Square pianos by Johannes Pohlman made in London between 1768 and 1790 are frequently cited and much sought after by those who enjoy early classical music on period instruments. Here you will find a brief survey of them and their maker. A much more detailed account will be available in printed form, hopefully soon.


John Pohlman was working as a harpsichord and pianoforte maker in London in 1768 when insurance records show him sharing space within the workshop behind the house of Adam & Lorence Beyer in Compton Street, Soho. Adam Beyer opened this workshop in 1766 so it may be that Pohlman was there from the beginning. Prior to that he was probably working invisibly, like so many other craftsmen, making harpsichord parts for Jacob Kirckman, either as an outworker or perhaps employed directly at Kirckman's house in Broad Street. No harpsichords made by Pohlman are known to survive, but there are documentary records to show that some were sold by London auctioneers around 1790. His oldest known square piano dates from 1768. (Reports of one dated 1767 are so doubtful that it is best disregarded.)

In 1769 John Pohlman married Dorothea Ludewigen at St Anne's, just off Compton Street. They then set up home and workshop just round the corner, in Frith Street, more or less opposite the house where the Mozart family stayed a few years before. Here Pohlman quickly established a reputation for square pianos, feeding off the insatiable demand for such instruments created by Zumpe & Buntebart. Outwardly Pohlman's pianos look much like Zumpe's, yet even in his earliest examples there is clear evidence that he was making innovations of his own, not simply copying. Several internal features are distinctively different from Zumpe's work, as also is his treatment of the nameboard - a typical example shown below. [RNCM, Manchester]

The quality of calligraphy in the above inscription indicates that he employed one of the best writing masters in London at that time, but unhappily he economised in later years as we can see from the declining standards of lettering and design. This decline sets in about 1776 and becomes worse as the years pass. As the lettering deteriorates so does the inlay. The elaborate cartouche with broken ogee ends shown above was simplified to a standard ogee, which is easier to inlay, and then after 1780 a long oval of inelegant style.

Like Zumpe, Pohlman exported many instruments to Europe, especially to Paris. Opera composer Gluck reportedly owned a Pohlman square piano dated 1772, displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but there has been no report of it since then. In Denmark about 2005 a Pohlman piano, lacking an inscription, was offered in an auction sale with a very high estimate, on the basis of the seller's belief that it once belonged to W.A.Mozart. Potential buyers were not convinced, but it was undoubtedly a Pohlman piano of small dimensions (see below), datable to the late 1780s.

John Pohlman generally produced square pianos to standard patterns, some with a 59 note keyboard, others with 61 notes. Most had three handstops, and the ubiquitous 'English single action' introduced by Zumpe. Elaborately veneered pianos by Pohlman are rare, only one example is currently known. Even when rival makers such as Beck and Ganer were adding intricate inlaid lines, most Pohlman pianos remain rather plain, as shown below. However, innovation and variety can be seen in the specification of some surviving instruments.

One example, formerly in the possession of antiques dealer Alan Legg in Cirencester, and presumably still extant, had a hand-operated una corda stop. Pulling a knob drew the keys forward by about 3mm so that only one of each unison pair would be sounded, leaving the other strings to vibrate sympathetically. This is prodigiously difficult to do, requiring very accurate craftsmanship. His former colleague Adam Beyer is the only other piano maker known to have used this innovation (circa 1775) except for a single specimen inscribed by Joseph Merlin.

In Leipzig there is an undated organised square piano by Pohlman - that is, a standard pianoforte fitted with two ranks of organ pipes in a cabinet beneath. It appears to date from the mid 1780s.

At least three exceptionally small pianos survive, probably made about 1785. One is in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. [Not on display] It is just 120 cm wide, apparently designed as a travelling piano. I note that Lord Queensbury had a square piano adapted to fit inside his coach about this time. Another example is even smaller, 110 cm wide, constructed on similar principles with a 58 note keyboard, missing top f. It is extravagantly decorated, with oil paintings and gilded wreaths, evidently intended for a lady of great wealth and refinement. How much of this is original is difficult to say. A typical square piano by 'Johannes Pohlman' is shown below.

In 1777 Pohlman moved to a more prestigious address, renting a newly-built house from the Duke of Bedford in Great Russell Street (near the British Museum). Previous to this move Pohlman had not given his address in the inscription of his pianos, unlike most of his competitors. So anything with the date 1778 or later should have 'Great Russell Street' in the inscription. Expect those made before 1778 to show no address.

A Youtube video linked here gives an idea of the sort of sound produced by these instruments. The example you see dates from 1780, and the audio track gives a fair idea of the tone of Pohlman's pianos.

From a letter written by his wife we know that John Pohlman's health was in decline in 1790. His business suffered as a result. He died in December 1792, and was buried at Whitefield's Chapel, in Tottenham Court Road – entered in the registers as 'John Poleman'. The same burial ground also had Burkat Shudi and John Broadwood's mortal remains - until Herr Hitler sent over some V2 rockets, the last of which hit the chapel and blasted the graveyard. The chapel was rebuilt, but the graves are gone.

Information about John Pohlman's only known son is incomplete so we cannot presently tell whether he ever took up his father's trade. He was only 17 when his father died so he was too young to take over the business, though his mother hoped he could. There are no reports of pianos under his own name. Perhaps he followed some other trade. Unhappily, I cannot find any document that states his trade or profession. However, I can say that John George Pohlman was born c.1774/5, when the family lived in Frith Street, in the parish of St Anne's, Soho. In 1809 he married Anne Hamilton Williams, and they had three children. He lived long enough to be recorded in the national census of 1851, still living in London, but in Pentonville. His elder sister Anna Louisa Pohlman died unmarried in 1838, also in Pentonville.


There is much in print and on the internet about the Pohlmann family from Yorkshire who, in the 1850s or 60s, presented themselves as 'Piano Manufacturers' in Halifax. Previously they were simply classified as Music Sellers. Their own literature says that their firm was founded in Hamburg in 1823 (which could be true, but is unverified). However, in the late Victorian period they added a misleading little banner to their publicity literature. It simply reads: 'Johannes Pohlmann London 1772'. From this readers were intended to deduce that Pohlmann of Halifax was a descendant. In fact, as one may see from a family tree produced by later generations, they do not claim descent from John George Pohlman (only son of John Pohlman) and therefore cannot be directly related to the maker of the pianos featured here. They also conveniently overlook the single 'n' in Pohlman's surname. However, one useful result of their pretended connection is that one of the oldest Pohlman pianos, dated 1769, is now preserved at Shibden Hall Museum just outside Halifax. Presented to the museum by the family, it is now on display in a cosy oak-panelled music room. It is a pleasant little museum, set in a delightfully landscaped park, well worth a visit. As you can see, this piano has never been restored. The oak stand is not original.

© Michael Cole, revised 2020

Copyright © Michael Cole 2002-2015      All rights reserved            Website designed by Michael Debenham