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Nineteenth-century Inventiveness: Harps of all sorts

Most harpist will know of the single- and double-action harps made during the early nineteenth-century; the ‘Grecian’ and ‘Gothic’ titles, given to two different models, will be familiar also. However, they may not know that some makers made a wider range of instruments, two of these being John Charles Schwieso and Frederick Grosjean of 11 Soho Square, London. Hoping to capitalise on the popularity of the Welsh triple harp and to challenge Erard’s pre-eminence amongst former players of the Welsh instrument, Schwieso and Grosjean developed a double action with two ranks of strings, naming it the Cambrian harp. They received acclaim in some quarters, in particular from John Parry, the renowned Welsh harpist:

The idea of this very clever instrument, as now produced, originated with Mr. H. Williams, of Dean Street […] As I intend to describe the Cambrian Pedal Harp in an article preparing for the “Annual Report of the Cymmrodorion,” I shall only add that it will be found to possess all the requisites of the Welsh harp, together with the advantages derived from the pedals, which act twice, viz. they will raise any note half a tone, or a whole. The appearance of the harp is very elegant, and the mechanism does great credit to the artists, Messrs Schwieso and Grosjean, of Soho Square.

As promised, the harp was more fully described in the Annual Report of the Cymmrodorion of 1822:

This harp, which is to be called “The Cambrian Pedal Harp, with two rows of strings,” has just been completed, and it certainly is a very ingenious piece of mechanism. In appearance, compass, size, &C. it resembles the common pedal harp, with the exception of a double row of strings. The pedals act, of course, on both rows at once, so that the performer has the advantage of the triple harp […] It will be asked whether the tone is so good, and whether the strings can be of the usual roundness; to this I answer, that a double sounding boardis introduced by the makers, thereby allowing the strings to be equally thick, consequently a great body of tone can be produced.


That few examples of the Cambrian harp survive suggests that few were made. It was, however, successful enough that Grosjean continued to advertise it in 1828, following his split from Schwieso, and both single and double action versions, costing£84 and£147 respectively, were included in his later catalogue.

On 25 June 1828, Grosjean announced that he had produced a ‘little dumb harp’ for practice (without sound box) after an invention made by Madame de Genlis for a blind friend, described in her Memoires.

Harpe a la Genlis, F. Grosjean, Morning Post, 4 July 1828.


A report in the Athenaeum asserts ‘that we may soon expect to see our young ladies practicing their harp lessons as they take their evening drives, or whilst sitting under the tormenting hands of their hair-dresser’. The article quotes Madame de Genlis’ description:

[…] rather longer than the finger range, and of only a sufficient width to admit gut strings of a middling thickness, well stretched, and placed at the same distances as on the harp. A small strip of scarlet cloth, drawn through the strings, entirely deprived them of sound. [Of her friend she writes] She always carried this miniature harp about with her, in a bag, and it was scarcely more cumbersome than her fan. She played on it whilst travelling, and frequently without being noticed, by hiding it under her shawl.


Grosjean's Harpe a la Genlis. Author’s collection.


Grosjean’s catalogue, published some ten years later, names other harps in ‘antique shapes’, including the ‘Hibernian harp’ (priced from 84 guineas), the ‘Wernelin harp’ (30 guineas and upwards), the ‘carriage harp’ (from 5 guineas), and the ‘Victoria harp lyre’ (from 12 guineas). Although these are not described, one might assume that the Hibernian harp emulated the form of an antique Irish instrument, or perhaps those of Egan; the price suggests that it was a substantial, mechanised instrument. Carriage Harp suggests a small, perhaps lap-type instrument (perhaps such as that given by the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats to Maud Gonne, the Irish republican revolutionary, suffragette and actress, but the name Wernelin Harp doesn’t offer clues about that type.

Harp by Grosjean, given by W.B. Yeats to Maud Gonne. Photo used with the kind permission of Whyte's Auctions, Dublin, Ireland


Grosjean’s Victoria Harp Lyre is described in the Musical World (18 January 1844). It comprised a pedestal of carved oak and burnished gold; a body of polished rosewood (presumably veneered); a green and gold neck decorated with gold lines and shamrocks; and an enamelled, cream-coloured front. At seven feet tall, it was larger than the Gothic harp, but with only 18 strings attached to three tuning machines. Like the harp, it had a neck and pedestal, and it was richly decorated. It apparently combined the effect of the harp with that of the Greek lyre.


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© 2020 by Mike Baldwin

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