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This paper covers William Southwell’s manufacturing activities in Dublin during the late 18th century and brings into context the progression of instruments he designed and made. He was one of the most prolific inventors of the early piano and made some important contributions to the development of the instrument. Many of his inventions proved successful and were generally adopted by other makers.
A summary of known extant 18th century pianos is given at the Appendix.
His workshop premises
Southwell had opened a workshop by January 1781 at 26 Fleet Street, Dublin, describing himself as a harpsichord and pianoforte maker. He remained at this address until 1784 when he moved to 70 Marlborough Street. Daniel McDonnell, a music trader, and a pianoforte and harpsichord maker moved into 26
Fig. 1 An example of Southwell’s work: An upright square piano No.22. Image by kind permission of Woolley & Wallis, Auctioneers, Salisbury, England
Fleet Street when Southwell vacated. Southwell reported that he had moved for convenience and a greater extension of business presumably suggesting that the new premises had more space for making instruments, meeting an increase in demand.
Between 1792 and 1802 his recorded address is 86 Marlborough Street. From 1794, he is also recorded at Lad Lane, London where he filed his 1794 patent for improvements in the pianoforte and he was at Broad Street, St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1798 where he filed his patent for the upright square piano and improvements to the harp.
His son John joined the firm about 1798 and the firm became William Southwell & Son. In 1802, his address is given as 34 Marlborough Street and William’s brother Nicholas Southwell was also taken into the firm. In 1802, they opened a manufactory in Liverpool at 95 Duke Street to further increase the production of piano. Rumours must have circulated that Southwell was vacating Dublin and he placed a series of newspaper advertisements to state that he had no intention of doing so and that he had taken Messrs. N. and J. Southwell into the firm.
He probably spent part of his time in London and Liverpool as well as Dublin and Nicholas but John Southwell effectively controlled the firm’s activities in Dublin. The firm became Southwell & Co. in 1805. In 1811, we find his London address as Greese Street, Rathbone Place.
The Celestina or Celestinal harpsichord
Southwell showed his inventive genius from the start and had established himself as a maker by 1780. He had designed and made a combined harpsichord and piano known as a Celestina or Celestinal harpsichord (Organised Pianoforte).
This instrument was used at the Theatre Royal in Dublin in January 1780 and a report in the Dublin Evening post at the time gave an account of a performance on this instrument. The report included comment about William Southwell: “To do justice we must not forget that the Celestina was constructed by Mr Southwell, a young man whose mechanical powers will, if encouraged do honour to his Country”. It is likely that Southwell had a workshop at 26 Fleet Street well before 1781, or had moved there from other premises to have established himself as a maker by 1780.
There is another account of the Celestina being used at the Opera House in Capel Street Dublin in January 1784 where he is referred to as the “the celebrated Southwell of this City”. In the early 1780’s the harpsichord would have had equal merit to the pianoforte, and it is unlikely that the eventual replacement by the piano would have been foreseen.
It would have been logical to consider the combination of the harpsichord and piano as a way forward to avoid the need for both instruments. By the late 1780’s the piano was winning favour over the harpsichord and the combined instrument had a brief period during which it was desirable. None of Southwell’s Celestinas are known to have survived.
Fig. 2 A Southwell small pianoforte at Croft Castle, Herefordshire, England (National Trust). This instrument is dated on the nameboard 1784 but this inscription was probably added later and the likely date of manufacture is about 1793.
The Small and Grand Pianoforte
The small pianoforte (or square piano as we refer to the instrument today) was being made in Dublin before 1780 by Ferdinand Weber who was principally an organ and harpsichord maker, and by Robert Woffington who continued making pianos in competition with Southwell. An example of a small pianoforte made before 1780, by both these makers has survived but none are known by Southwell.
The main drive that Southwell would have had, no doubt encouraged by this initial recognition of his work, was inventing at a time when the piano was becoming highly desirable. In a 19th century account of Southwell it mentions that he started with an interest in designing piano actions. From 1780 he could take advantage of the opportunities in Dublin that were already available in London to fulfil the increasing demand for pianos.
It is uncertain when he started to make square and grand pianos but he was offering the grand piano by 1784 advising the nobility and gentry that they were so good in expression, fullness and brilliancy of tone and had never been equalled in this or any other kingdom that they would save the trouble and cost of importing the like from abroad (referring to those made in London).
The grand piano was in its infancy in 1784 and one of the few makers of this instrument in London was Robert Stodart. It was not until 1787 that John Broadwood started to make the grand piano. A newspaper advertisement at that time asked if anyone had a Stodart Grand Piano for sale and therefore they were known of in Dublin.
Southwell became concerned about not being able to meet the increasing demand for his grand and small pianofortes and that customers had to wait nine to twelve months for him to supply. Some customers were not prepared to wait that long and therefore bought their piano from a London maker. His change of address from 70 to 86 Marlborough Street in 1792 was probably to expand his premises and further increase in the production of his instruments.
Fig. 3 An example of a deceptive pier table pianoforte with the lid closed.
Fig. 4 The dampers on the deceptive pier table piano were shaped in the form of a peacock and were also used in early square pianos. They became known as peacock dampers. This term is used now for the under-dampers on early Broadwood square pianos although these not shaped in the form of a peacock.
Fig. 5 An internal view of part of the deceptive pier table piano. On the right-hand side is part of the Venetian swell
The Deceptive Pier Table Pianoforte
Another instrument that was probably made during the 1780’s by Southwell was called “A Deceptive Pier Table pianoforte”. The word “deceptive” was used to indicate that its true function was concealed. This is a piano built into a pier table usually referred to today as a demi-lune table piano. The first we hear of this instrument was in 1790 but most likely it had been available for several years. An extant instrument is reported to date from 1782.
Unlike pianos made in London where the piano maker would make the case as an integral part of making the instrument, the approach in Dublin was different at least for the more decorative instruments. The cases for the demi-lune table piano were made by cabinet makers, either employed by Southwell in his own workshop or commissioned from a cabinet maker elsewhere and brought to his workshop for the internal piano parts to be installed. There is evidence to support that the internal piano parts were designed to fit the case rather than the case being designed around the piano.
The pier table was probably seen as being as important as the piano. It would have been essential to maintain the design integrity of the fashionable Georgian pier table to secure a market for these instruments. Pianos in the 18th century could only be afforded by wealthy clients and most makers, including Southwell, addressed their advertisements to the nobility and gentry.
These instruments were highly decorative in neo-classical taste. A pair of demi-lune pianos were supplied by Southwell to the Duchess of Grafton. It is likely that these instruments could be purchased in pairs as was the tradition at that time for a pair of pier tables to sit between windows below pier mirrors. At least the purchaser had a fine piece of furniture in keeping with their wealth and position within society even if the piano part was not successful or failed to be appreciated.
It has been suggested that the cases for the demi-lune piano were made by the well-known Dublin cabinet maker William Moore, maker to George III. Moore described himself as a piano maker at one time in trade directories, (presumably referring to the cases) but there is no evidence to support the premise that Southwell’s demi-lune piano cases were made by Moore although it can’t be dismissed.
Many fine pieces of furniture made during this period in Dublin have been attributed to Moore, particularly by fine art auctioneers, but there were many highly skilled cabinet makers in Dublin who could have made this type of furniture. The writer has examined three Southwell upright square pianos of the late 1790’s that have been signed by the cabinet maker, each having a different name but none of these are William Moore. This shows that Southwell used more than one cabinet maker, and this may account for the variation in decorative treatment often seen with Southwell’s instruments. There was not a blue-print design that the cabinet maker had to follow and therefore he may have been able to have some artistic influence on design detail and decoration.
Surviving instruments from the 1790’s
In 1790 Southwell was offering organised upright pianofortes continuing the production of a combined harpsichord and piano. Probably, these instruments were made only for a short period as the harpsichord was already in decline. None of these instruments are known to have survived. From about 1790 we find that some of Southwell’s pianos have survived particularly his square pianos and more decorative instruments.
When his grand pianos became outdated their shape did not allow them to have an alternative use as a piece of furniture and therefore, they were discarded. From the number of second-hand grand pianos by Southwell being offered for sale in newspaper advertisements of the early 19th century in Ireland it is likely that the production of these instruments was a significant part of his output along with his small pianoforte.
The only instruments by Southwell known to survive made before 1790 are probably some of the demi-lune table pianos. There is a square piano at Croft Castle, Herefordshire, dated 1784 but it is most likely that this date is incorrect. The writer has examined this instrument and the observations are given below. The earliest known extant square piano is dated 1790 and is a typical 5 octave instrument using under-dampers (often called peacock dampers) rather than over-dampers used by most London makers of this period.
The case and stand of Southwell’s square pianos are also different to the London made instruments, reflecting the preferred designs of Irish furniture. The main feature of this being symmetrical balance shown by three or five fielded panels on the front of the instrument. He also used inlaid motif medallions on the front of the case that are not normally found on English pianos. By 1800 he was starting to use the conventional appearance of the square pianos as made in London.
About 1792 we see the first use of Southwell’s “dolly” or Irish dampers that he would include in his patent of 1794. The earliest known extant square piano that has a maker’s number given on the nameboard is No.1535 that was made c1792. This instrument appeared at Mealy’s Auction House, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland in 2011 and again in 2013.
Fig. 6 A Square piano made about 1792 sold by Mealy’s Auctioneers, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland in 2013
Southwell square piano at Croft Castle, Herefordshire, England
As mentioned above, there is a square piano made by Southwell at Croft Castle, near Ludlow, Herefordshire, England, (a property owned by the National Trust), that is dated 1784 on the nameboard. The internal design of the instrument shows the principal features of Southwell’s 1794 patent for improvements in the pianoforte. It is unlikely that Southwell would have waited 10 years before patenting his inventions in what was a competitive and fast developing market for the pianoforte. The earliest known date that any of these innovative design features are known to have been used by Southwell is about 1792. Therefore, there is considerable doubt whether the piano at Croft Castle was made in 1784.
Fig. 7 The Southwell square piano at Croft Castle, near Ludlow, Herefordshire, England
A detailed comparison has been made between this instrument and an example in the possession of the writer that was made about 1794. The evidence is conflicting as some aspects of design suggest an earlier instrument, but the scaling and the size of the instrument conform to Southwell’s 1790’s instruments. In support of an earlier instrument, the depth of the case at 206mm compared with other 1790’s known square pianos at between 219mm and 222mm. The thickness of the case walls is about 2mm less and the height of the nameboard is also less. It does not have an internal fretwork panel showing the crown over the harp but a painted panel showing with the Irish harp only. This suggests an earlier piano, but it could be just the way it was made.
Each piano was individually made, and it was not a requirement to build instruments to an exact standard until the 19th century. By the 19th century production volumes had increased that necessitated changes in the manufacturing processes including standardisation. Therefore, it is not possible to make a conclusion about the date from this evidence alone.
Fig. 8 The internal right-hand back corner of the instrument showing original painted decoration
Fig. 9 The central part of the nameboard showing the the painted decoration that may have been undertaken more recently
Proof about the date of 1784 may come from the painted nameboard. The qualities of the paint differ from that of the painted internal decoration. The first observation is that the colours of the paint are much brighter but more fundamentally the paint has been laid differently. The painted decoration on Southwell pianos uses a thin paint applied using a technique of building colours in sequence as undertaken in tempera painting but the nameboard of the Croft instrument appears to have been painted with conventional oil. Also, the condition of the paint on the nameboard is pristine. It has a relatively high build on the surface compared to the original. Therefore, I would suggest that the nameboard has been repainted and most likely an incorrect date of 1784 has been added.
We know that the painted nameboards on Southwell instruments do not survive well and are often found in a worn condition. It may have been that a previous owner decided to have it repainted and the date has been added. The piano was bought by the owner of Croft Castle in the 20th century before the Castle and contents were acquired by the National Trust. The only way of providing proof that the nameboard has been repainted is for the paint to be tested in a laboratory to determine its age. Without this testing, there remains significant doubt that this piano was made in 1784.
Fig. 10 Part of the nameboard from a Southwell square piano of 1797. Southwell used a painting of a unicorn and lion after receiving his 1794 patent on his pianos. This instrument is signed “Samuel Morland” No.1″. Morland became a piano maker in his own right in the early 19th century.
Achievement of Royal Patent
A milestone for Southwell came in 1794 when he took an address in Lad Lane London possibly for the sole purpose of filing an English Patent and this was given in November of that year (Patent No 2019 – Improvements in the construction of instruments called the pianoforte). The primary features of this patent were eventually adopted by all makers and were:
- The design of damping using “dolly” or Irish dampers that resulted in a significant improvement in the damping of the strings.
- The extension of keyboard compass from 5 to 5 ½ octaves by positioning the additional keys under the soundboard thereby increasing the compass without increasing its length of the instrument or reducing the size of the soundboard, and
- The use of fretwork in the nameboard that he referred to as “sovanents” and a fretwork panel inside the instrument in the area beyond the wrest-plank that gave acoustic benefits.
Also, included in the patent was an overhead harp stop (buff) rather than one of an under-rail design as used on English instruments. The English design tended to put the piano out-of-tune. This was an excellent improvement, but the use of a buff or harp stop generally went out of favour and therefore his design was not adopted by other makers.
Having acquired a Royal Patent in November 1794, he was not slow at saying so and a series of advertisements followed in Irish newspapers stating the brilliant qualities of his instrument. He also came to an agreement with Longman & Broderip for them to make the same plan of instrument in London under licence, but he would continue to make the same in Dublin. This was stated in his newspaper advertisements and a specially printed version of this advertisement was also attached to the underside of the inner cover of his square pianos. One of these is shown below from a square piano in the possession of the writer.
Although the basic internal design of the instrument was adhered to by Longman & Broderip the cases were typically English style and internally some minor variation of detail reflecting English traditions. The examples made by Southwell in Dublin continued in the Irish style. Longman & Broderip became bankrupt in 1798 and the rights to manufacture his square piano design in London was passed to the new firms that were established. These were Longman, Clementi & Co. and Broderip and Wilkinson.
The first square pianos after the 1794 patent
Following the patent, the first extant known square piano is No 1617 owned by Alec Cobbe, Hatchlands Park (National Trust) East Clandon, Surrey England. This piano was probably made for a five-octave keyboard but extended at the time to accommodate 5 ½ octaves. It is likely to be one of the first 5 ½ octave instruments to be made based on Southwell’s patent features of 1794.
Fig. 11 The version of Southwell’s advertisement that was attached to the underside of the inner cover of his square pianos
Another square piano that is almost identical to the example at Hatchlands Park is in the possession of the writer. There are a few other surviving square pianos made between 1794 and 1800 (see list at Appendix “A”)
The upright grand of 1794
An account is given in Spillane’s History of the American Pianoforte (published in 1890, New York) of an upright grand made by Southwell in 1794. This instrument had a 6-octave compass (FF to f4) extending the compass even further from 5 ½ octaves and an upright action but failed to stand in tune. The piano generated considerable attention and it is said that Haydn visited Southwell’s workshop in Lad Lane London and congratulated him on the instrument. Spillane goes on to say that when John Broadwood, became aware of Haydn’s interest in Southwell’s schemes, he stated to make 6 octave instruments (grand pianos) but with a keyboard compass from CC to c4. A surviving example by Broadwood is dated 1796 and is held in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. This instrument was commissioned by Manuel de Godoy, Prime Minister of Spain, 1792-1808, probably for the Queen of Spain.
It may not be co-incidental that also in 1794 Broadwood used a 5 ½ octave compass as an option in his square pianos but the 5-octave compass continued to be made by Broadwood, and other makers, until about 1800.
Southwell spent more than thirteen years on upright piano design that started with this unsuccessful upright grand in 1794 and resulted in his patent for the cabinet piano in 1807.
Fig. 12 An upright square piano of c1798 formally at Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent, England
The upright square piano from 1798
Southwell’s next development was the upright square piano for which he took out a patent in 1798. (Patent No. 2264) This detailed his plan to effectively turn the square piano onto its side to produce an upright placed on a stand. He referred to these instruments as a “Camerachord or Chamber Pianoforte”. Initially they had the usual 5 ½ octave compass for this period (as seen in No 22 which was sold at auction by Woolley & Wallis, Salisbury, England in 2016) but were soon extended to 6 octaves with a keyboard compass of FF to f4.
This patent also included improvement to the harp effectively designing the double action harp. Southwell sold the rights for this design to Erard in 1808. Erard further refined the design and took the credit for it.
The upright square piano was also dependent on a design of action using stickers (long wooden rods) to connect the action to the hammers that were well above the keyboard. Robert Woffington was also making upright pianos in Dublin in the 1790’s using an action having stickers and it is not known which maker came up with this idea first. Robert Woffington’s upright was more like the modern upright piano because the strings extended to the bottom of the case at floor level. Southwell instrument was contained on the stand and therefore did not make use of the space below the keyboard.
Fig. 13 This shows the long stickers of an upright square action
Southwell’s upright square piano was made only for a brief period from 1798 to just after 1800. It had a case of fine neo-classical design reaching the highest degree of elegance and like the demi-lune table piano it would have been made for wealthy clients. The pianistic qualities of his grand pianos would have been superior to the upright square.
Fig. 14 An upright square janissery including a drum and triangle (bell)
The extant upright squares show that there were two options. One with and one without a janissery. The janissery included a drum and triangle (bell) and was positioned in the cornice at the top of the instrument.
The cases for these pianos were made by cabinet makers probably under similar arrangements to those that had been in place for the demi-lune table pianos. The writer has a Southwell upright square in his possession (excluding action and interior structure) and this is signed by the cabinet maker, William Anderson, who was working at Leinster Row, Kevin Street, Dublin. He was a rebel of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 but surrendered to the City of Dublin in 1799 and thereby could continue with cabinet making. Another example examined by the writer is signed by William Sheridan, working at Clarendon Street, Dublin. Southwell may have conceived the case design in liaison with such cabinet makers.
The upright square grand piano at The City of Dundee Art Gallery and Museum (probably made between 1800 and 1807)
One instrument that has survived is an upright square grand piano held by The City of Dundee Art Gallery and Museum in Scotland. The internal design of this instrument is unique. While it takes some internal design features from the upright square piano it also shows a substantially new innovative design of instrument. Some features reflect those of a grand piano with trichord stringing, a full-length soundboard and double-pinned bridge throughout the compass. The wrest-pins and hitch-pins are reversed in their position compared to the upright square piano. The keyboard compass is 5 ½ octaves.
Fig. 15 The Southwell upright square grand piano made after 1798 (image by kind permission of The City of Dundee Art Gallery and Museum in Scotland)
The design of instrument may not have been successful under the tension of trichord stringing or it may not have been favoured by the public. Whatever the circumstances, it is unlikely that many of them were made but it does show Southwell’s active pursuit of designing an upright piano that led to his patent in 1807 for the cabinet piano.
Both the internal design of the instrument and the design and treatment of the case would suggest that it was made sometime after 1798 (the date of the patent for the upright square piano) and before 1807 (the date of the patent for the cabinet piano). Most likely this instrument dates to the first few years of the 19th century. The evidence to support this design of piano being the link between the upright square piano and the cabinet piano comes from the location of the set-off for hammer travel. The position on the upright square grand is immediately under the sticker (as is the case with all cabinet pianos from 1807) whereas with the upright squares, it is positioned at the top of the sticker. This modification was probably more satisfactory and made from experience of the earlier instruments.
The biography of William Southwell
Very little is known about Southwell’s early years, his apprenticeship or where he was born. An excellent biographical account of Southwell has been given by Margaret Debenham of his life and she has established that he was born in 1736 or 1737 and died in 1825 which is contrary to the dates given in previous accounts. Also, she has established that he died in London and not Dublin. Her paper is given on the website: http://www.debenham.org.uk/william/
One report of his death was in the Lancaster Gazette on the 12 February 1825 “Died – On the 24th (January) at his house in London, at an advanced age, Mr, William Southwell, pianoforte manufacturer, and brother of Nicholas Southwell of Liverpool. He possessed splendid abilities as a mechanic and was the inventor and patentee of that well-known improvement in the pianoforte the additional key besides numerous improvements in the pianoforte”. The additional key(s) referred to one of the improvements in his patent of 1794 of increasing the compass of the keyboard from 5 to 5 ½ octaves.
Assessment of Southwell’s work
Probably the most important design features for which Southwell was responsible are the “dolly” or Irish dampers and achieving a satisfactory solution for the extension of compass from 5 to 5 ½ octaves for square pianos. These features form part of his 1794 patent and became standard in square pianos made by all makers throughout the 19th century until the demise of the instrument in the 1860’s.
Southwell may have considered his most important work as the development of the upright piano that he worked on from the mid -1790’s to 1807. The concluding outcome of this work was his design for the cabinet piano. Ironically, he was not interested in making the cabinet piano himself but sold the rights to George Wilkinson in London. The first cabinet pianos produced by Wilkinson were not entirely satisfactory but by about 1810 the merit of the instrument was recognised and other makers such as John Broadwood started to make these instruments followed by many other makers. They continued to be manufactured until about 1850.
Not all of Southwell’s design ideas proved successful but he stands apart from all other makers in his innovative approach to all aspects of piano design. In hindsight, it is easy to see where his efforts were not to succeed but at the time the developmental path for the instrument could not have been predicted. His talent as a piano designer was recognised in his lifetime and this together with his abilities for business and marketing enabled him to be a leading maker in Dublin at the time. His legacy to us is probably more than he is given credit for.
A list of known extant 18th century pianos made by William Southwell, (William Southwell & Son from 1798)
The Deceptive Pier Table Pianoforte (Demi-lune table piano)
- Collection of Alec Cobbe, Hatchlands Park, East Clandon, Surrey, England
- Private Collection, London
- Ulster Museum, Belfast, Northern Ireland
- National Museum, Dublin, Ireland
- Private Collection, New England, USA
- Private Collection, London (Now believed to be in Scotland)
The small or square pianoforte
- Private collection, England. (5 octave instrument dated 1790)
- Private Collection, US. (5 octave instrument)
- Private Collection, Germany. (5 octave instrument with maker’s number 1535)
- Croft Castle near Ludlow, Herefordshire, (National Trust) 5 ½ octave instrument (Is dated 1784 but almost likely an incorrect date)
- Collection of Alec Cobbe, Hatchlands Park, East Clandon, Surrey, England. (5 ½ octave instrument with maker’s Number 1617)
- Formally in the possession of the writer c1794 (5 ½ octave instrument)
- In the possession of the writer dated 17th June 1797 (5 octave instrument) with an extensively inlaid marquetry case
- Private collection Dublin. (probably made 1797 or later)
- Private Collection, England (probably made 1797 or later)
The upright square piano
- Present ownership unknown. (Former Ownership: The Richard Burnett Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, Finchcocks Musical Museum, Kent. Sold by Dreweatts Auctioneers, Newbury, Berkshire, England in May 2015 following the closure of the Museum) Former ownership Sir Walter Gilbey
- 59, Mobbs Keyboard Collection, South Island, New Zealand (missing action and most of the internal structure)
- No 80, in private ownership, London
- No 22, sold by Woolley and Wallis, auctioneers on 5 October 2016
- Museum of Ireland, Dublin
- Ownership unknown (sold at Sotheby’s in 1981)
- Ownership unknown, (sold at Sotheby’s in 1984)
- In the possession of the author (missing action, keyboard and internal structure)
The upright grand square piano
- City of Dundee Art Galleries and Museums (5 1/2 octave instrument) probably made between 1798 and 1807
I would like to thank Margaret Debenham, for her permission to refer to her paper on the biography of William Southwell and to include reference to his birth and death dates. I would also like to thank David Hunt and Tim Harding for their permissions to use some information used in the Appendix.
Dorchester, Dorset, UK
Updated August 2019