This rare instrument is one of the very few Continental square pianos from the eighteenth century left in the world.
During the late eighteenth century, square piano design underwent rapid change both in England and on the Continent. Many different piano actions were developed in the hope that instruments would better meet the needs of a growing piano repertoire.
In its design, this Continental square piano reveals the influence of the early eighteenth century keyboard instrument called a pantalon. The pantalon is characterised by having bare wooden hammerheads, no dampers to damp the sound and a number of mechanical devices built into the instrument that, when engaged, change the sound. These devices are activated by small ivory hand stops that lie beneath the keyboard. The modern piano is a fusion of the pantalon, with its undamped sound from the bottom note to the top, and the piano as it was first invented in the seventeenth century, with dampers that stop the sound when the key is released. That today’s pianos have a pedal to raise all the dampers simultaneously is the result of early piano makers wanting their instrument to be able, when needed, to sound like a pantalon.
In addition to its pantalon influences, this instrument also has an experimental action of a very simple type that is distinguished by unusually small hammers. It is reasonable to suppose that, once restored, the sound of this instrument will be incredibly delicate, subtle and colourful. At some stage in its life, this square piano has undergone refurbishment of the casework in the Louis XV style, transforming it from its original plain mahogany brown to a green colour – an indication that the piano had a wealthy owner in its past who was prepared to ‘update’ the piano’s exterior to make it more fashionable. While the piano itself is rare, the story of its arrival in Australia is also unusual. Leading Sydney antiques dealer, William Bradshaw, came across the piano by chance in a flea-market in Paris and immediately recognised its historical significance. However, he knew that the French, who have strict laws governing their moveable cultural heritage, would never allow it to be sent to Australia. So Bradshaw hatched a plan.
As with most square pianos, the underside of the instrument is hidden from view and left unfinished – there’s no veneering, no staining, it’s just rough, bare wood. So Bradshaw turned the instrument upside down and put it inside a van underneath a pile of worthless provincial furniture. In this way, Bradshaw was able to smuggle the instrument out of France. Years later, the piano was bought from Bradshaw by Stewart Symonds. Simply put, this instrument is rare and exotic. It takes pride of place as one of the truly special pianos in the Stewart Symonds Collection.