Early 19th century square and grand pianos typically use a keyboard cloth that is about…
(Made in Dublin between c1792 and c1794)
Little is known about Melly to the extent that even his first name alludes us. He describes himself as a harpsichord and pianoforte maker at 40 Fleet Street Dublin.1 On the nameboard is written “Melly” without any further inscription and the only other known surviving piano by him states “Melly Fecit, Dublin”.2 There is evidence in trade directories of John Melly, pianoforte maker and tuner in business at 29 Aungier Street, Dublin in 1847 who may have been a descendant.3
The piano exhibits all the design features of William Southwell’s patent of 17944 and although Melly refers to himself as a harpsichord and pianoforte maker, it is doubtful whether he made the instrument.
It is more likely that he had a financial arrangement with William Southwell to sell his pianos and place his own name on the nameboard. This arrangement was common practice in London at the time. Therefore, I would attribute the maker of this square piano to William Southwell.
Ballyhimock, (later Anne’s Grove) Castletownroche, Co. Cork, Ireland
It may have been in the ownership of the same family of the original, purchaser until at least the 1950’s. A note found in the instrument gives some information about provenance and says that it was bought for a female member of the Chinnery family at Ballyhimock (later Anne’s Grove) Castletownroche, Co Cork, Ireland. Sir Broderick Chinnery, 1st Baronet, MP and Barrister (1740-1808) lived at Ballyhimock from 1790 until at least 1804. His first wife died in 1783 and he married for the second time Alice Ball in 1789. He may have bought the square piano for his second wife Alice or one of his daughters of his first marriage. The note goes on to say that it was given to the eldest daughter of his first marriage, Eleanor Chinnery, who married Joseph Folingsby of Belfast and Ballyshannon in 1807.
The instrument was subsequently given to their daughter Elizabeth Folingsby who married Thomas Troubridge Stubbs in 1839. On the death of her uncle, Elizabeth inherited part of the Chinnery estate in Co Cork. The note also states that the piano was made together with a pair of card tables and these were sold at Christies in 1953.
In Dublin there was a clear division of trades in the late 18th century and Southwell either employed cabinet makers or contracted out the making of piano cases to them. Sometimes cabinet makers would sign their work on the inside of the case. The note states that it was made by Richard Sheraton but no record of a cabinet maker in Ireland with this name has been found. This is most likely a mistake and confused with Thomas Sheraton in London. The cabinet maker Thomas Sheridan was making piano cases for Southwell at the time and the case of this piano could have been made by him together with the card tables.
Donald H. Boalch in his book “Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440-1840 second edition gives an entry for Melly but mistakenly considers that his address is Fleet Street London rather than Dublin. Reference is made by Boalch to a square piano by Melly belonging to Mrs Edith Chudley of Leigh, Surrey in 1969 and it could be this instrument.
It was acquired by David Winston of the Period Piano Company, Biddenden, Kent UK and examined by Martha Clinkscale, (musicologist, professor of piano performance and historian of early keyboard instruments) in 1992 It is recorded on the Clinkscale online database5. The piano appeared at Bellmans Auctioneers, Billingshurst, West Sussex UK on 12th October 2019 and was purchased by the present owner.
Although it had been previously restored by David Winston, it had not been maintained in playing condition. The tuning pitch was considerably below A415 and the instrument required extensive regulation. The harp stop was not in working order. A schedule of work was set out to bring the piano back into performance playing condition. The appearance of the case was very bleached, and this was found to be substantially due to the blooming of subsequent application of shellac polish rather than a natural patina. This finish was carefully removed, and a new authentic finish applied. This made a considerable difference to the appearance of the piano. The restoration was completed in April 2020.
The appearance of the piano as it appeared at Bellmans Auctioneers in October 2019
The appearance of the piano after restoration
Description of the square piano
It is one of the earliest 5 ½ octave square pianos to have survived and probably made between 1792 and 1794 prior to Southwell’s patent in November of that year. The size of the instrument is slightly smaller than those produced by Southwell from 1794 and the design of the harp stop is not fully developed to that is the 1794 patent.
It has two knee levers: The left-hand lever operates an overhead harp stop and the right-hand lever is for the lid swell. The lid swell lifts the front right-hand section of the lid to increase the volume of sound. The piano has retained its original silk covered internal cover, the harp stop mechanism and the two knee levers.
An internal view showing the harp stop mechanism and over-head harp stop rail
The nameboard showing the inscription “Melly”
The case is inlaid maintaining a symmetry of 18th century Dublin made instruments.
- An original label inside the piano states: Melly, Harpsichord and Pianoforte maker, 40 Fleet Street.
- Sold by Adam’s Auctioneers, Dublin on 22nd June 2014.
- The Dublin almanac, and general register of Ireland, for 1847
- 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.
- Clinkscale Online is a research database dedicated to the worldwide cataloguing of pianos built before 1860. – earlypianos.org