Dear colleagues, Might anyone have any information on a Thomas Hamilton (or member of his family) who lived near Glasgow in the period 1810-1820? I am studying a harp that belonged to him, and thought that perhaps his name might appear in some of your databases or research notes. Thanks in advance for your help. Kind regards, Robert
top of page
Dear Robert and Mike,
I hadn't seen Robert's confirmation that the pillar is carved when entering my observations above. My conclusions are, at least, consitent with this...
Best wishes, Lewis.
Regarding Mike’s conjecture about the way in which this exceptional neck was made, I think we can – trusting to the accuracy of the photograph – deduce that the underlying woodwork, whether the decorative form was carved, applied or, conceivably, a combination of the two, differed somewhat from that of ‘an otherwise standard harp.’ If a straight line is drawn through the two inmost-curved points on the forward edge of the pillar, the nearest point on the opposite edge (that facing the soundboard) appears to be closer (acknowledging that we see that harp at a slight angle, not en face) than the 57 or so mm that we should expect on the normal turned pillar. Thus the wood, locally at those narrowest points, must be somewhat thinner than that of the normal lathe-turned and fluted neck. It seems most unlikely that whoever decorated the pillar started with a standard pillar of circular section, as the turner would have returned them to the Erard workshop. If the neck is carved, it seems likely that blocks would have been glued to a normal four-piece neck while it was still square in section, thus avoiding undue waste of wood and effort. Robert remarks upon ‘the technical prowess with which Erard used curves in the harp pillar, while still allowing for a vertical space through which the rods must pass’: just enough wood was left at the thinnest points for the neck to fulfil its structural function. It seems unlikely that this is an example of applied composition (compo) decoration of the kind normally used by Erard, whose main advantage was that identical forms, typically in relatively small sections, could be mass-produced cheaply. The composition moulds needed in this case would have been large and numerous, and their cost would hardly have been justified for a single instrument.
Dear Mike, Thanks for your thoughts. The pillar and the putti are both in carved wood. The Broadwood archives mention the figure of £100 representing the cost of the harp plus associated transport fees.
This is fascinating. I've always thought that the Erard ledgers give scant information about harp decoration, as this instrument and its associated entry suggest. That the price is that of a standard double-action is surprising, but there are a multitude of reasons why this could be so. Could it be that 2731 was an experiment, intended to extend the range of harps on offer? Altering pillar design is a standard way that modern makers create new models. I've seen a sketch of the putti somewhere before but can't for the life of me remember where.
Have you had an opportunity to examine the instrument? I wonder if the decoration is of composition, applied over a standard pillar, or if it's carved. There is always an outside possibility that the decoration was added to an otherwise standard harp at some point after its manufacture - possibly something commissioned by Broadwood on behalf of Hamilton. There were numerous composition makers in London at that time who would have had no difficulty in doing just that; George Jackson was a mere stone's throw away. Later addition of the decoration might explain the standard price paid to Erard by Broadwood, the 20% discount being a standard commission, the cost of doing so (presumably plus Broadwood's markup) would have been passed on to the customer. Do you know how much Hamilton paid?
I will now explain my interest in learning more about Thomas Hamilton of Glasgow.
One of the most extraordinary harps that I have ever come across is a highly-decorated instrument that the London branch of the Erard firm sold on 23 June 1819 to the London piano making firm of Broadwood and sons. This harp, bearing serial number 2731 is today preserved in a private collection of a harpist, who has had it restored and who performs on it. You can get a glimpse of this unusual harp on her site:
As you can see, this harp is truly unique, bearing little relation to the variations on the Empire or Grecian patterns with which we are so familiar from this period. What is particularly impressive is the technical prowess with which Erard used curves in the harp pillar, while still allowing for a vertical space through which the rods must pass.
I was therefore curious to learn for whom Erard made such an interesting harp. I dismissed the idea that the harp was sold to Broadwood simply for resale. Although the Erard firm did sell to dealers throughout Europe it did not do so to other dealers in London itself, because they had their own shop there. In fact, I can only find traces of two or three harps (including harp 2731) that Erard sold to Broadwood over several decades. Moreover, harps sold to dealers are usually rather plain, or at least in fairly standard decorative patterns.
As we know from studying the Erard family correspondence, in the period 1818-1820, Pierre Erard wrote to his uncle that James Broadwood might have been interested in having him marry one of his daughters. (Pierre was perhaps even more serious about marrying the daughter of another London piano maker Thomas Tomkison.) So I thought that is perhaps not too fanciful to imagine that Pierre wanted to have an extra special harp made for the young lady with whom he was in love.
However, my admittedly romantic hypothesis was disproved by information I recently found in the Broadwood archives, where by pure chance I came across a ledger entry that indicates that this very same harp was resold the following day to: "Thomas Hamilton esq, Glasgow, passenger per the 'Wellington', delivered at the Leith and Berwick Wharf [often used by Broadwood for shipping pianos to Scotland] as per order." According to the sales ledger, the Thomas Hamilton in question lived at "Rock Cottage" in or near Port Glasgow.
[I now see that the title before the name "Broadwood" in the Erard ledger is not 'Miss' but rather ‘Messrs’ [plural for Monsieur or Mr] with the ‘rs’ in superscript. While one does find "Miss" before customer names in the Erard ledger, the word is always written out, with no abbreviations in superscript. Erard often wrote the 'double s' in 'Miss' or 'Messrs' with an 'fs' (typical for the period). But when writing out the word 'Miss' he always dotted the 'i', which is not the case on 'Messrs'.]
In other words, Thomas Hamilton ordered the harp via Broadwood, rather than directly from Erard. The Broadwood firm was simply acting as a middleman, which does seems rather strange. Hamilton had purchased a piano from Broadwood several in 1812, so the explanation may simply be that he had an established relationship with Broadwood and therefore asked him to send an Erard harp. The decorations on harp 2731 are so unusual that I would assume Hamilton requested them. The Broadwood piano Hamilton bought in 1812 was described in the ledgers as a "best" model square, so he seemed to like finely decorated instruments.
It is also curious that the Broadwood ledger shows the following entry for the purchase of Erard harp 2731:
"P Erard at Great Marlborough Street. 23 June 1819 By harp £110.5 and case £3.10, less 20 per cent £91"
The price of £110.5 corresponds to the price of the least expensive, least decorated double-action harp during this period (according to a contemporaneous Erard-London catalogue). This is rather strange for such a unique harp (moreover, Erard offered a further 20 percent discount). While it is true that Erard and Broadwood had friendly relations, the harp was not made for Broadwood.
I have checked with many libraries, archives, historical societies in Glasgow and nobody has any trace of a Thomas Hamilton of Rock Cottage, Port Glasgow. The only further lead I have about his possible identity comes from the 1805 edition of the Glasgow Post Office directory, which contains a listing for: "T. Hamilton musician, 32, Hutcheson Street." Alas, with such a common name and so little else to go on it seems rather difficult to pursue.
Until and unless I can find out more about Thomas Hamilton, I can draw two conclusions from what I know of this harp:
1. One should be cautious about assuming that ledgers give accurate information about harp decorations. For harp 2731, the ledger simply indicates "D" (Double action), and absolutely nothing about any sort of ornaments.
2, Often, when one finds such extravagant decorations on an instrument one assumes that the instrument was made for someone special: an aristocrat, or someone who might have had a 'special 'relationship to the maker (as may or may not have been the case with a Miss Broadwood). But perhaps Erard-London harp no. 2731 was simply made for a "normal" customer who wanted a pretty harp?
A long shot, perhaps, but might there be a connection here with the family of the two celebrated Glasgow-born architects named Thomas Hamilton, father (1754-1824) and son (1784-1858), both of whom worked and lived principally in Edinburgh?