JOHN POHLMAN

Square pianos signed by 'Johannes Pohlman' between 1768 and 1790 are frequently cited and much sought after by those who prefer early classical music on period instruments. Here you will find a brief survey of them and some facts about their maker.

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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, 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, like so many other craftsmen, 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 and other 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, Soho. 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 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. [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 regrettable 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 he used 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. The seller believed that it once belonged to W.A.Mozart, but potential buyers were not convinced, but 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 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. 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 (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, probably 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, 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 recently-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. In truth it sounds rather better than most.

In his rambling anecdotes, published as 'Music and Friends' in 1838, William Gardiner of Leicester recalls his earliest musical experiences, which involved a Pohlman piano. When he was about nine years old his father Thomas Gardiner, a manufacturer of stockings, allowed young William to learn the viola, which of course the child did not enjoy as it was so difficult to handle. So, after a few months of painful practice his mother bought him a small Piano-forte, by 'Pholman'. This would be about 1776. 'As we had no masters in Leicester who could teach I was obliged to hammer by myself'. After he had taught himself as best he could, and mastered a few pleasing tunes, his mother was very proud of his performance 'and if any company came to the house I was sure to be exhibited.'

This piano appears again in the recolections, for about 1782 the incerdible prodigy William Crotch visited their house. 'He was not more than five years old' and small for his age. He sat on his mother's knee to play the piano and, reports Gardiner, I laid before him Handel's Organ concertos which, without difficulty, he played a first sight. His astonishing talent was exhibited in an impromptu concert when he played several pieces - presumably using the same piano, as there were then no more than 2 or 3 such instruments in the district.

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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 these hit the chapel on Palm Sunday, 1945, and blasted the graveyard. The chapel was later rebuilt, but the graves are gone.

Information about John Pohlman's only son, John George Pohlman (b. c.1774), is incomplete but it is known that he was employed in London in clerical and administrative roles. 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, but in Pentonville. His elder sister Anna Louisa Pohlman died unmarried in 1838, also in Pentonville (perhaps she was living with her brother?). 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 type 'Table of Time', for the use of actuaries etc.; and a treatise of '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 1811, qualified as a barrister in England, and was later a judge in Australia.

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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 known 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 hoped readers might deduce that the Pohlmanns of Halifax was descendants of the early London piano maker. 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 descended from 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 local Pohlmann family, it is now on display in a charming 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 2021

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