Pedal harps in London music auctions of the 1820s
Updated: Feb 7, 2019
I hope that readers might welcome and perhaps comment on this list of harps sold in general music auctions held in London between 1822 and 1829 by William Peete Musgrave. This is a work-in-progress offshoot of a complete transcription, with commentary, which I am preparing of musical instrument entries in London auction catalogues of the period.
Musgrave, who evidently had musical expertise, seems gradually to have specialised in music after starting, following the bankruptcy in 1813 of his Cheapside lace dealing partnership with R. Cocher and W. Godfree, as an auctioneer of real estate and anything from waste paper to elite household contents. By 1823, having held several music auctions, his status in the musical world was affirmed by the Musicians’ Company: the minute book of the Company of records that on 7 April of that year, ‘William Pete Musgrave, son of Peete Musgrave, late of Cambridge in the County of Cambridge, Woollen Draper deceased, was this day admitted into the Freedom of this Company by Redemption and duly sworn.’
The auctions, not all of which included instruments, consisted mainly of printed music; instruments were typically clustered consecutively in groups of lots, sometimes on more than one day, to attract buyers, and some sales also included manuscript music, engraved publishers’ plates, ruled paper, strings, and musical furniture. Initially successful, Musgrave’s auctions, the largest extending over four days, were patronised by prominent musicians including Domenico Dragonetti, John Henry Gauntlett, Thomas Greatorex, and Sir George Smart. His industriousness did not, however, avert a second bankruptcy, in September 1828, after which auctions continued in his name for a further year or so.
Musgrave’s brother, Thomas, who went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1804, achieved remarkable success, becoming Professor of Arabic there, and later Archbishop of York. William Peete the auctioneer should not be confused with William Peete junior, his son, who followed his uncle Thomas to Trinity College in 1831, later becoming a Canon of Hereford Cathedral.
Only 19 harps are listed for sale by auction between 1822 and 1829, an average of 2.375 per year. In view of the vogue for the instrument, the small proportion of harps among much larger numbers of piano-fortes, bowed instruments, flutes, etc., is noteworthy. This is perhaps due to arrangements afforded, at least by major makers including Erard and Erat, for used harps to be accepted back in-house. It appears not to be a consequence of the high cost of harps; piano-fortes, organs, and violins by Amati, Stainer, and Stradivari, which would have commanded comparably high prices, were auctioned alongside them. The flow of second-hand harps offered at auction was not steady. One might conjecture that an increase in their number in 1828-29 already corresponds to a decline in popularity, but the data set is really too small to sustain this interpretation.
Of the 19 harps, eight are explicitly double-action instruments. Although the catalogue entries are brief and the amount of detail given varies, Musgrave usually highlighted desirable attributes of the instruments offered, so it is likely that the other eleven harps were single-action. Most were by London makers. One harp is dismissed simply as ‘French’, without acknowledgement of the maker; and another, by implication a relatively undistinguished one, is offered in a colourfully assorted lot: ‘2 Bird Organs, a Harp, and 2 Guitars’.
The number of harps by Dizi (4) and Schwieso (3) in comparison with those of the much more prolific Erard (3) and Erat (4) is remarkable. Whereas the Dizis appeared singly, in 1822, 1823, 1826, and 1828, each Schwieso was placed on a separate day of one long sale, their availability together with two piano-fortes of the same make suggesting a particular impetus – perhaps a crisis in business – to dispose of them quickly.
Two of the harps offered bore the names of dealers and publishers, Astor, and Broderip & Wilkinson, who are not known to have made harps themselves and for whom I have not been able to trace extant instruments. Only a year after their partnership was formed, Broderip and Wilkinson prominently announced ‘improved harps’ in A Catalogue of Instrumental and Vocal Music, Printed and Sold by Broderip and Wilkinson, No. 13, Hay-Market, London; ... (London, 1799), on the title page and p. .
There were so few manufacturers in London at the time that the sale in about 1800 of Erard’s harp with the serial number 331 to ‘Mr Broderip & Co’ suggests that Erard was the supplier of these ‘new improved pedal harps’.
As Broderip & Wilkinson traded under that name only until the end of 1807, their ‘rich-toned harp’ sold by Musgrave in 1829 must have been at least 22 years old at the time. It is not clear whether they subsequently found another supplier, but for Musgrave to have sold a harp with their name, Broderip & Wilkinson must, whoever made it, have had their name affixed.
Like Broderip & Wilkinson, the publisher and piano maker George Astor & Co., to whom the Erards in February 1819 were so indebted that they were taken to court (Robert Adelson et al., eds, The History of the Erard Piano and Harp in Letters and Documents, 1785–1959 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), vol. 2, pp. 705-708), also sold a wide range of wind and other instruments, some of them supplied by other makers. The Erards’ debt in respect of the supply of wood (ibid., p. 712) was partly to be offset by their having supplied a harp to Astor, apparently in 1813. In a letter of 2 March 1819 to Sébastien Erard, Pierre Erard observed that ‘What Astor owes for the harp will naturally be deducted from the debt, which will be reduced to about £400’ (ibid., p. 709). That payment for one harp was still at issue after six years suggests that such transactions between the two companies were infrequent. Whether other harp makers also supplied Astor is unknown, but it is conceivable that the ‘Pedal Harp, by Astor’ auctioned by Musgrave in 1822 was made by Erard. Again, the question whether the maker engraved the instrument with the dealer’s name arises.
Tonal quality is the attribute of the harps most frequently praised in Musgrave’s catalogues. The tone of twelve of the harps is described in these terms:
Brilliant (7 times)
Rich (4 times, twice in combination with brilliant)
Fine (3 times), ‘remarkably’ so in the case of one Erat.
In only one case is the condition of a harp commented on: the Dizi Patent Perpendicular offered on 10 December 1823 (lot 95) was ‘as good as new’.
Two instruments by prominent makers had exceptional decorative features: the Erard offered on 7 March 1827 (lot 415) had a ‘carved pillar’; and the Erat on 10 July 1828 (lot 60) a ‘brass head’.
One Erat harp was offered with a deal case, and three had covers: those of an Erard and an Erat were of green baize, and that a Dizi of leather. The cover of the Erard could be locked.
Some of the surviving copies of Musgrave’s auction catalogues were annotated by attendees with sale prices and the names of purchasers. For only two of the harps is the price recorded. William Henry Mayne, a clerk to whom Musgrave regularly posted catalogues at his nearby place of work, the Freight Office, East India House, noted at the 13 December 1826 auction that the Erat (lot 273, here assumed to be a single-action) and the Dizi Perpendicular double-action (lot 274) sold for £17/0/0 and £21/0/0 respectively. Both prices are astonishingly low.
Date of sale: 3 July 1822
53 A perpendicular HARP, with double action, by DIZI
Date of sale: 20 November 1822 59 A Pedal Harp, by ASTOR
Date of sale: 10 December 1823 95 A PATENT PERPENDICULAR HARP, with Double Action, by Dizi, as Good as New
Date of sale: 20 September 1824 540 2 Bird Organs, a Harp, and 2 Guitars
Date of sale: 7 June 1825 115 A brilliant toned Patent Pedal harp, by Erat with Deal Case.
Date of sale: 1 May 1826 232 A REMARKABLY FINE-TONED PATENT PEDAL HARP, by ERAT, with green baize Cover
Date of sale: 13 December 1826
273 A patent Pedal HARP, by ERAT £17/0/0 274 A PATENT PERPENDICULAR DOUBLE ACTION HARP, by Dizi, with leather cover £21/0/0
Date of sale: 7 March 1827 415 A BRILLIANT-TONED PATENT PEDAL HARP, carved pillar, &c. by ERARD, with green baize cover, patent lock and key
Date of sale: 29 January 1828 60 A BRILLIANT-TONED PATENT PERPENDICULAR DOUBLE ACTION HARP BY DIZI
Date of sale: 3 June 1828
46 A brilliant Toned Double Action Perpendicular Harp, New Patent, by Schwieso 194 A RICH BRILLIANT TONED DOUBLE ACTION HARP, NEW PATENT, BY SCHWIESO 225 A French Harp 295 A RICH BRILLIANT TONED DOUBLE ACTION HARP NEW PATENT BY SCHWIESO [NB recurrence of the same wording]
Date of sale: 10 July 1828 60 A FINE TONED HARP, BRASS HEAD, by ERAT.
Date of sale: 6 August 1829 206 A BRILLIANT TONED HARP, by ERARD
Date of sale: 26 August 1829 54 A RICH TONED HARP, by BRODERIP and WILKINSON 153 A RICH TONED HARP BY ERARD
Date of sale: 26 September 1829 72 A Fine toned PEDAL HARP
Following the demise of Musgrave’s business, the next harp offered for sale by auction is not found until 12 November 1832, when A Catalogue of the Stock of Messrs. Flight & Robson, organ builders to His Majesty ... which will be sold by auction, by Mr. Bullock (London, 1832) included:
29 A CAPITAL DOUBLE-ACTION HARP, BY DOCKREE, made and finished in the best manner
Unlike most of Musgrave’s, this auction was held on the premises of the bankrupt organbuilders. That the Dockree harp was displayed in their ‘front ware-room’, alongside several new, finished Flight & Robson organs, and piano-fortes by Jacobs, Jenkins, and Wornum, suggests that it too was a brand new instrument which had been shown there, for sale, at the time of the bankruptcy. (I am grateful to Mike Baldwin for pointing out that Dockree had worked for Erat in the early 1820s.)