November, 2017

The Conservation of Historic Irish Harps

By Barton Bjorneberg, Conservator, Bernacki & Associates, Inc.

Photo: John Egan Harp; detail

Photo: John Egan Harp; detail

...This article is going to center on the question of conservation of musical instruments, specifically harps. The primary purpose of creating a musical instrument is to fabricate a tool that will be used to make the art of music. The initial importance and quality of the instrument is primarily determined by the quality of the sounds it can create and the ease with which it can make those sounds. Instruments are made of differing types and qualities of materials and craftsmanship. The quality of the sound does not necessarily have anything to do with the quality of manufacture or the beauty of its visual appearance. Anyone who has been involved in the creating of musical instruments has had the experience of a beautifully crafted and exquisitely detailed instrument that always sounds dead and lifeless. This is often contrasted by an instrument whose finish turned out horribly, the joinery does not match accurately, and the figuring of the wood is dull, but when put in the hands of a true musician comes alive and makes sounds that are so beautiful, they make people cry.

But what happens when an old instrument can no longer make the sounds it was created to make due to failure of structural material? When the only way to return that instrument to working condition is to replace large sections of original material? When does that mass of metal and wood move from a sound making machine to a sculptural and historic artifact? Harps are extreme examples of the question and it affects how rare completely original harps are and how important those few then become....


Historical Resonance: Playing an Antique Egan Harp

By Nancy Hurrell, Harp Consultant, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The highly decorative Portable Irish Harp, with delicate strands of gilt shamrocks and ornate swirling acanthus on a colored ground, is collected as an art object and examples are displayed in museums worldwide - but what does it sound like?  Produced in the early 1800s by Ireland’s leading harp maker John Egan (fl.1803-1829), the harps were touted in newspaper adverts as having ‘great brilliancy’ and ‘sweetness of tone’. The instruments gained widespread notoriety for their splendid appearance and sound, and Egan harps graced the music rooms of the great houses of Ireland and were also played by members of the Royal Family in England. In 1821 John Egan was bestowed the prestigious Royal Warrant by the King along with the title of ‘Harp Maker to George IV and the Royal Family’, and the Royal Crest is etched on the brass plates of harps produced after this date. A century later, several harp makers imitated Egan’s Irish harp model, and it became the prototype for today’s popular Celtic harp. By the early 1900s, most extant Egan Irish harps were no longer playable, but were sold and collected as rare artifacts.

As antiques, Egan Portable Irish Harps are valued for their attractive sculptural qualities, handsome neo-classical decoration and Irish symbolism, and examples are preserved in several major museum collections around the world: Metropolitan (New York), MFA (Boston), National Museum of Ireland (Dublin), V&A and Horniman (London), Musikmuseet (Sweden), as well as significant instrument collections in France, Italy and Belgium and also Japan. Typically Egan harps in museums are cosmetically strung, having the appearance of being playable, but in fact the strings are kept slack. Although wood gives the instrument its characteristic sound, the constant stress of string tension on wood over time tends to pull up the thin soundboard, and the neck twists, bringing the harp’s playing days to an end. Real horror stories are known in which fragile antique harps simply collapsed as the strings were brought up to tension. Still, with modern techniques of historical restoration, it is now possible for a few Egan harps to be made playable again.


Art & Furniture Care: Safe Handling

By April Hann Lanford, DPR Art Rescue, LLC

One of the greatest risk exposures for damage of items is from improper handling.

The first step in the safe handling of an item is to assess whether it is stable enough to be moved. Awareness of the inherent structure of the piece, along with its current condition issues are paramount in reducing the risk of damage. Once the condition issues have been identified, you can then strategize on how to best accommodate any compromised areas and safeguard the item to avoid further damage during handling and transport. Depending on the condition issues, you may need to consult a specialist to assess and stabilize areas of concern first.