Abbotsford Entrance Hall

Abbotsford Entrance Hall

Monday, 6 June 2016

A Tale of Two Harps


Our collections here tend to be fairly static because of their very nature; we are not a Walter Scott museum and don't buy filler material on a theme or on the man as a general rule. We exist to showcase the Abbotsford collection, care for this building, repatriate items that may have been lost over the years and to share our passion and celebrate our commitment to caring for Scott's legacy. For this reason, new acquisitions are somewhat rare. And they don't get much more unusual than a stunning Regency period harp! Those of you that have visited us before might be scratching your heads right about now, muttering under your breath that you were sure that there was already a harp at Abbotsford...and of course you would be right. Here she is, a gilt and black Sebastian Erard harp with neoclassical decoration, manufactured in 1820 according to her unique serial number and purchased by a Mrs J. Lockhart (nee [Charlotte] Sophia Scott):

Sophia Scott's 1820 harp
We know that Sophia was playing the harp with considerable skill long before 1820 (she was born back in 1799, the eldest child of Walter and Charlotte Scott), and she was doing so much to the great pleasure of her father and to the delight of many a guest to grace these 'halls' as Scott affectionately termed them. This, clearly, cannot be the instrument that Sophia played so enchantingly for her audience, one of whom proclaimed that the spectacle seemed almost an  'act of religion.' This young woman, keen to showcase her refined capabilities in her formative years, seemed capable of melting hearts. And this is rather apt, for this particular instrument is far more likely to be piece purchased in her name by her husband, perhaps as a wedding present in 1820. During their two-year courtship, John Gibson Lockhart would have spent many an evening listening to musical entertainment in the Drawing Room of the original Cartley Hole Farmhouse (we must remember that the Drawing Room as we know it today had not yet taken shape). Perhaps it was in the throes of musical sentimentality that Lockhart fell for Sophia a la Mary Crawford in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park:  

"A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man's heart." 

Or perhaps I am getting carried away..!

Lady with a Harp: Eliza Ridgely", portrait by Thomas Sully, 1818
Regardless of the intricacies of their romance, we can say definitively that there must have been another harp. Mr. Pole was the 'harper,' the tutor who taught both of Scott's daughters for many years, indeed tried to offer Scott money when he found himself in serious financial difficulties in 1826. Anne's musicianship is, I think, so often overlooked simply because scholars have tended to cast Anne in the role of a poor substitute for her artistically merited sister, and made much of the green-eyed monster that rears its head in some of the episodes or choice comments that have survived in letters:

"Sophia is rather too much with her harp... I wish she would take example of old times and hang it up." 
Anne Scott
Portrait of Anne Scott in the Abbotsford Drawing Room
I have yet to find any reference to Anne's aptitude at the harp but she certainly did play, so it's not as if she is condemning musicianship itself. What she does seem to have, without a shadow of a doubt, is distaste for her sister's love of the limelight! When the girls are mentioned playing music together at Abbotsford, there are a number of instrument combinations mentioned: harp and guitar, harp and viol and piano and harp. It is very possible that Anne could play a number of different instruments capably, and was less devoted to the harp in particular because this was so much Sophia's speciality and every sibling naturally strives for a measure of individuality. Having said that, competition amongst siblings is just as natural...

So without further ado, enter stage left: harp number two! This piece was discovered in Oxfordshire in the hands of a private owner who thoughtfully approached the Abbotsford Trust in March 2014 with details of the piece and its supposed connection with Anne. Further research by our team using the serial number on the harp traced it through the company archives to its original purchase for Anne Scott in 1818. It's another Erard double-action harp, but it is distinct in its design. Although the applied plasterwork with it's Grecian assortment of caryatids, winged lions, gryphons, Greek masks and acanthus leaves is a constant, the soundboard decoration is very different and the colour of the the harp's body, a luscious green now sun-bleached in places, is beautiful. We were fortunate enough to be able to purchase the piece through the kind donation of a benefactor, and this donation has also enabled us to send both harps off for treatment with furniture conservator, Sarah Gerrish.



The arrival and unveiling of Anne Scott's 1818 harp

The majority of specialist treatment was reserved for the new piece, with Sophia's instrument undergoing a full conservation clean, using a combination of dry brushwork, white spirit on the areas of copper alloy and 5% Tri-Ammonium Citrate and water on the gilding. The body of the harp was then waxed with a micro-crystalline product to protect the finish. Anne's harp needed a lot more in the way of 'consolidation' work, i.e., stabilising the piece, particularly the gilt on the soundboard and body of the harp. Rabbit glue was used on the many loose elements (animal glues are always used in conservation repairs) and the decorative losses on the soundboard were 'tinted in', meaning that instead of attempting to actually recreate the decoration itself to fill gaps which is not really what we want to be doing, Sarah uses water-based acryllic paint to infill the gaps to match the surrounding base colour. This makes areas of loss less visible and the surrounding areas less prone to flaking without trying to reimagine the piece. The two harps arrived back at Abbotsford last week and the difference in their appearance was astounding.  The important thing now is to ensure that we minimise the danger of light damage to Anne's harp by closing the shutters in the Drawing Room whenever we can and positioning the piece in such a way that its delicate soundboard is protected.  

The soundboard of Anne's harp before and after tinting
























Now, having already established that the black and gold harp is not the one Sophia played here when she was an adolescent, we are left with a bit of a conundrum. In 1818 when the green harp was purchased, Sophia was 19 and Anne, 15/16. It is implausible that there was no harp at Abbotsford preceding this date and this missing instrument would have presumably belonged to Sophia. This lost harp may even have been exactly the same model as Anne's 1818 instrument, although whether a doting father would have opted for that course of action is open to debate! The whereabouts of this third harp are now unknown but it was presumably replaced by our elaborate 1820 harp purchased in the year of Lockhart and Sophia's marriage. The most likely scenario is that Anne received the green harp as a sixteenth birthday present and perhaps Scott was further encouraged to make this purchase by Lockhart's simultaneous arrival on the scene, heralding the countdown to the spiriting away of his favourite musical entertainer, Sophia. The supposition is that following her marriage, Sophia initially keeps her 1820 black and gilt harp at their Great King Street residence in Edinburgh before the family move to London in 1825, when it is decided the 1820 instrument will be stored at Abbotsford for use during the family's summer vacations. Perhaps she took her original harp, the mystery third instrument, with her to London, or perhaps it was sold off at this point. Anne would have then found herself with the 1820 harp at her disposal for the majority of the year whilst nursing her father through his financial strife and final years of ill health. There would have been no need for her 1818 instrument and it could well have been sold on or gifted to somebody at this point. How it ended up in Oxfordshire all those years later is a mystery, but at least one with a happy conclusion.

The two harps on display together
Placing Anne's instrument underneath her beautiful portrait in the Drawing Room was actually incredibly moving. This was presumably more 'her' room than any other member of the Scott family, considering Sophia had already married and moved out by the time that the 1822-4 east extension was completed and her mother had died shortly after this in 1826. I feel very privileged that this process of bringing the harp to Abbotsford has concluded under my watch and that through this story we can help Anne Scott to step out from her sister's shadow.

Thanks for reading!

Kirsty Archer-Thompson
Collections and Interpretation Manager  




7 comments:

  1. A wonderful object and interesting story. Well done Abbotsford and Kirsty.

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  2. Might this lead to an exhibition of Scott and his importance to Scottish music?

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  3. Glad you enjoyed the post! There is certainly enough there to consider an exhibition on the theme in the future. Our exhibitions strategy plans potential activity with partners looking ahead over a three-year period but there is simply so much scope out there beyond that. I don't think we will ever be in danger of running out of stories!

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    1. You mention other musical instruments having been played at Abbotsford - is there any information about a piano - has there ever been one in the house?

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  4. Sir Walter Scott17 June 2016 at 10:40

    Another fascinating blog post - really brings the history of Abbotsford to life!

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  5. We know with a degree of certainty that there was a piano here at one point. It seems to have passed to the Ushers of Toftfield as a gift from Scott. Here is an extract from the obituary of Agnes Usher who died in 1894: "When young, she was a good deal taken notice of by Sir Walter Scott. On one occasion, when Sir Walter was on a visit to her father’s house, he was much pleased with her singing, observing, however, that the pianoforte in use was no great instrument. He sent over next morning the grand pianoforte at which his daughter had learned music; and it has been in the family ever since." It is believed that the piece is now in South Africa, although its present owners have not been traced. In 1824 Scott also gave another piano he had acquired to Willie Laidlaw, complaining he had no room for it. It's possible this may have been found but it's too early to say for definite. Scott is also connected with at least one other instrument that he helped somebody to buy. This piece is now in Shetland!

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