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Lisburn Historical Society

Volume 10 • 2005 - 2006


Egan Harp Portrait of Lady Pamela Fitzgerald, wife of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, with their daughter, by Mallary c.1800.
Egan Harp
Portrait of Lady Pamela Fitzgerald, wife of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, with their daughter, by Mallary c.1800.
Reproduced courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland.

In June 2001 the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum received the donation of a single-action classical concert harp manufactured in Dublin by the eminent harp maker John Egan. The harp was initially offered to Down County Museum but, because it had been owned for many years by Miss Maud Hunter of Lisburn, the staff there referred the donor, Mr. F. S. Napier, to Lisburn Museum.

The harp was sorely in need of extensive repair when it arrived in the Museum, having spent many years in external storage following Miss Hunter's death in 1952. The instrument was in pieces and very dirty, accompanied by a box of assorted bits which had obviously fallen off over the years. The professional conservator who subsequently restored the harp summed up its initial condition as follows:

The harp's structure comprised three main areas -the neck, the soundboard and the pedal box. A serious woodworm infestation was clearly apparent, and was responsible for much of the damage that we subsequently recorded in these areas. The pedal box had completely failed and its structural collapse had resulted in the deformation of one of the harp's eight pedals. The base cover-plate had split in two and the soundboard had failed at the chassis piece, which itself had failed ... Worst of all, the timber of the neck had been reduced to the consistency of sponge.

The harp arrived with no strings attached... but they did accompany the instrument in a bag. Twenty-nine of the soundboard pegs were missing and, of those present, only seven were complete with original mother-of-pearl insets.

In addition, all action and packing leather has rotted and/or hardened and moths had left little behind of the original felts.1

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Nevertheless, despite its condition, the harp had obviously once been a high quality musical instrument of the last eighteenth-early nineteenth century with a strong loca connection. It was therefore considered to warrant both acquisition and further investigation.

Work began on research into harps and we were soot excited to learn that John Egan had supplied such instruments not only to the famous Belfast Harp Festival of 17922 but also to the Irish Harp Society (founded it 1808), which had had substantial funds raised for it by John Williamson Fulton of Lisburn before his death in 1830.

Highly decorative detail in gilding at the base of the soundboard of two figures in classical dress

However, with further reading we came to realise that, in our ignorance, we were confusing the traditional Irish harp (played by a harper) with the European single-action concert harp (played by a harpist) — the confusion stemming from the fact that Egan had made both types as well as several variations in between.4 Once it was established that we had acquired a single-action concert harp we were able to concentrate our research solely on those harps of that type produced by Egan.5At this point we became aware that the best examples of such early harps are to be found in the collections of major museums. Of particular help regarding background history was Mr. Clive Morley of Clive Morley Harps, whom we contacted in relation to advice on restoration. Mr. Morley's family has been in the harp business for nearly two hundred years and he was therefore able to give us a summary outline of Egan's history.6 More importantly, he was also very knowledgeable about all structural issues concerning Egan harps, which was a key issue for us with regard to a possible restoration. With his assurance that the harp could be restored, application was made for financial assistance to the Heritage Lottery Fund and further research was carried out.

Few details are known about Egan himself and, at the moment, we have no knowledge of how or where he learned the art of harp making, but his concert pedal-harps bear a considerable resemblance to those by the famous French harp-maker, Sebastien Erard, who also had a factory in London.7 Erard manufactured a huge number of harps and was regarded as the premier harp-maker of his day but Egan's harps were also well regarded and were even thought to be slightly more elegant in proportion than those of his French counterpart.8

The single-action and double-action harps of this period were highly decorative and the one acquired by the Museum was no exception. Despite being covered by layers of dirt, the extensive gilding alone made the harp a visually attractive object even in disrepair. The successful retention of the decoration was to prove a major challenge during the subsequent extensive restoration process. The layers of dirt also initially obscured the fact that the harp had originally been a very deep shade of blue rather than the present-day black. Unfortunately, cleaning to the degree necessary to restore the blue colour was to prove impossible without threatening the gilding and thus the restored harp continues to appear black except in strong light.

The bas-reliefs of gilded figures playing lyres around the top of the harp's pillar. 
 The bas-reliefs of gilded figures playing lyres around the top of the harp's pillar.

When we study the motifs in the decorative gilding covering the harp's 'black' surfaces they enable us to attempt to place the instrument both in space and time. The extensive use of ivy, for instance, may well point to the harp's Irish origins, since ivy is noted in Ireland for its qualities of eternal greenness, durability and strong growth. Even more significant in the harp's gilded work are the neo-classical motifs which were fashionable in Europe in the early nineteenth century. The archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii from the mid-18th century onwards had inspired across Europe a love of classical motifs from ancient Greece and Rome as well as an interest in Greek and Roman deities. The aristocracy of Europe flocked to Italy and to Greece as part of the Grand Tour and this led to the adoption of neo-classical motifs in decorative architecture, drawing rooms, furniture and fashion, a style which became known as Empire in France and Regency in England. Such neo-classical motifs can be seen at the base of the harp's soundboard where the two lyre-playing figures are depicted in classical dress. In turn, Empire and Regency styles were to be seen in the early nineteenth century fashion for neo-classical loose and lightweight dresses of muslin and lawn which were worn by ladies of the aristocracy and aspiring gentry in France, Britain and Ireland and illustrated in the portrait by Mallary of Lady Pamela Fitzgerald. Indeed, it was in the neo-classical drawing rooms of such families in Britain and Ireland that young ladies attired in this fashion would have been found playing an Egan harp decorated with neo-classical motifs. In France, the revival of interest in ancient Roman culture reinforced the associated political theory of republicanism and the spirit of democracy.9 In turn, the 1798 rebellion in Ireland was inspired both by the French and by the actions of the American colonists in 1776. The international association of culture and political ideas at the time is well illustrated by the fact that Lady Pamela Fitzgerald's husband, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, died in prison while awaiting trial for his part in the Irish rebellion of 1798, and Lady Pamela herself had been raised in the household of Madame de Genlis, a noted French Republican and expert on the harp (see note 8).
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The lyres which are held by these gilded figures reflect the association of music with the Greek Muses, which makes their choice entirely suitable for inclusion as a decorative motif on a harp. The history of the Muses changed somewhat as it moved from Greek to Roman mythology, but the original Muse controlled the wind, blowing through the strings of an (Aeolian) harp and producing a sound.10 The same figures appear again as bas-reliefs around the top of the harp's pillar and on the top of the pedal box there are two winged figures flying in the wind and blowing trumpets — again a reference to the Muses. The pillar itself is fluted in the manner of Greco-Roman style and other parts of the harp have classical garlands instead of ivy.11

As mentioned earlier, the preservation of the gilding which so typified Regency taste was to pose a major challenge to the restorer. When the decision was made to restore the harp there was a choice as to whether it should be restored to a 'static' display condition, or whether a more ambitious, expensive, and potentially risky attempt should be made to restore it to full playing condition. The argument for the latter course was that a musical instrument is no longer a musical instrument if it cannot be played and heard but instead becomes merely an item of furniture. While this was certainly the fate of many harps during their lifetime in the drawing rooms of the gentry, there is also a potent argument that musical instruments are only 'kept alive' by constant playing and ongoing repairs. The grounds against the significantly greater intervention needled to produce a playable harp were that it would be more expensive, the important decorative qualities might be marred by the substantially more intrusive restoration process required, and the sound qualities might well be seriously impaired into the bargain. Nevertheless, as the Heritage Lottery Fund had indicated that it was prepared to be fully supportive of the extra expense, it was decided to explore the option of restoring the harp to full playing condition and run the risk of the outcome being a rather expensive 'static' harp with somewhat diminished decorative qualities. Discussion with the restorer therefore concentrated very much around the production of a reassembled harp capable of being played in recital, without destroying its considerable beauty as an objet d'art. After lengthy consideration the restore! deemed this to be possible and so the decision was finally made to attempt a complete restoration of the Egan harp to full playing condition.

The restoration process took nearly a full year and way highly successful. This was especially remarkable given that. on disassembly, the condition of the harp's neck was found to be considerably worse than expected, being completely riddled with woodworm. This meant that it possessed nowhere near the strength required to take the tension of strings raised to the proper pitch. The most suitable solution was to completely replace the neck with a new laminated one, but the big question was: how to do this without losing all the marvellous decoration? The answer was found by taking thin slices off all the faces of the neck

when it had been removed; then, when the new neck was constructed, these thin pieces of original decoration were glued on to it and the glue lines covered in new base colour to match the old, with any gilding missing from the whole procedure being touched in at that time.

Miss Maud Hunter (1860-1952) of Lisburn, last owner of the Egan harp
Miss Maud Hunter (1860-1952) of Lisburn, last owner of the Egan harp

A similar process was applied to the replacement of the cracked soundboard. This involved removing the soundboard from the body of the harp and planning by hand most of the original wood from the inner face. A new soundboard was then made and the gilded face from the original was glued on. In the process of replacing the soundboard, great care was taken, wherever possible, to replicate the original construction details and methods. Nevertheless, the question was raised as to the effect that replacing the 'heart', as it were, of the instrument might have on its tone, but reassurance was given that this, unlike the operation on the neck, was not unusual in the lifetime of a harp and that the tone should remain close to the original.

The true test of whether or not the harp's tonal qualities had been successfully restored came when the harp was finally reassembled, restrung, and played for the first time. Prior to arranging an inaugural recital the harp was sent off to the well-known English harpist, Ms. Danielle Perrett, to see if she judged it worthy of performance. To everyone's delight, Ms. Perrett, who specialises in this type of harp, found it to be first-rate and declared that she would be most pleased to give the harp its first public recital. She was particularly enthused that the harp retained the use of the pedal-operated doors in the back of the body as a means of increasing or lessening the volume of the instrument. Despite her wide experience of harps of a similar type, this was the first time she had had the opportunity to play such an Egan harp, and she managed to incorporate use of the pedal into her interpretation of the various pieces in the programme. The recital, which was held in the Assembly Room of the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum in November 2004, was well received and future recitals are planned.
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At the beginning of the recital, special mention was made of the last person known to play the harp — Miss Maud Hunter of Lisburn. The donor, Mr. F. S. Napier, provided the following background information in a letter to the Museum of July 2001:

Miss Hunter was my mother's second cousin, being a half sister to my great-grandmother, wife of the Reverend Thomas Seymour, a Methodist New Connection Minister. Her father, we believe, was Hugh Hunter, from Nottingham, who may have been a Congregational Minister and, at one time, a schoolmaster at Newtownbreda. Her mother was a Matilda Atkins and Maud was born in 1860. Methodist New Connection records show that my great-grandfather was in Lisburn (with Priesthill and Broomhedge) from 1848 to 1852 and from 1857 to 1861. He died in 1866 and his wife died in 1893.

Mr. Napier goes on to note that he remembered Miss Hunter visiting him in Buncrana, County Donegal in the 1920s, by which time she was almost totally blind - though he believed she was still giving piano lessons at her lodgings at 19A Bachelor's Walk in Lisburn. His mother also told him that, at one time, Miss Hunter was in demand as a concert harpist in Belfast. Miss Hunter died in 1952.

There is a charming account of the central contribution made by Miss Hunter to the production of music in Seymour Street Methodist Church, Lisburn.12 An anonymous contributor describes how, in the early 20th century, a group of small boys watched the arrival of a jaunting car at Seymour Street Lecture Hall:

The Jarvey seated on the dickey with a foot on each shaft stirred himself and, after climbing down via a foot pedal, removed the rug from the passenger's knees and assisted the little lady to alight. She immediately commenced giving instructions regarding the unloading of the musical instrument strapped on the other seat of the jaunting car.

The boys watched wide-eyed, for this instrument was not a violin, 'cello or even a double-bass but a harp, and was generally only seen once or twice a year, and they never ceased to be amazed by the fact that when placed carefully on the path, the instrument was taller than its owner, who was under five feet in height.

The lady's name was Miss Maud J. G. Hunter and no history ... of Seymour Street would be complete without mention of her name. She was organist for thirty ... years and although] the actual dates of Miss Hunter's service may be uncertain ... she was organist and continued for some considerable time after the new organ was installed in 1920.

This account of Seymour Street musical events mentions that Miss Hunter played a leading role and accompanied invited artists. 'Many were the occasions when the old hall rang to the well-known songs of these islands13 — a comment which invites speculation as to the musical selections which might have been played on Miss Hunter's Egan harp over its considerable lifetime. Miss Danielle Perrett, in the harp's recent inaugural recital, acknowledged this issue in choosing to play a programme of two halves containing both traditional Irish airs and classical pieces arranged or composed for the pedal harp.

Many traditional airs for the Irish harp survived through the work of Edward Bunting, who was appointed to record the pieces played by Irish harpers at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, and subsequently published by him as Ancient Music of Ireland in 1796. However, criticism has been levelled at Bunting by Robert Bruce Armstrong to the effect that, in writing down the melodies using notation associated with the pianoforte, he ignored the instruction given to him 'against adding a single note to the old melodies, which seemed to have passed, in their present state, through a long succession of ages'.14 Armstrong continues: 'We owe him much, but he lived in what may be called an 'improving' age; he had a keyed instrument before him, and the temptation to introduce impossible Harp notes was irresistible: so he "improved or polished" the Harp melodies...'15 In other words, if Armstrong's conjectures are right, a harpist today (or even in Miss Hunter's time) playing traditional Irish airs on the Museum's Egan harp would not be reproducing the sounds made by harpers of the Belfast Harp Festival or the Belfast Harp Society, despite the antiquity and contemporaneous nature of that harp. They would, instead, be producing Bunting's interpretation of the traditional harpers' music — an interpretation heard in the drawing-rooms and concert halls of Ireland, and in Lisburn,' in Seymour Street Hall at the hands of Miss Hunter.

Finally, researching and dealing with the Egan harp has made us more aware that there was an earlier harp musician with a Lisburn connection — a traditional Irish harper in this case. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs note that there was a gravestone in Kilrush with the inscription 'Erected by the Irish Harp Society, to the memory of their pupil Patrick McCloskey, in consideration of his good conduct and proficiency in music, died 7 June 1826, aged 19 years'.16 Further research by the Lisburn Branch of the North of Ireland Family History Society reveals that 'On 21st August 1821 at the annual meeting one of the young pupils was stated to be Patrick McCloskey (blind) Banbridge. McCloskey would have been a pupil for only two years, so at his death in 1826 he would have been a practising harper, but the Society obviously retained an interest in their expupil'.17 Perhaps that interest was connected with John Williamson Fulton of Lisburn who, while in India, had raised funds for the Irish Harp Society until his death in 1830.

With the Egan harp now restored to full playing condition, we are immensely grateful both for the donation itself, and also for the financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund that enabled the restoration to be carried out to the highest possible standard. Lisburn has undoubtedly more to learn regarding its relationship to the history of the harp and traditional Irish music. Miss Hunter's Egan harp is only the beginning.
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Note: photographs of the Egan harp and Miss Hunter are reproduced
courtesy of the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
1 For a detailed description of the harp's restoration see Michael Parfett, The Death and Life of an Egan Harp', Conservation News (November 2003), p. 30.
2 A more complete description of one of these harps is to be found in A Harp by John Egan' by Robert Bruce Armstrong in Musical Instruments: The Irish Harp, (1904), facsimile reproduction by Clive Morley Harps Ltd. (Lechlade, 1990), pp. 100-3. See also 'Belfast Society Harps', ibid. pp. 105-7.
3 Aiken McClelland. The Irish Harp Society', Ulster Folklife, vol. 21 (1975). See also Theodore C. Hope, Memoirs of the Fulton of Lisburn (privately printed, 1903), p. 71.
4 A single-action harp has seven pedals which operate rods running up through the pillar of the harp. These rods, in turn, activate a mechanism which alters the length of the strings and hence raises or lowers their pitch by a semitone, producing sharps and flats. This enables the harpist to play in a variety of keys. A double action harp extends this capability. Egan also produced a smaller, portable version, called the 'Dital' harp, which used a series of blades on the post for altering pitch, as well as traditional Irish harps for the Belfast Harp Festival and for the subsequent Belfast Harp Society.
5 A useful single volume on the history of the pedal harp has recently appeared. John Marson, The Book of the Harp (Stowmarket, 2005).
6 George Morley (1790-1852) was trained by Erard. A harp in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, dating from c. 1810, is regarded as possibly having been made by Morley. Ibid. p. 138.
7 It is known that Egan occupied premises in Dublin in the early 19th century. The engraving on the Museum's harp includes the Royal Coat of Arms and reads 'John Egan 30 Dawson Street Dublin, Maker by Special Appointment to his Most Gracious Majesty, George IV'.
8 A resounding endorsement was offered by the famous 18th —19th century harpist and teacher, Madame de Geniis, who declared that the Egan harp was as good as a French one. See Parfett, Conservation News, p. 30. The connection between Madame de Genlis and Lady Pamela Fitzgerald is outlined in Stella Tillyard, Citizen Lord (London, 1997), pp. 142-54.
9 In France, in particular, the revival of interest in ancient Rome centred on the period of the Roman Republic and its associated theories of republicanism. America had already declared itself an independent Republic in 1776, followed by the French Revolution of 1789 and the unsuccessful Irish Rebellion of 1798 — the last taking place only ten years or so before the production of the Museum's Egan harp.
10 H.J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (London, 1958), pp. 173-4.
11 Changing taste in decorative design was reflected in the decorative motifs used on harps. Those manufactured later in the 19th century than the Museum's Egan harp display Gothic decoration as neoclassicism declined in popularity while in the 20th century harps were even produced with Art Deco decoration.
12 12 G.E. Orr, Lisburn Methodism, Centenary History (Lisburn, 1975), pp. 37-40.
13 13 Ibid, p. 38.
14 Robert Bruce Armstrong, Musical Instruments: The Irish Harp, p. 50.
15 Ibid. p. 54. For a fuller account and more modern judgement on Bunting's success or failure at writing down the traditional Irish airs see Janet Harbison, 'The Legacy of the Belfast Harp Festival, 1792', Ulster Folklife, 35 (1989), pp.113-28.
16  Ordnance Survey Memoirs, Lisburn and South County Antrim, Vol. 8, (Belfast, 1991), p. 22.
17 These Hallowed Grounds, A Record of the Memorials in Kilrush and St. Patrick's Burying Grounds, Lisburn, Vol. 1, (Belfast. 2001), p. 161.

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