Michael's Blog

19th May 2015

On the Southwell page of this website I commented on the distinctive decorative scheme that Dublin piano makers employed, following the iniative of William Southwell, dividing the front of their square pianos into five unequal feature panels so that the instrument when closed presents a symmetrical appearance. This week I saw for myself how a piano by John Pohlman had anticipated these ideas, displaying a different solution with three unequal panels, in an extraordinary, lavishly inlaid piano of 1778.

It would be reasonable to suppose that this was a special commission from a fabulously wealthy client, so whereas internally it is a normal five-octave piano with Pohlman's characteristic design features that I have learned to recognise, the amazing exterior is evidently something special, probably executed by the famous Swedish-born inlay specialist Christopher Furlohg, active in London from about 1775. Reflections in the lid make them difficult to see, but there are three marquetry panels showing, from left to right, a violin, a lyre and a lute with music, ribbons etc. The swags on the front you can see — the sides match. When you lift the lid to play you see the that the inside face of the lockboard and left flap are preserved in dazzlingly bright original colours of yellow satinwood and pink tulipwood. Superb!

In the 1930s this piano was owned by Lancelot Hugh Smith, a wealthy connoisseur and collector who lived at Mount Clare, a Palladian mansion in Roehampton, near Richmond Park (showing right - it's no longer a private residence). He bequeathed the piano to the present owner. A card I found inside appears to date that period, informing readers that this 'Spinet' came originally from the famous Chateau de Heeswyk, in the Netherlands. Heeswyk Castle, as we might call it, was stripped of its precious contents in 1794 when French troops invaded the region. The building decayed thereafter, so what we see today is a nineteenth-century Romantic rebuild with conical turrets, moat etc. If these associations are to be believed this lovely piano has a fascinating history.


16th May 2015

Continuing to research 'Johannes Pohlman' and his pianos - this time in Sussex. Such a beautiful day! Such a charming location! The Priest House in West Hoathly is well worth a visit, if you like 'quaint' and enjoy visits to truly ancient places. It is as you see a rural cottage, inhabited since 1450, mostly by yeoman farmers. These days, resident curator Anthony Smith is happy to show visitors the fascinating display of rural bygones amassed by Sussex Archaeological Society. It has a unique atmosphere, and is located in a beautiful landscape.

Why they possess a square piano by Pohlman is unknown. It has been there for forty years, maybe more, and Anthony suggests it may have been donated by a local resident — but their records haven't been as meticulous as one might wish. It is dated 1776, and is of the standard type made by Pohlman with lowest note GG. There are three handstops. Restored nicely by David Winstone in the 1980s, and working tolerably well. It is rare to see that the cord and eyelets to restrain the lid have not been discarded. Observe: no prop stick!


13th May 2015

Osterley Park - splendid isn't it? And that's just the outside!

Close to London, and surrounded by dense urban developments, Osterley Park is a delightful oasis of rural beauty that can be enjoyed for free by local people. When you enter the gates you're in a different world! There are acres of grass for children to play, ornamental lakes, and long vistas that terminate in arborial screens of oak and lime and sycamore. Horses and cattle graze in surrounding fields. You would never guess that you are so close to London, Heathrow Airport and the frantic traffic on the M4 motorway.

The Pohlman quest: my research into this rather neglected maker of early square pianos continues. Today it required a long drive to Osterley, located near Isleworth on the Thames, west of London. The interior of Osterley was redesigned in the early 1770s by Robert Adam, at great expense, for the wealthy banker Robert Child. Accordingly, the V&A musical instrument catalogue of 1981 suggests that this Pohlman piano, which is dated 1773, was among the earliest furnishings acquired by the Child family as soon as work on the house was completed. The Child family were at the forefront of fashion in music too.

However, the disturbing thing immediately apparent would be the black keys! All other Pohlman pianos have ivory plates for the natural keys. The ebony plates on this piano look modern. It is well done, but strangely inappropriate. On closer inspection it is sad to report that this very complete and attractive piano has been comprehensively restored in the twentieth century without much regard to its historical integrity. The keys, the dampers and the hammers have all been altered in some way. The damper cover rail is missing, and the eyelets and cords for restraining the lid have also gone. There isn't a restoration report available, so sadly it is not possible to assess its condition before restoration or evaluate published statements indcating that this piano may have been at Osterley since the 1770s. It is kept in a store room on the third floor, and is not on display in the rooms open to the public. Nevertheless, there are some design features attributable to Pohlman (rather than the anonymous restorer) that provide some interesting pointers for ordering his output and also relating his work to other craftsmen, such as Adam Beyer and Frederick Beck. Especially interesting is the arrangement for the top three keys, with the balance pin for d sharp moved forward to allign with the naturals. There are no dampers for the top five notes. So, depsite the alterations, it is deserving of study.

Some better news: research on Pohlman's life is beginning to come together and should make a coherent story for future publication. It seems he did, after all, have children, three of them at the last count, though I haven't yet found any record of their baptisms.

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