If you sauntered down the quaint cobbled streets of London, England in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, you would have passed by a large number of musical instrument makers. Shops such as Jacob Erat & Sons, Dodd & Sons, Sebastian Schwartz, Schwieso & Grosjean, J.C. Schwieso, J.A. Stumpff, and the granddaddy of them all, Sebastian Erard, were all within walking distance of each other. These men spent long hours each day toiling to make what can arguably be considered the most beautiful and historically significant instrument in the world—the harp.
The importance of the harp in musical history cannot be over-estimated. Harps have been central to the musical cultures of communities from around the world for thousands of years. They have been represented in religion, in paintings, in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, and in numerous sculptures from ancient Greece. In Britain, harps have played a symbolic role that dates back to A.D. 800. The harp has been a powerful emblem for Irish nationalists since the 12th century. Throughout time, the harp tradition has traveled all around the world. It recently came into my world, where I began a fascinating journey of discovery and admiration with the purchase of an unusual and exquisite antique harp.
The harp is the oldest known stringed instrument. The word “harp” comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, and Old Norse words meaning “to pluck.” Harps date to ancient Egypt around 2500 B.C. and very possibly earlier. One of the earliest musical instrument discoveries happened in France, where a harp-like instrument was depicted in rock paintings that dated to 15,000 B.C.
No one knows for sure, but many historians believe it may have been the sound of the hunter’s bow that started it all. In Egypt, some of the earliest images of harps look more like a bow than what we typically think of as a modern harp, with just a few strings, owing to the bow’s inability to maintain tension without breaking. By the 8th to 10th centuries, harps began to have more strings and stand more upright.
Harps with a hollowed sound box for amplification and a fore pillar or column appeared in Ireland around the 14th century. These harps had roughly 30 to 36 strings. By the 16th and 17th centuries, harps became more elaborate with carved ornamentation.
The single-action harp was introduced in 1720 and was refined by the end of the 18th century. These harps had five to seven pedals housed at the bottom of the sound box. When depressed they could raise the pitch of the strings by half steps, which allowed the harp to be played in most keys. The only drawback to the single-action harp was that certain keys could not be achieved. In 1810, a double-action pedal harp was patented; its pedals could be depressed twice to get to the appropriate key. Aside from some mechanical improvements, this type of double-action pedal system is still in use today, making the single-action harp essentially obsolete.
Deep in the heart of Connecticut, just off the main road of a quintessential New England town, a beautiful antique single-action harp graced the bay window of a small antiques shop. The harp stood as a prominent piece of art, not as a functioning instrument. It clearly hadn’t been played in well over 100 years. Many of the strings were missing, and pieces of the Grecian decorations were gone. The head of the harp bore the initials “JFB” and the date 1847. On the brass action plate to the left, the words “Barry, N18th Frith St Soho London, 404” were inscribed. After purchasing this wonderful relic, I couldn’t help but wonder what history was hidden in those carved initials and what fascinating journey this harp must have taken to end up in a little shop in Connecticut.
After some initial research, it was clear that piecing together the story of this harp was not going to be easy. Little information was available on Barry, as he was likely one of the more obscure London harp makers of the time.
Through a tangled web of research and triangulation that spanned many weeks and touched many different lives (including harp experts, musicians, and enthusiasts throughout the country), I was able to cobble together the following history.Alexander Meek Barry was a London harp maker in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Warwickshire Museum has a circa 1810 single-action by Barry in its collection. An inventory of the Erat harp company a few years after Jacob Erat’s death was compiled by T. (Thomas) Dodd and A. (Alexander) Barry. Alexander Barry was clearly known and respected within the harp community of London in the 1820’s, given his commission by the Court of Chancery to complete the inventory.Alexander Barry ended up in a debtor’s prison, however, during the early 1840’s, and likely was not making harps by 1847. It is unclear what happened to Alexander Barry. On his daughter Emma’s marriage certificate in 1841, he was described as an architect, so that would suggest that he did not resume his harp making career.The initials “JFB” on the top of the harp could possibly be those of James Barry, Alexander Barry’s brother, born September 25, 1776. They were two of six children born to James Barry and Agnes Meek. Alexander was the most well known of the family, having married a woman named Ann Susanna Buchinger, daughter of Joseph Buchinger, instrument maker to the Duke of Clarence. Both makers had a shop on Frith Street in London and were very active in the music world.As part of my research, I corresponded with Rosemary Cook, who provided this additional information:
“The Buchinger musical genes appear to have come from Matthias Buchinger who was born in 1774 in Anspach, Germany…He came from Germany when the Hanoverian George I came to Britain and was installed as King of Britain…Matthias was my great-grandfather eight times removed, and both I and my daughter are professional musicians.”
Another theory about the initials “JFB,” provided by a man named Richard Huggett, is that the initials are those of Alexander’s son William James Barry (b. March 23, 1802), who carried on the harp-making tradition. Census information lists William James Barry at 12 London St., Tottenham Court, London in 1851 and at 3 University St, Tottenham Court, London in 1861. It’s not clear if he was living or working in Soho in 1847 or if the initials can be attributed to him.Whether the harp maker was Alexander Barry’s son or brother, it’s clear that a Barry family member made the harp. Amazingly, both Richard Huggett and Rosemary Cook, who provided key information about the harp’s history, are descendants of Alexander Meek Barry and Ann Susanna Buchinger.My short antiques trip in Connecticut to a small antiques shop, the purchase of a harp, and then correspondence with the actual descendants of the harp marker show that the degrees of separation between all of us and our objects are remarkable. It’s a reminder that each antique object has a rich history that is seldom known or told but often can be found with a bit of information and some good antiques archaeology.I can’t say for sure how this harp ended up in Connecticut, but its origins are certainly from a dedicated family of harp markers that made their livelihood blending beauty and function in a way that often doesn’t exist today. The harp tradition has traveled the world for thousands of years. Given the resurgence of interest in harps in North America since the 1950’s, it’s not surprising that this English harp made its way to Connecticut. Perhaps that’s why these instruments continue to be admired by players and collectors alike and still command relatively high prices regardless of their condition or functionality.My Barry antique harp stands in the corner of the bedroom, representing more than just another beautiful antique. It represents the beginning of stringed music and centuries-old traditions. Harps are definitely treasures worth pursuing and acquiring, as the renewed interest in harps should only get stronger over time.A special thanks to Rosemary Cook, Robert Huggett, Dwyn, Bonnie Shaljean, and Mike Baldwin for their contributions to the history of my harp. I greatly appreciate and admire their passion for harps and the history behind them.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest