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 in 2018.


John Pohlman (for that's what he called himself) was working as a harpsichord and pianoforte maker in London in 1768 when insurance records show that he was sharing space within the workshop of Adam & Lorence Beyer in Compton Street, Soho. Adam Beyer opened this workshop in 1766 so it may be that Pohlman was also 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. Harpsichords made by Pohlman and presumably identified by his inscription above the keys, were sold in London around 1790, but whether they were recently made, or more likely, pre-owned instruments is not known. His oldest known square piano dates from 1768. (Reports of one dated 1767 are very dubious.)

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. Superficially Pohlman's pianos look much like Zumpe's, yet even in his earliest examples there is clear evidence that he was making innovations, 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. The decline sets in about 1776 and becomes worse. The elaborate cartouche with broken ogee ends was also simplified to a standard ogee, which is easier to inlay, and after 1780 an oval of inelegant style.

Like Zumpe, Pohlman exported many instruments to Europe, especially to Paris. Opera composer Gluck reportedly owned a Pohlman piano dated 1772, displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but there has been no report of it since then.

Pohlman generally produced square pianos to standard patterns, some with a 59 note keyboard, others with 61 notes, usually with three handstops, and all with the ubiquitous 'English single action' introduced by Zumpe. Elaborately veneered instruments are rare, only one example is currently known. Even when newly established rivals such as Beck and Ganer were using exotic veneers and elaborate inlays, 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 device. 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.

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. 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 was added at a later date is uncertain. 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 present site of the British Museum). Strangely, Pohlman had not given his address in the inscription of his pianos, unlike most of his competitors, until after this move.

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 these pianos.

From a letter written by his wife we know that John Pohlman was not in good health after 1790. His business declined. He died in December 1792, and was buried at Whitefield's Chapel, in Tottenham Court Road – entered in the registers as 'John Poleman'.

Information about John Pohlman's only known son is incomplete in that we cannot presently tell whether he ever took up his father's trade. He was only 17 when his father died so he could not undertake to run the business. There are no reported 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 resided in Frith Street, in the parish of St Anne's, Soho. He married Anne Hamilton Williams in 1809, and they had at least 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, set up as 'Piano Manufacturers' in Halifax. (In previous years they were simply classified as Music Sellers.) Their own literature says that they were first established in Hamburg in 1823 (which may or may not be accurate). However, in the late Victorian period they added to their literature a little banner reading 'Johannes Pohlmann London 1772'. From this readers were supposedly assured of their descent from one of the pioneering manufacturers in the early days of the piano trade. In fact, as one may see from the family tree produced by their descendants, 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. 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, on display in a cosy oak-panelled music room – a nice little museum, set in a delightfully landscaped park, well worth a visit.

© Michael Cole, 2016

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