Mrs. NORTHEY'S PIANO

It is extremely unusual to find any eighteenth-century instrument that can be conclusively connected to its original owner. But here is an extraordinary survival linking Broadwood's Journal to a known family and their use of this instrument.

The firm of John Broadwood & Sons is itself unusual in having preserved a large archive from the late eighteenth century, now distributed between the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the Surrey History Centre in Woking. Using these resources we can confirm, beyond doubt, that the piano shown below is the oldest piano from John Broadwood's workshop that can be ascribed to a specific first owner. Its story is given below.

When Alfred Hipkins was researching his history of the piano during the Victorian era he observed in the rather battered remains of John Broadwood's Journal an unusual snippet of information. He noted that the earliest serial number recorded in these accounts was No. 206, a square piano made in 1784. When examining documents in the Bodleian Library I found the following additional information.

On 20 April 1784 Broadwood sold two square pianos, the first to Miss Trafford, and later that day another to Mrs Northey. Both were sold for 20 guineas, that is, twenty-one pounds, but exceptionally, as Hipkins observed, Broadwood wrote 'No.206' against Mrs Northey's purchase. She evidently came to the showroom and specifically wanted this one! There is no other Broadwood square piano whose serial number appears in his Journal, so discovering the original owners of similar instruments only becomes possible for those made in 1798 or later (records now at Woking). Hipkins went no further than to report this early serial number.

Nothing more was known about Mrs Northey's piano until it was bought by Michael Cole at auction in 2004. There, inside on the wrestplank, was the number clearly written 'No. 206'. I could hardly believe it! And as if to doubly indentify it, written on the soundboard in clear eighteenth-century handwriting we see 'Northey'. It appears that this was written in 1784 at the time of purchase, but whether this is in Broadwood's hand is hard to say. Near this single word, and in a much less refined style, comes the additional text: formerly Miss Northey now belongs to Ann Ball's child, 1793. The person who added this was not well-educated. I suspect it was Ann Ball (or Bell) and that she was a housekeeper or domestic servant to the Northey family.

Discovering the identity of Mrs Northey was made easier after finding other entries in Broadwood's Journal. From 1775 she often requested harpsichord hire and tunings, and subsequently bought a new harpsichord from Broadwood. Robert Stodart went to her London home for these tuning visits and this enables us to identify her address as Orchard Street, which was off Oxford Street, north side. That house was demolished in the twentieth century, but her country home, Ivey House, Wiltshire, is still in residential use, though divided for multiple occupancy. In the eighteenth century it was a grand house, purchased by her late husband William Northey, MP for Wiltshire (died 1770), together with a large estate. It is located near the centre of Chippenham.

Concerning Mrs Northey herself I found that she was the daughter of Edward Hopkins, MP for Coventry, who died while she was still a child, and that her wedding day was 4 May 1751 in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. (A handsome church, approached by a long narrow lane in the Chiltern Hills.) She had three sons who all became successful men in later life, one in the church, one in the army, and the eldest, William, an MP like his father. Mrs Northey also had four daughters. The longest surviving daughter, Charlotte, died unmarried at 28 years of age, in February 1789. It is very probable that this daughter, whose memorial records that she suffered a 'painful illness which she bore with great patience', was the player who made much use of the Broadwood square piano. This would explain why the clumsy writing on the soundboard says 'formerly Miss Northey'.

When buying the Broadwood square piano in 1784 Mrs Northey asked Broadwood to take an older square piano in part exchange. This he did. He soon sold it to Mr Gawlier for eight guineas, and with commendable honesty credited exactly that amount to Mrs Northey's account. As the Broadwood piano was considered a better instrument, this unidentified piano was probably an early example by Zumpe or Pohlman. Mr Gawlier was a lawyer whose portrait is shown right.

Mrs Northey also bought a packing case, which would have been useful when the piano was moved between Ivey House and Orchard Street, and perhaps on some of their frequent visits to the Northey family who lived at Epsom (cousins of her late husband, I believe).

Ann Northey lived many years after these events. She died aged 90 at Bath, in 1822 but was buried at Box, where Charlotte's memorial can also be found.

The biggest surprise concerning this piano was the presence of a pedal (for the 'swell' raising part of the lid). Such pedals were usually charged at an extra two guineas, and noted when supplied in the Journal, but apparently not in this case. I have carefully examined it and compared it with other examples: it seems to be original.

The piano now belongs to Dr Hansjosten of Trier, Germany.

Michael Cole, Cheltenham, 2014

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