp or 'buff stop'. It is a mark of the piano's early origin that the lowest G sharp is a dummy key, like Zumpe's - press G and G sharp moves too.

Upstairs in a room displayed as the children's nursery they have a dainty upright cottage piano by POHLMANN & SON, HALIFAX, with delightful carving: a really charming little epitaph to this story. The firm was never a great success, and stopped trading long ago.

18 January The surroundings in which one finds the next Pohlman piano could not be a greater contrast. Where the 1769 piano at Shibden Hall is set in a delightful, and very credible domestic setting, with a boxwood flute and a cello apparently laid aside during a short intermission in the music making, the 1771 piano, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester is housed in a barren concrete basement below street level. Arriving by appointment we were met by the librarian Anna Wright to be conducted to this locked storeroom where the steady hum of the dehumidifier assured us that these instruments are being properly cared for.

Another contrast is in the condition: the Shibden Hall piano as noted is in untouched but ruinous condition. In Manchester it was immediately obvious that someone had attempted to put this 1771 piano into playing condition, probably in the 1960s, to judge from the strings and wrestpins [heavy copper overwinding on the bass strings and modern square-headed zither pins]. Externally the piano looks good: clean mahogany casework and lid, with boxwood linear inlays, and an inscription that must be rated 'very fine'. Like the Shibden Hall piano it has five face-fitting brass hinges to the lid, very like those used by Zumpe. But very different from early examples by the pioneer, Zumpe, both of these Pohlman pianos have burr walnut veneer above the keyboard, with the holly(?) cartouche neatly inlaid into it. When you lift the lid [with extreme care as the short modern brass screws are pulling away] and a whole lot of disappointment comes into view.

What was probably a well-intended restoration, which might have made the instrument useful and informative for students, has resulted in it becoming totally unplayable. There is a huge split in the soundboard, to which someone has applied a bar underneath and three woodscrews whose purpose is presumably to hold the soundboard flat. Pressing any key now results in that horrible dull jangle heard so often in auction room pianos. Nevertheless, there is plenty of data to be had: we have now got the exact dimensions, the 3-octave span, and much numerical information concerning the keyboard, soundboard and bridge. There are three handstops [divided dampers and buff] where the Shibden piano had only two. Though it has the same 58-note, compass, GG,AA-f3, this one has no dummy sharp. There are many other design changes to note in this two year timeframe.

Incidentally, this RNCM Pohlman piano is definitely dated 1771, not 1791 as reported by Martha Clinkscale. This mistake was transferred to the 'Clinkscale online' database, run by John Watson and Tom Winter, but I have informed them and it is to be changed.

What you don't appreciate sometimes when looking through checklists of museum holdings is the relationship between items in their collections. In the basement at RNCM I was struck by the similarity of two 'harpsichords' of London manufacture placed almost side by side. They appeared to be duplicates at first glance. When I looked closer it was something of a surprise and a delight to see that the first was a Shudi & Broadwood, dated 1791 (so a very late example, complete with Venetian swell) while the second was in fact a Broadwood grand piano of 1794. How similar they look!

21 January: in response to a question, I've been checking the Royal Northern College of Music website. I must confess I could not find any mention of the musical instrument collection. What a shame! It really deserves better treatment.

My late friend Bill Waterhouse (a man of extraordinary energy, bassoon player, and author of many books on wind instruments) compiled a truly excellent catalogue with first class colour photos. But searching from the college website you'd never find it.

The core of the collection was the bequest of Henry Watson who gave a magnificent collection of music and books to the City of Manchester Library at the beginning of the twentieth century, and his historic instruments to what was then the Royal Manchester College of Music. If you search the internet for Henry Watson Musical Instrument Collection you can discover the opening times (very restricted), but not much more.

So for anyone who might be interested let it be known that they have a delightful sixteenth-century Italian polygonal virginal, two English bentside spinets, harpsichords, and fortepianos, and two square pianos -- the 1771 Pohlman, described in my last entry, and an 1801 satinwood-bordered Broadwood square of 1801, near playable -- plus sundry other keyboards. Unfortunately members of the public can't just walk in off the street: best to make an appointment with the librarian.

26 January 2015: the excellent Broadwood piano of 1794, featured on our 'For Sale' page in December 2014 is now on its way to Japan, where we hope it will be treasured as it deserves to be. It is a truly superb example; satinwood borders, entirely original action parts, and no sign of stuctural problems of any kind. Like so many examples from Broadwood's workshop in the 1790s it has helpful inscriptions on the keys, showing what strings it should have, and where the changeover points occur. They correspond with the information given on page 183 in 'Broadwood Square Pianos' except that gauge 10 steel extends from note 31 to note 39, [rather that 30-34] and therefore gauge 9 begins at note 40. This seems to show that there was an increase in the treble tension, presumably for a stronger tone, between 1788 and and 1794.

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