It is always very exciting when the opportunity to bring in external specialists to conserve and/or restore individual objects to their former glories presents itself. This is what happened when we began to plan our 2020 exhibition Georgians: the Pride and the Prejudice. The exhibition showcased some of the wonderful objects from this fascinating period of British history, and what could be more evocative of its age than an elegant, and rare, Erard harp from Worcester City’s collection.
A so-called ‘Grecian’ model, built in London, around 1817, this harp is quite an early example of Erard’s double-action harp, which is considered as the predecessor of the modern concert harp.
At some point in its history, some strings had been replaced with garden twine, some of the beading had come loose, and the back panel had come out of alignment. We were very lucky to be able to call in a local business, Diabolus in Musica, who specialise in making and restoring historical stringed instruments to address these problems and after a week in a nearby workshop, the harp was returned to the museum to take pride of place in the Art Gallery.
Paul Baker from Diabolus in Musica was able to tell us more about the history and construction of the harp. He noted that the harp has 8 pedals which is unusual as most pedal harps have 7 and provided more information on the model name:
“When Erard patented the rotating disc (called “fourchettes”- the French word for “fork”) mechanism in 1794, he added a ram’s head to the top of the pillar, so his single-action harps (one disc per string) were referred to as “Ram’s head” or Empire harps. When he added the second disc in the 1810 patent, he changed the decoration to the Grecian gesso motifs you can see on your harp. That seems to be the only significance of “Grecian”. Nothing to do with the construction, other than the new mechanism”
Sadly, the harp’s soundboard is in too poor a condition for the harp to be played. It would have to be replaced entirely in order for the strings to be pulled to sufficient tension to create the beautiful sound it would once have made. To hear how it might have sounded, the Dutch musician Marije Vijselaar plays a similar instrument on youtube.
At around the same time as the harp was undergoing restoration, we were coincidentally contacted by a researcher looking into Erard harps. He was able to track down some of the original owners of the harp through Erard ledgers held by the Royal College of Music, London.
The handwriting is hard to distinguish in places but the following is surmised: It was sold on 15 December 1817 to a ‘Miss Colebrooke’ (?) residing at ‘Branch Hill Lodge’ (?) in Hampstead. It was repaired for a ‘Lady Smith’ in Sutton on 28 May 1834 and then again on 23 January 1880 for a ‘Revd C(?)..apel Bure’ (?).
The research project is entitled ‘A Creative Triangle of Mechanics, Acoustics and Aesthetics: The Early Pedal Harp (1780-1830) as a Symbol of Innovative Transformation’, and is funded by the Research in Museums Programme of the Volkswagen Foundation.
With thanks to Paul Baker, Diabolus in Musica, Dr Panagiotis Poulopoulos, Deutsches Museum, Munich, Morley Harps and the Royal College of Music.