William Southwell and his upright square piano


William Southwell Upright square piano at Finchcocks Musical Museum, Kent, UK.

William Southwell was one of the most prolific inventors of the early piano and he made a number of important developments to the square piano as well as some that were less so that have faded into obscurity. His upright square piano was patented in December 1798 (patent number 2264) that detailed his plan to effectively turn the square piano on its side to produce an upright. Initially these instruments had the usual 5 ½ octave compass for this period but they were soon extended to 6 octaves. This size of keyboard compass was only seen with exceptional grand pianos at that time.

The case of the Southwell upright square is of fine neo-classical design reaching the highest degree of elegance. They were made in Dublin between 1798 and probably just after 1800. The example shown above is at the Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent. The cases for these pianos were made by cabinet makers including William Anderson, working at  Leinster Row, Kevin Street, Dublin and William Sheridan, at Clarendon Street, Dublin.  Observation of these upright squares show that they are of varying size and decoration, supporting the fact that they were not all made by the same hand. The cases for these instruments were probably made in the cabinet maker’s workshop rather than the workshop of William Southwell, and he may have conceived the case design in liaison with cabinet makers.


William Southwell upright square piano with the front panel and cornice removed.  The snare drum and bell are positioned on the top of the instrument within the area of the cornice.

William Anderson was a rebel of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 but surrendered to the City of Dublin in 1799. He must have been able to continue in cabinet making after this event as he would have been making the cases for the Southwell upright squares in 1799.

At least seven Southwell upright squares are known to have survived including one with a missing action and most of the internal structure. There is also another example where only the case exists that is in my possession. The location and/or ownership of these instruments are:

  1. Present ownership unknown. (Former Ownership: The Richard Burnett Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, Finchcocks  Musical Museum, Kent.  Sold by Dreweatts Auctioneers, Newbury, UK in May 2016 following the closure of the Museum)
  2. No. 59, Mobbs Keyboard Collection, South Island, New Zealand (missing action and most of the internal structure)
  3. City of Dundee Art Galleries and Museums (5 ½ octave instrument)
  4. No 80, in private ownership, London
  5. Museum of Ireland, Dublin
  6. Ownership unknown (sold at Sothey’s in 1981)
  7. Ownership unknown, (sold at Sotheby’s in 1984)
  8. Formerly owned by Sir Walter Gilbey – present ownership unknown
  9. A case only in my possession (missing action, keyboard and internal structure)

I have examined three of the instruments listed above and it is evident that their keyboards have been cut differently which suggests that more than one keyboard maker was involved. Further research may establish how these instruments were made.

An academic study has been undertaken on William Southwell by Margaret Debenham (a researcher in the UK). This paper is published on her website: http://www.williamsouthwellpianoforte.org.uk