It is not difficult to find a square piano that has been converted into a desk, sideboard or dressing table. Many instruments suffered this fate when they were no longer considered to be of benefit as a musical instrument in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This enabled them to continue to have a use at a time when there was an attitude to make mend and keep everything for a long as possible.
The shape of a square piano lends itself to have other uses or remain as a piano and used as a side table, but early grands pianos were not adaptable and therefore many more of them have been lost. Very tall upright pianos, known as cabinet pianos were sometimes converted into bookcases or cabinets, but this occurred less frequently than conversions of square pianos. Fortunately, it is not financially viable to convert pianos today and an increasing interest in them as historical musical instruments has enabled many to be appreciated in private ownership.
Square pianos were made in relatively large numbers and many survive today but it is disappointing when a conversion comes up at auction that if had remained as a piano would been historically interesting or an important instrument.
Fig. 1 “Piano Sloping Backwards” made by William Southwell about 1811 converted to a display cabinet. This example appeared at JS Fine Art auctioneers a few years ago.
William Southwell, a maker from Dublin, Liverpool and London was a prolific inventor of the piano and experimented with numerous designs. Many of these were successful and important to the development of the instrument. Some examples of his work may not have survived accept as a conversion.
Southwell patented an upright piano in 1811 that is referred to today as “a piano sloping backwards”. It was unknown until recently whether any of these instruments had been made but two conversions to a display cabinet have appeared at auction. The first was at JS Fine Art Auctioneers, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, UK, a few years ago and the second example at Adam Partridge Auctioneers, Macclesfield, Cheshire, UK, on 10th December 2015.
Fig. 2 A Southwell upright square grand c1800 converted to a display cabinet
Another example of Southwell’s work that turned up at auction as a conversion was an upright square grand made about 1800. This was offered at Sheppard’s Irish Auction House Durrow, Co. Laois, Ireland on 28th November 2017 described as a 19th century mahogany and satinwood display cabinet on stand.
Frederick Willian Collard of Clementi & Co. took out a patent for an upright square and these were manufactured for a period after 1811. Two of these instruments survive including one at the Colt Clavier Collection in Kent UK. A conversion appeared at Pump House Auctions, Swanmore Hampshire, UK on 26th March 2018.
Fig. 3 A Clementi and Company upright piano c1811 converted to a display cabinet