Square pianos signed by 'Johannes Pohlman' between 1768 and 1790 are frequently cited in specialist publications, and much sought after, owing to the recommendations given by Charles Burney, the musician and music historian. Here you will find a brief survey of them and some facts about their maker.


John Pohlman was working as a harpsichord and pianoforte maker in London in 1768 when insurance records show him sharing space in the workshop of Adam & Lorence Beyer in Compton Street, in the parish of St. Anne's, Soho. Adam Beyer commenced this tenancy in 1766 so it may be that Pohlman also was there, from the beginning. Prior to that he was probably working invisibly and anonymously for Jacob Kirckman, either as an outworker or perhaps employed directly at Kirckman's house in nearby Broad Street. No harpsichords survive with Pohlman's inscription, though there are documentary records to show that some were sold by Christies around 1790 (see Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, Donald Boalch). His oldest known square piano dates from 1768, though all that survives is the nameboard, undoubtedly genuine. (Reports of one dated 1767 should be disregarded.)

Martha Clinkscale, Edwin Good, and many others report that 'Johannes Pohlman[n] was one of the 'Twelve Apostles', piano makers who allegedly migrated from Saxony [Germany] in or about 1760. There is not a shred of evidence to support this. John Pohlman's birthplace is not known.

In 1769 John Pohlman and [Maria] Dorothea Ludewigen were married at St Anne's, Soho. They then set up home and workshop within sight of the church, 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 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 - an early example shown below. [Royal Northern College of Music, 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 regrettable decline sets in about 1775 and becomes worse as the years pass. As the lettering deteriorates so does the inlay. The elaborate cartouche shown above (with broken ogee ends) was simplified to a standard ogee (1775 onwards), which is easier to inlay, and then about 1784 it was further simplified to a long, sausage-like oval in a much less elegant style.

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. Baron Melchior Grimm, Bavarian Ambassador, and friend of Mozart, owned a Pohlman piano dated 1771. Both pianos were probably supplied on the recommendation of Charles Burney. Grimm's piano was still in his house in Paris in 1793, after which it was confiscated by the Republican government. In Denmark about 2005 a Pohlman piano, lacking an inscription, was offered in an auction sale with a very high estimate. The seller believed that it once belonged to W.A.Mozart, but potential buyers were not convinced. However, it was undoubtedly a Pohlman piano of small dimensions with its bass strings exposed at the right (see below), datable to the late 1780s.

John Pohlman generally produced square pianos to standard patterns, some ended with GG in the bass, others had 61 notes, down to FF. Most had three handstops. All had the ubiquitous 'English single action' introduced by German-born inventor John Zumpe. Elaborately veneered pianos by Pohlman are rare, only one example is currently known (dated 1778, privately owned, in Sussex.) Its pictorial inlays suggest they are the work of Christopher Furlogh. Even when rival makers such as Beck and Ganer embellished their pianos with intricate inlaid lines, Pohlman pianos are usually 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. 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) though there is a single specimen inscribed by Joseph Merlin, but by an unknown hand, possibly Verel.

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, made about 1785. To create these very compact instruments Pohlman cut a slot at the right side of the nameboard through which the bass strings pass above the treble keys. One is in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. [Not on display] It is just 120 cm wide. Another example is even smaller, 110 cm wide, constructed on similar principles with a 58 note keyboard, missing top f. In private ownership, 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 more typical square piano by 'Johannes Pohlman' is shown below.

At Michaelmas in 1777 Pohlman moved to a more prestigious address, renting a recently-built house on the Duke of Bedford's development at 113 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. There are, so far as is known, no instruments bearing the Frith Street address. Even after the move to Bloomsbury his address was not at first included in the inscriptions. Those that show the address seem to be from about 1785, or later. Pohlman frequently omits the date from his later pianos, which provides an opportunity for someone to add some numbers, if they feel so inclined. This is how one of his pianos came to have the date '1767' inserted at the end, though it also has the address 'Great Russel Street', showing that it was made in or after 1778! The shape of cartouche indicates circa 1785.

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. In truth it sounds rather better than most.

A superbly presented square piano in a black lacquer cabinet, with gilt ornament, attributed to Thomas Chippendale, has distinctive features indicating that the piano itself was constructed by Pohlman. It was not, like the Frederick Beck pianos, a stand-alone piano inserted into a cabinet - but made to a special design, probably a valuable commission from the Duke of Northumberland, around 1774-5. You will see that, like Robert Adam's design for the Empress of Russia's piano from Zumpe & Buntebart, symmetry has been achieved by adding extra storage space to the left. Note also that the soundboard is not of the usual shape but extends forwards to fill the space created by the bowed front at the right. The stop levers also are of a special design that makes no sense except in the context of the whole ensemble. The lid, I might add, is exceptionally heavy!


From a letter written by his wife we know that John Pohlman's health was in decline in 1790. He died in December 1792, and was buried at Whitefield's Chapel, in Tottenham Court Road – confusingly 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 futile but malicious V2 rockets. The very last of these hit the chapel on Palm Sunday, 1945, and blasted the graveyard. The chapel was later rebuilt, but the burial ground and grave markers are gone. Posterity therefore loses the family plot of Shudi, the family plot of Broadwood, and the grave markers for Mr. and Mrs. Pohlman.

Three children from John Pohlman's marriage with Maria Dorothea survived to adult age. Their younger daughter, Catherine, married in 1799, and as Mrs Iselin lived at a Thames-side house connected with the maritime trade in Bermondsey. The elder daughter, Anna Louisa Pohlman, died unmarried in London, in 1838, leaving most of her wealth to her nieces Eliza and Sophia Iselin, including portraits of her 'beloved parents'. In her will she left more than a thousand pounds in Government 3 per cent Bonds. Her meticulous detail reveals a comfortable lifestyle, which represents a remarkable recovery from the family's humiliating position when all their possessions were offered at public auction in 1794.

Information about John Pohlman's only surviving son, John George Pohlman (bapt. February 1776), is incomplete. He was sixteen years old when his father died so he was not old enough to take over the workshop, if that was ever intended. He worked in London in clerical and administrative employment, but he was far more able and indusrious than would be expected of a 'clerk'. In 1809 he married Anne Hamilton Williams, and they had three children. John George lived long enough to be recorded in the national census of 1851, still living in London. Happily, thanks to a response to this page from chess master Herbert Bastian, I learned that J.G.Pohlman was the author of several books, viz. 'An Introduction to the Game of Chess', with diagrams, translated from the work of Philidor (yes, the same Philidor who composed music); a ready-reckoner 'Table of Time', for the use of actuaries etc.; and a treatise on 'The Polish Game of Draughts'. On the title page of the latter he styles himself 'J.G.Pohlman of the Audit Office'.

His son, Robert Hamilton Pohlman (thus the pianomaker's grandson) born 1813, qualified as a lawyer in England, and was later a judge in Australia.


Pohlmann family of Halifax

There is much in print and on the internet concerning the Pohlmann family from Yorkshire who, in the 1850s or 60s, presented themselves to the public as 'Piano Manufacturers' in Halifax, falsely reported as successors to Johannes Pohlmann [sic] of London. Previously they were simply recorded as 'Music Sellers'. Their own literature says that their business was founded in Hamburg in 1823 (which could be true, but is unverified). However, in the late Victorian period they incorporated a misleading little banner to their publicity literature. It simply reads: 'Johannes Pohlmann London 1772'. From this they presumably thought that readers might presume the Pohlmanns of Halifax were descendants of the early London piano maker. In fact, as one may see from a family tree produced by later generations (kindly supplied to me by Rosemary Fletcher, of Harrogate, a descendant) they do not claim descent from John George Pohlman (only surviving son of John Pohlman) and therefore they cannot be directly descended from the maker of the pianos featured here. They also conveniently overlook the single 'n' in Pohlman's surname (which is confirmed by John Pohlman's MS signature). 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, Yorkshire. Presented to the museum by the Pohlmann family, before 1926, it is now on display in a charming oak-panelled music room. This is a pleasant little museum, set in a delightfully landscaped park. As may be seen below, this piano has never been restored. The oak stand is not original, but otherwise everything seems to be untouched since the day it left Pohlman's workshop.



© Michael Cole, revised 2023

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