The Waddesdon Manor Harp

HARPS. HARPS YOU GUYS. Well, only one harp.

In case you don't know, I wrote about 18th century French harps for my M.A. dissertation and I am obsessed with theses things. LOOK AT IT. It's so unnecessary and unapologetic. And I appreciate an instrument that is a pain in the ass: difficult to play, delicate to move, and expensive as hell. And it does. Not. Care. I love these harps, and I recently(ish) went and visited this one at Waddesdon Manor because I am nosy and like making harp friends.

I went with some friends to Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, which is the home of the British branch of the Rothschild family. Basically they were nouveau riche and lookin' to spend some serious cash on all kinds of 18th century stuff that all the fancy people were into, so the house is full of expensive Louis XVI furniture, Sèvres porcelain, and lots of Reynolds and Gainsborough portraits they bought (these are two of my favorite portrait artists and I DIE when I see any of their work). Cue the gasp of horror at having to BUY a Gainsborough of another nobleperson and not just snapping your fingers to get him to come paint you at your house! LIKE A PEASANT!

Can we take a minute to appreciate the soft boudoir lighting they had going on in here?

Anyway, I slunk around the corner of one of the main rooms while cursing the Rothschilds under my breath for hogging all the Gainsboroughs and Reynolds when I spied this golden beauty lurking in the back of the room! I have become such a freak that I generally flinch when I see a vagely triangular shape because I think it's a harp, but I could tell from far away that it was from the 1780s and I wanted to be its friend. So I emailed the curator and asked to come see the harp, and she said to come on a Monday when the Manor would be closed to the public. Cut to me in a black cab at the front gate of the house politely shouting into an intercom that I was not a sueprcreep and had an appointment to come legitimately creep in the house. They finally let me in and the curator met me in front of the house and snuck me along some corriders to get to the offices where I left my things, then we descended into the darkness of the public rooms where all the curtains were shut and lights were turned off. It was dark and spooky and I was alllllll over it. And there were ZERO tourists there, unlike when I visited the first time and it was so crowded in some rooms I almost fainted.

Now, I don't know much about this particular harp because I wasn't able to open it up and take a peek inside the soundbox to check for the maker's plaque. I can tell you that it's a typical single action pedal harp in the French style, which was popular from about 1760 to 1815 or so. Single action means you can press each pedal down once, so there's a starting position and a raised position (natural and sharp notes); each pedal operates a hook on all the strings of the same note to change their pitch. They came from Germany to France at the beginning of the 18th century, and by the 1780s (when this was most likely built) they had become golden Rococo masterpieces. This particular single action had been heavily conserved and was pretty fragile, so I don't blame them for not letting some rando bust it open (or even touch it). But also, OBSERVE THE GOLDEN LOVELINESS.

It's missing a pedal and someone was a little rambunctious with the soundboard and snapped it, but otherwise is in great shape! It can't be played, but that's pretty rare for harps this old; you would normally have to spend a lot of time and money on maintenance generally, and usually what happens with these is that they end up in the attic and get eaten up by bugs or else the string tension slacks and it affects the wood. It's much easier to keep something like a bassoon or violin playing for 200 years because they are much less fragile, smaller, and aren't full of iron mechanisms that get crusty after a while of not playing them. You have to oil that shit! Instruments are high maintenance children. Old instruments are the kid from Problem Child--definitely the Devil but also kind of cute so, whatever.

I would talk more about the history of the harp, but that's another post in itself! I had to try VERY hard not to just copy+paste my dissertation in here, because it's SO INTERESTING. Would you guys be interested in a harp-history post? With lots of pics?? Maybe multiple posts? LET ME KNOW!
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