By Bart Bjorneberg, Bernacki & Associates, Inc.

The Conservation of Historic Irish Harps

Historic John Egan harp
Historic Irish harp with polychrome details
James McFall harp with wood-carved patterns
James McFall harp with with gilt, green, and black polychrome designs

When does a vessel become an artifact? When does a piece of furniture become an historic object? When does a built structure become so historically important that ownership rights shift from purely private to more publicly controlled? When does a machine become such an important historical sculptural object that it is never to be turned on again? When does a musical instrument become more important for how it is made and what it is made of rather than for the music it once made? When does the conservation of the physical pieces of a utensil or tool become more important than the conservation of the original purpose and function?

The purpose of a 2-dimensional piece of art (paintings, drawings, prints, photographs) does not involve anything practical. A painting was never expected to carry water or drink wine from. A drawing was never meant to be sat on, step on, store utensils in, or eat meals from. A lithograph was never intended to protect individuals from the elements or provide a ritual space for group gatherings. A photograph was never hooked up to a line of train cars in order to pull large quantities of raw materials in one direction or large quantities of finished products to the other. To my knowledge no one has ever successfully played Chopin using only a water color painting.

A 2-dimensional piece of art was made to be viewed and appreciated. Whether its main foal is decorative, emotional, religious, confrontational, etc. – its purpose is aesthetic. It was never meant to provide sustenance or shelter or to be used as a tool. When it comes time to decide whether time, materials, expertise, and money are to be dedicated to the conservation of a 2-dimensioned piece of art, the question of whether or not it will be able to perform its original task is not a separate issue. As long as the 2-dimentioned substrate and whatever the artist used to make marks on that substrate remain stable, and as close to the condition as when the artist created them, the purpose of the artwork is preserved. This is not to imply this simplifies the conservation, often the complete opposite, but it does change the parameters of the condition assessment and treatment. A painting conservator assessing the condition of an Edward Hopper painting of buildings does not need to consider if the failure of the paint or canvas will cause the buildings to collapse and kill people. A preservation architect assessing a Frank Lloyd Wright building that is in use and open to the public is legally, as well as aesthetically and morally required to have that consideration at the top of any assessment. The value and conservation of tools, utensils, buildings, etc., can have many different levels of acceptable replacement and infills, and how those are treated. The value of the 2-dimentional artwork remains primarily based on aesthetic worth and/or connection to a famous creator, and infills and replacements are much more damaging.

Conservation, restoration, and preservation do not have narrow definitions, professional requirements, and responsibilities. The variations can come from differences in such things as materials, methods, locations, historical or aesthetic importance, and use. This can be the complete difference between an oil painting and a piece of architecture. The locational and material differences between an easel oil painting and a fresco painting on an architectural surface. A piece of furniture reliably placed sometime in the late 1600s and early 1700s vs. a piece reliably attributed specifically to Andre Charles Boulle. A piece of historic furniture in a private collection that will still be used vs. a piece of historic furniture that is going to be put on a pedestal behind railing in a museum, is never going to be touched, and will be kept in a completely climate controlled environment.

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.

Harps are basically a triangle, which is traditionally made mostly of wood, with strings stretch tight across it. The triangle is made up of the front column, the top neck, and the body which makes up the bottom and back. On floor standing harps, the bottom point of the triangle is incorporated into a baseboard, base, and feet. The strings are stretched across this simple shape and vary greatly in length (1” – high 40s”) and number (high 20s” – high 40s”). These strings need to  be kept at very rigidly controlled distance and angles, both in relation to each other and the three wood sections. Any variations in these distances and angles or the string tension will render the instrument unregulatable and incapable of being tuned. There are two main causes of these problems, failure of the neck or soundboard.

A harp is a harmonically curved length of wood(s) to which the strings are connected on one side usually to metal pins attached or incorporated into the wood. The neck has to account for the variations of strings lengths and often includes some type of mechanical methods for changing the angle of the strings to allow for different turnings. These pins and mechanisms are often incorporated into metal plates that usually contain important historical information such as dates, model number, location of manufacture, as well as beautiful decorative engraving and inking. The necessary constant high tension of the strings will very often cause the neck to warp which renders the instrument unusable. Once wood warps, it is almost impossible to reverse economically and practically unless you can attach it to something unwarped or you very invasively remove a lot of original wood. A harp neck is free floating and attached only at the ends where it connects to the front column and body. This means that once a neck warps the only practical and reliable way to make the rest of the harp useable is to replace the entire neck with a completely new unwarped one. This means the loss of all historic decoration on the original neck, and also often leads to the changing or altering of the original metal hardware as well.

The other major failure caused by the tension of the strings involves the body. The bottom of the strings attaches to the flat top of the body which is called the soundboard. The stings attach to the center strip which separates the soundboard into two halves. The musical sounds are created by the controlled and varied vibrations that happen on the flat soundboard where the strings connect and are amplified by the air cavity of the body underneath. The body cannot be a solid mass but contains an inner air cavity that is tapered to allow for the variations of notes from treble to bass. The soundboard is also fabricated of different types and thicknesses of wood that must vibrate in unison with the various length strings in order to create the proper sounds. The two halves of the soundboard are often elaborately decorated with a mix of gold leaf, polychrome, decals, or incised lines.

The high tension of the strings is primarily bourne by the center strip of the soundboard. This tension eventually causes either failure of areas of wood that buckle warp, split, or crack, or cause the failure of joinery and/or adhesive connections. Often the entire sound board will tent up. This alters the tension, length, the angle of the strings and/or the vibration patterns of the soundboard; making the instrument useless for making music.

Partial repairs of the soundboard are virtually impossible and definitely impractical. Incorporating a new soundboard into an old body is also extremely difficult and not recommended if your main goal is the long-term musicality of the instrument. So, the usual repair, like the failed neck, is complete replacement with a new body. For a musician, this is absolutely necessary, for a conservator thinking of the long-term history of the object, this is obviously horribly invasive. A fifty-year-old harp will often have had one or both of these elements replaced which means up to two thirds of the original structure, and major areas of decoration are completely gone.

I have been involved with the creation of new harps having learned how to gild while working for a major harp manufacturer. Harps have traditionally made extensive use of gilding as a decorative element. The columns, baseboard, bases, and feet are often elaborately carved and gilt with a mixture of water and oil gilding. The neck and body often have gilt details such as moldings that can be oil or water gilt. The two halves of the soundboard make ideal framed surfaces for decorations and are often covered with either decals or hand done oil gilt and polychrome designs.

For many years, much of my work was centered around the repair and restoration of older harps. This involved the restoration/conservation of the gilding on the original pieces of the harp that were not intricately involved in the sound making such as the column, baseboard, base, and feet. These do not usually need to be replaced to maintain the musicality of the instrument and, since they often contain much of the carving and gilding, it is very desirable and economical to retain them. My work also included the recreation/creation of the gilding and polychrome on new necks and bodies that were needed to conserve the original harp function as a musical instrument. Was this restoration or conservation?

Since moving primarily into conservation, I have had the opportunity to work on four harps where the question of function is no longer an issue. None of the four can ever be put under tension because of warped necks or sprung soundboard. While all four have evidence of having been repaired many times, they are mostly intact and composed of original material. All four harps have a great deal of value due to their age, makers, and place in the history of an important cultural tool. They will never function again as instruments, but they are still vital as historic examples of form, craftsmanship, and beauty.

An individual musical instrument, like all historical artifacts, can gain value and importance solely through its connection to a famous person. A mass produced cheap guitar bought in a department store in not unique or valued for its craftsmanship or materials. If that instrument falls into the hands of an individual musician who uses it to write and perform music that changes culture and history, it becomes unique. The four harps I am discussing were not unique in this way, but they check most of the other historic value boxes.

Two of the four harps are directly attributable to a well-known historical maker of harps. They both have their original action plates which are engraved with the maker’s name, location, and model number, which allows them to be very accurately dated. One of the four harps did not originally have an action plate and is not signed or stamped in any way, so it cannot be easily placed historically. But the similarities with other well documented harps in type and skill level of design, construction, finish, and decoration allow for a confident attribution to a famous maker. The fourth harp has no historical marking and cannot be easily slotted in a place or time. But the high level and uniqueness of its form and craftsmanship alone make it valuable. There is also tantalizing historic photographic evidence that may place it with a famous maker at a specific time.

Three of the harps are absolutely of Irish heritage and the fourth is almost certainly so. Harps have been a part of Irish history and culture for centuries. Visually, the image of a harp has been used on everything from national flags to iconic beer bottles. Culturally, literature (poetry and prose) and music have long been pillars of Irish intellectual and artistic tradition, and the harp has been crucial in this expression. Going back centuries, the tradition has used the combination of music and words to entertain, teach, preserve history, and give cultural identity. In Ireland, the harp has long been a primary tool in this tradition.

In early 19th century Ireland, there was a revival of this centuries old tradition in Ireland, and John Egan of Dublin became the primary supplier of the harps. John Egan was active in Dublin from c. 1804-1841. He would eventually obtain a royal warrant from King George IV and advertise as “Portable Harp Maker to the King.” His signature harp was his "Royal Portable Harp" which was a small hand held harp that combined a return to a traditional form with new methods of fabrication and instrument making. King George IV’s last mistress was shown holding an Egan harp in a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and Egan gave one to Thomas Moore (Nancy Hurrell, The Royal Portable Harp by John Egan).

Egan harp  with an original brass action plate with the engraving – “J. Egan 30 Dawson St. Dublin

The first of the four harps I will discuss is an Egan harp with an original brass action plate with the engraving – “J. Egan 30 Dawson St. Dublin / Harp Maker by Special Appointment / To His Most Gracious Majesty George VIth & to the Royal Family / No 1845.” This “Royal Portable Harp” has its original body, neck, and hardware. It has been exhibited both at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was a prime element of the marketing campaign for the exhibit “Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840,” and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Historic John Egan harp after restoration
Historic John Egan harp gilded shamrock pattern detail
Historic John Egan harp with gold shamrock detail - peg close-up
Historic John Egan harp with green and gold polychrome surface decoration

The primary problem that needed to be addressed with this harp was recent damage sustained on the center back of the body around the center sound holes and the lower proper left side of the body. There were five damaged areas of various sizes where the finish was gone, and there were areas of slight damage to the wood substrate. There were also areas of finish delamination around the damaged areas. The finish losses included the primary green coating, some gilt decorative elements, and some black polychrome accents. The rest of the harp was in good condition structurally with only scattered seam and grain separations normal to a wood construction of this age. 

The main green finish was determined through UV light inspection and solvent testing to be alcohol based, and almost certainly shellac. The green finish had been touched up in many areas with various tints of green that were in both alcohol based coatings and what appeared to be oil-based varnishes. The coatings and repairs were in various stages of yellowing, but stable. The composite color was a deep, vibrant green of various shades and tints with transparent and translucent layering of yellow and brown. It is a green that somehow seems inherently Irish and, if you travel through the Irish countryside in summer, you will see where it probably comes from.

The harp is elaborately decorated with oil gilt 23.5 karat gold leaf highlights. The molding of the neck and the center and side strips of the soundboard are covered. There are gilt shamrocks everywhere, on all of the sections. These are surrounded by gilt lines and culminate in areas of scrolled foliage and abstract decorative elements. The gilding is defined and detailed with black lines. There were many areas of previous repairs to the gilding and black line work but the overwhelming majority of the decoration was original. The gilding repairs were the typical mix of various binders – mainly shellacs and nitro-cellulose lacquers, and various pigments – a mix of mostly copper alloy powders in various stages of oxidation and some areas of possible gold or mica powders. The touch-ups were the typical lower skill level than the original and often covered or confused existing original elements. Over all the harp’s finish was stable, bit dirty and in need of a cleaning of dust and grime.

The first step was consolidation of the areas of delaminating finish. Salianski Isinglass glue was used for its superior wicking, ease of clean up, and compatibility with the wood substrate. Next, some minimal reversible infills were done in the five damaged areas of the wood substrate to re-establish the original profile of the back of the body. This was necessary as these areas of damage were in the middle of a very visible continuous curved surface covered with a glossy finish and would show changes of profile clearly. The scattered areas of opening seams and grain were glued and clamped with rabbit skin glue. The treatment of some of the repaired areas also included small amounts of reversible soft fill to minimize distracting surface variations.

The finish was then cleaned, primarily using the minimal amount of the de-ionized water with small amount of Triton detergent. A 2.5% tri-ammonium citrate in de-ionized water mixture proved useful in removing some of the non-original coatings that had turned a distracting brown. Agateen and Sunny Side Lacquer thinners safely removed many of the distracting and oxidizing repairs and touch-ups on the gilding and the black line work.

The damaged areas of green finish were infilled primarily with reversible Gamblin Conservation Colors and required a number of different tints to match the variations in the overall finish. The larger gilding losses were infilled with new oil gilt goal leaf. Non-tarnishing mica powders from Sepp Leaf Products, Inc. were used for the smaller infills and for toning the new leaf infills to match the aged original gilding. The areas of missing black lines were infilled with reversible toning. The final protective coating was one coat of Renaissance Wax.

The portable harp was meant to be held while being played or carried using a shoulder strap. It will stand on its flat bottom but is easily knocked over. At some point in the recent past, the base of the body had two wood dowels installed which inserted into a new support base to allow the harp to stand. Beside the fact that the new dowels were invasive, they only extended ¼” and only slid into drilled holes in the new wood base. It was still very possible to knock the harp over. We removed the added dowels and replaced them with threaded brass connections that were the same diameter as the holes for the dowels so no more original material was lost. Threaded bolts inserted upwards from the bottom of the new base connect into the threaded brass inserts in the harp. This safely holds the two together and allows the harp to safely stand and be displayed.

Historic Irish harp with polychrome painted details and gilded carved motifs

The second harp was found in a secondhand shop by the same owner of the first Egan harp. This small green harp was extremely dirty, the accumulated dirt and grime obscured much of the gilt and polychrome details. The finish was delaminating in many areas with extensive losses. There were missing sections of wood and relief, as wells as unfinished areas of new wood infills of varying skill levels. There were many shrinkage splits along the grain. Many strings were missing or broken. There were missing tuning pins and soundboard pegs. Worst of all, there were two vertical cuts approximately 8” H and ¼” W on the back bottom of the body that looked like someone had inexplicably run the harp twice on a table saw. The two cuts not only ran completely through the wood, but also across gilt decoration, black line work, and of course the glossy green finish.

This harp had no action plate and there was no signature or stamp to absolutely date or attribute it, but is almost certainly an Egan harp as well. The form and finish slot in perfectly with well documented Egan harps. The skill level of the craftsmanship matches. The color of the finish, the gilt decorations, and the relief details on the top of the neck, either match perfectly or compare to documented harps. If it is not an Egan harp, it is a perfect knock off that had to have been done in Egan’s time. The first Egan harp was in very good shape with some issues that needed to be addressed to bring it back to good condition. The second harp needed a lot of conservation in order to restore it to a displayable level.

Conservation of objects can involve as many variations of treatments as there are types of objects, but usually follow a similar track. Usually, the first step is consolidation. This involves stabilizing any original material, so it will not be lost during further treatment. This involves such things as extremely loose elements and delaminating finish that is ready to fall off. On this second Egan harp this mostly involved extensive consolidating of the finish.

Structural work usually follows next. For this harp that meant extensive re-gluing and reattaching of seams, joints, and cracks. At this time, the two large vertical wood losses on the back were infilled to restore the original profile. An historic object should always be stabilized first, and if this exhausts the budget and resources, it should be the minimal treatment.

Once stabilized, the object can be safely cleaned. Since the finish and decoration on the two harps were very similar in material and style, the cleaning on the second harp used the same methods and solvents, the difference was the cleaning was many times more extensive with much more dramatic results. The rich green returned, and the gilt and polychrome details came back to life.

After the object is stable and cleaned, it can be decided on whether or not any finish or material infill should be done. The areas of repairs and most distracting finish losses on this harp were infilled with reversible toning. This included the major wood infills of the cuts on the back of the body. Missing strings and hardware were replaced and patinated to match the originals.

Historic Irish harp with polychrome details restored at Bernacki & Associates, Inc.
Historic Irish harp with polychrome details - close-up gilded carving

A new base was made to match the one on the first harp in shape and color. The second base differs in that it was not invasive and did not involve altering any original material. The harp slides down over a custom padded insert made from archival materials and involves no hardware or attachments. The two Egan harps can now stand next to each other, no long capable of making music, but still very capable of making beauty.

The third and fourth harps are very different from the Egan harps. One has no action plate but does have two small engraved copper alloy plates on the front of the neck. The one on the proper left side has the lettering, “James McFall / Maker Reviver of / the Irish Harp / 22 York Lane / Belfast.” The one on the proper right side reads, “Made in Ireland / The Tara No. 7.” McFall was active in the late 1800s and early 1900s, another of a long line of Irish harp makers who revived traditional forms while incorporating new elements.

James McFall harp with wood-carved and engraved Irish decorative patterns
James McFall harp with wood-carved and engraved Irish decorative patterns - detail of intricate Irish style carvings
James McFall harp with copper-alloy plate saying, “James McFall / Maker Reviver of / the Irish Harp / 22 York Lane / Belfast”

The McFall harp is floor standing and much larger, at 54.5” H. The alcohol based finish is dark brown with much less decoration and only a few gilt touches. The two sides of the soundboard are decorated with Celtic inspired designs that are incised into the wood with the only coloring being possible dark coloring in the lines only. This differs from other existing harps where the patterns are infilled with vibrant colors.

The harp was not in good condition. It had many structural issues and some losses of wood elements. It was extremely dirty. The strings were mostly missing and there were missing hardware elements. Whereas the Egan harps are very bright, vibrant, and playful in their form and decoration, the McFall is much more classical and somber.

James McFall harp with with gilt, green, and black polychrome designs restored at Bernacki & Associates, Inc.
James McFall harp displaying rich gold, green and black polychrome design
Polychrome and gilded decorations adorning James McFall harp
McFall harp with polychrome soundboard decoration in the Celtic inspired design
Detail of Irish harp with Celtic inspired engravings

The fourth harp came in with the McFall but had no engraved plates, signature, or markings that placed it historically. It was also floor standing though somewhat smaller than the McFall. Structurally, it was very similar with a few unusual different details, especially on the column, that are not found on documented McFall’s. The finish and decorative elements were very similar. The soundboard decoration had many similarities in the Celtic inspired design but differed in that it was filled in with gilt and green and black polychrome that is comparable to other documented McFall harps. Was it also a McFall? Nancy Hurrell (Egan harp authority and harpist) has also found photographic evidence that may link these two harps together in the studio of American harp maker Melville Clark, who went on to create the Clark Irish Harp. The condition of this fourth harp was also very similar to the McFall.

Four different harps that have many things in common. They are one specific type of instrument, and much of their design and construction is linked due to that initial function. They are all linked to one country, and its long and rich cultural heritage which supplies much of the inspiration for their finish and appearance. They can no longer perform the function they were created for but they are still vital individual examples of a long historic tradition. They have many differences but also link together in a bigger historic and artistic picture that continues to develop and fascinate.