A lost eighteenth-century harp method rediscovered, Michel Corrette’s Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la harpe (1774): A new acquisition for Rare Music

Published in Paris in 1774, Michel Corrette’s Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la harpe [New method for learning to play the harp] is an exciting new addition to the Rare Music collection. Until recently it was considered to be a ‘lost’ eighteenth-century harp method since scholars were unable to locate any reference to this rare edition in the major European bibliographies or at auction.Michel Corrette (b Rouen, 1707; d Paris, 1795) is well known among musicians and scholars of eighteenth-century French music for his work as an organist, teacher, prolific composer-arranger with works spanning 75 years, and as an author of pedagogical methods for various instruments and voice. These methods are clearly written and well-structured, offering valuable insight into aspects of eighteenth-century French performance practice. For example, the pieces included in his violin method L’école d’Orphée (1738), which illustrate the French and Italian styles, help us to further understand the complex discourse of national styles in this period and its musical application.

The subtitle of Corrette’s harp method, Avec des leçons faciles pour les commençans, des menuets allemands et italiens et autres jolis airs; et la partition pour l’accorder avec les pédales et sans les pédales [with easy lessons for beginners, German and Italian minuets and other pretty airs; and a section for tuning pedal and non-pedal harps] indicates a similar clarity of structure to his other pedagogical works. The work begins with a brief history of the harp. This is followed by fourteen chapters on chords, fingering on the harp, arpeggios, and the use of the pedals. Other eighteenth-century French harp methods from 1763 onwards address similar aspects of history, technique and musical execution for the instrument and most are aimed at beginners, demonstrating that Corrette’s method could be considered representative of the approach to pedagogy for the harp in this period.

The harp which is the focus of this method, is known today as the ‘single-action harp’ and in late-eighteenth century Paris as ‘harpe organisée’ or ‘harpe à pédales’. This instrument was revolutionary at the time in being the first harp with a mechanism that allowed the player to alter the pitch of the strings by pressing pedals with their feet. The seven pedals attached to rods in the harp’s column, which in turn engaged a mechanism in the instrument’s neck, could raise the pitch of each string by one semitone (hence the term ‘single-action), thus leaving both hands free for playing continuous scales and arpeggio figures whilst modulating to various keys. For harps of earlier periods, chromaticism was achieved by various means such as shortening the pitch of the string with a finger whilst playing with the opposing hand, adjusting the pitch of individual strings with a tuning key, increasing the single row of strings to two or three ranks which included a chromatic row, and hooks attached to the neck of the harp which could be turned with one hand to shorten the string. The first harp with pedals is attributed to a German luthier Jacob Hochbrucker as early as 1697 but it was not until 1749 that there is the first documented performance on this instrument in France at the ‘Concert Spirituel’ season in Paris. By the time the first pedal harps by Parisian maker Salomon were available for sale in 1760 the single-action harp had become a wildly popular commodity as described in an oft-quoted letter from Charles-Simon Favart to the Count Durazzo on May 1, 1761.

“La harpe est aujourd’hui l’instrument à la mode; toutes nos dames on la fureur d’en jouer.”1

[Today the harp is the instrument à la mode; all our ladies are mad to play it.]

Attuned to the musical and social zeitgeist, Corrette’s method reflects this trend for learning the harp as a popular accomplishment among young aristocratic women, one which would undoubtedly render them more marriageable as it was both beautiful to play and to look at and could only serve to highlight the beauty and charm of the player! The frontispiece of the method features an engraving of a young woman playing a harp accompanied by the following suitably amourous quatrain:

“La Harpe entre vos mains Silvie,
Ne laisse rien à désirer.
De vos beaux yeux l’ame est ravie,
Peut-on vous voir sans vous aimer!”2

[The harp in your hands Silvie,
Leaves nothing to be desired.
A glance at your eyes thrills me
How could you not be admired!]

Corrette neatly sets the text of this poem to music at the end of his harp method in a section containing settings of various popular airs with harp accompaniment. The single-action harp along with the harpsichord and later the fortepiano became one of the most popular instruments to accompany the voice in France in the second half of the eighteenth-century.

The acquisition of this fascinating harp method is directly linked to an Australian Research Council Discovery Project initiated by University of Melbourne Senior Lecturer in Music Dr Erin Helyard, musicologist, historical keyboard specialist and acclaimed performer and conductor. Titled ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’, this research project is a cross-institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration between ANU (Glenn Roe and Robert Wellington), The University of Melbourne (Erin Helyard), The University of Sydney (Mark Ledbury), and Oxford University (Nicholas Cronk).

This team will undertake a groundbreaking study of the eighteenth-century songbook by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, Choix de Chansons (1773). Using a research methodology drawn from art history, French literature, musicology and the digital humanities, this study will engage with and enact the complex transdisciplinary and transmedial nature of this text and of eighteenth-century print culture in general whilst also mirroring the multimedia experience of the eighteenth-century consumer with the creation of a digital edition, which weaves together image, text and music. The music in Laborde’s Choix de Chansons features harp and harpsichord accompaniment and Corrette’s harp method, also published in Paris only one year later, will provide important musicological insight into performance practice for the harp at this time and a deeper understanding of how Laborde’s chansons can be meaningfully interpreted.

Hannah Lane, Research Assistant to Dr Erin Helyard

1 Charles-Simon Favart, Mémoires et correspondance littéraires: dramatiques et anecdotiques, de C. S. Favart, ed. Henri Françoi Dumolard, vol. 1 (L. Collin, Paris, 1808), 147.
2 Michel Corrette, Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la harpe, (s.n., Paris, 1774).

Wyverns, gryphons and acorns amidst the foliage: two rare early 16th century bindings by Nicholas Spierinck uncovered in the Rare Books Collection

What makes working with rare books so intriguing is the opportunity it delivers to follow a trail of clues – Sherlock Holmes-like – to trace an object’s origin and story through time.  Two excised bindings recently located in the Rare Book Room, have inspired one such stimulating pursuit…

An intact Spierinck binding

In 2008 the Baillieu Library was excited to purchase a rare original intact binding by the early Cambridge stationer Nicholas Spierinck, generously funded by the Ivy May Pendlebury Bequest.  The beautifully tanned calfskin cover encases a 1512 Paris edition of the works of 3rd-century Christian theologian, Origen Adamantius (b.184/185 – d.253/254), entitled Origenis Adamantii Operum tomi duo priores… .  At the time of the book’s acquisition, it was (and remains) the only known example of a complete Spierinck binding held in an Australian institution, bearing his personal binder’s mark, and incorporating his signature decorative schema of wyverns, gryphons and acorns.  A former Baillieu Library Rare Books Curator, Pam Pryde, described this unique acquisition and binding in her December 2008 Collections magazine article.  An animated 3D view of the binding, providing close inspection of Spierinck’s monogram and decorative devices is available here.


Two dis-bound Spierinck cover panels

In a recent intriguing twist to the tale, an uncatalogued box of bindings in the Rare Books Collection has been found to contain a pair of rare dis-bound Spierinck covers, together with 13 binding fragments from other provenances and time periods.  It appears that the samples were amassed by an unidentified donor, as a study collection for research and teaching.  The envelopes containing the two Spierinck bindings are clearly marked with his name in a 20th century hand; this attribution is conclusively confirmed by the presence of Spierinck’s distinctive stamp on both panels, which match exactly with those on the intact Origenis binding.

At first inspection, it is unclear whether the two dis-bound panels came from the same or different books, as one has been cut down in size and is 15mm smaller on each side than the other.  A shared provenance, however, seems very likely as both specimens bear pin holes at the same points, where the clasp and straps used to latch the panels would have once been attached to the covers, front and back.

16th century Cambridge book trade

In the early 16th century, the inland port of Cambridge was well placed to service its university’s growing appetite for books, being situated on an established river trading route, 40 miles from the Channel.  At this time, the majority of foreign language books (including the bulk of scholarly works which were written in Latin) were printed on the continent, and imported into England in loose form for binding and sale.  The burgeoning print market attracted foreign traders who set up mixed commercial enterprises as stationers, variously dealing in the importation, sale and binding of books.[i]  Many of these European artisans had migrated from the major book production centres of Paris, Basel and the lower Rhine, bringing their craft skills and ornamental influences with them.[ii] The first University of Cambridge printer, John Siberch (c1476–1554), was an established member of the German book trade before settling in the English town, where he operated from 1520-1522.[iii]

Nicholas Spierinck, fl. 1505-d.1545-6

With the passing of the centuries the names of most early English binders have passed into obscurity.  These anonymous ghosts are known today by their evocative decorative devices, such as ‘the fruit and flower binder’, ‘the fishtail binder’, ‘the half stamp binder’, ‘the huntsman binder’, ‘the octagonal rose binder’,  ‘the blank book binder’, and – my favourite – ‘the bat binder’.[iv] The historical record is much clearer for Nicholas Spierinck, as his appointment on 20th July 1534, as one of three official stationers (with Garrett Godfrey and Segar Nicholson) to the University of Cambridge, ensured that his name was inscribed in the official registers for posterity.[v]

Nicholas Spierinck, a member of a Netherlandish family of stationers, arrived in Cambridge sometime between 1503 and 1506, a binder of the same name having worked for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy between 1469 and 1475.  By 1516 Spierinck held the office of warden at St Mary’s Church in the centre of Cambridge, and his will (dated 20th August 1545) confirms that he became a successful merchant and a citizen of some standing.  He bequeathed a brewery at Cross Keys to his grandson Nycholas (which was still in operation in 1915), silver and coral beads to his wife Agnes and  ‘Kateryn’ (probably his daughter) and the residue of his estate to his son, ‘William Spyrynke’, who had by that time taken charge of the family book binding operations.[vi]

Blind stamped binding

An expanding English book trade, injected with an influx of skilled foreign labour, could not help but be influenced by continental fashions in binding and manufacture.  The outmoded medieval technique of decorating covers with hand-tooled patterns, gave way to the more efficient ‘blind stamping’ method (blind referring to the absence of gold).  This system used heated metal block plates, commonly bearing pictorial designs, to impress decorations on the moistened leather panels.[vii]

The commercial potential of binding books in a ‘house style’ was exploited by binders and booksellers as an early form of corporate branding and advertising.  Hence the practice adopted by different stationers to apply their trade mark panel to books sold from their premises.  Blind stamped panel bindings were typically employed as pairs, with the same coupling used by binders on many books in their ‘stable’.[viii]  There were an estimated 200 such panels in use in various combinations between 1485 and 1555.[ix]

The two newly-located Spierinck covers are examples of the two most commonly used panels associated with his workshop, which is known to have produced as many as 35 pressings of the upper panel (depicting The Annunciation).[x]   As evidenced by all extant examples, it was always used by Spierinck in combination with the lower panel (depicting the legend of St Nicholas), illustrating the three boys who were cut up and pickled by an innkeeper and then restored to life by the passing saint.   A black and white image of an intact Spierinck binding using this pairing of panels is reproduced in Gray’s The earlier Cambridge stationers & bookbinders and the first Cambridge printer.[xi]

In tandem with blind stamping, cylindrical hand rolls were used as labour-saving devices, to imprint decorative bands across the leather, often incorporating a binder’s or bookseller’s distinctive ornamental motif or signature.[xii]  We are very fortunate to have a splendid example of Spierinck’s principal hand roll (he had six) in the decoration of the Origenis binding, which can be compared with the border patterns used on the blind cover panels.

Further investigation and analysis

As with many historical conundrums, some questions about the panels remain unanswered, and the fragments recently uncovered in the Rare Books Collection will benefit from further conservation and investigation.  Both pieces of leather binding were removed from their original boards and pasted onto parchment mountings, sometime in the early 20th century.  This has obscured the reverse of each panel and evidence of how the leather was cut and placed over the boards.  Middleton notes in his history of English bookbinding techniques that Spierinck was one of the last binders to use corner-mitring to achieve a precise meeting of the turned leather edges at the inside corners.  This technique involved the cutting of a ‘tongue’ which was incised after the leather had been turned over from the front of the board.  The outstanding finish achieved using the method is evident in the Origenis binding, and it would be interesting to find evidence about how the corners of the dis-bound panel fragments were treated. [xiii]

Until this research can be undertaken, how curious it is to ponder that these three Spierinck examples, which emanated from the same workshop in 16th century Cambridge, should be reunited after travelling separate paths, and be housed several shelves away from each other at the University of Melbourne, some 500 years later.

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator


[i] Weale, p. xxix

[ii] McKitterick, p. x

[iii] Venn, p. 73.  Incidentally, Siberch was a great friend of Erasmus, to whom he introduced Spierinck.

[iv] Oldham, 1952, p. x

[v] Weale, p. xxvii

[vi] Gray & Palmer, pp. 31-32

[vii] Middleton, pp. 168-9

[viii] Pearson, p. 50

[ix] Hobson, pp. [89]-90

[x] Oldham, pp. 19, 42

[xi] Gray, Plate XVI – Evangelia, 1508.

[xii] Harthan, p. 11

[xiii] Middleton, p. 151

Bibliography & further reading

British Library. Database of bookbindings. Accessed 10 March 2017 http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/bookbindings/

Gray, George & William Palmer.  Abstracts from the wills and testamentary documents of printers, binders and stationers of Cambridge, from 1504-1699. London: Bibliographical Society, 1915.

Gray, George. The earlier Cambridge stationers & bookbinders and the first Cambridge printer.  Oxford: Bibliographical Society, 1904.

Hobson, G.D. Blind-stamped panels in the English book-trade, c. 1485-1555. London; Bibliographical Society, 1944

McKitterick, David. A history of the Cambridge University Press. Volume 1. Printing and the book trade in Cambridge, 1534-1698. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, c1992.

Oldham, J. Basil. Blind panels of English binders.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958.

Oldham, J. Basil. English blind-stamped bindings.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

Pearson, David. English bookbinding styles 1450-1800: a handbook. London: The British Library & Oak Knoll Press, 2005.

Pryde, Pam.  ‘A recent purchase for Special Collections in the Baillieu Library’, University of Melbourne Collections, Issue 3, December 2008. Accessed 10 March 2017 http://museumsandcollections.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/1378827/pryde.pdf

Sims, Liam. ‘An early Cambridge binding by Nicholas Spierinck’.  Cambridge University Library Special Collections blog post, 3 April 2015. Accessed 10 March 2017 https://specialcollections.blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=7461

Venn, John & J.A. Venn.  Alumni Cantabridgienses: a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of officeat the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

Weale, W.H. James.  Bookbindings and rubbings of bindings in the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: The Holland Press, 1962.


New Holland’s position upon the globe

One of the thought-provoking themes included in the latest exhibition in the Noel Shaw Gallery, Plotting the island: dreams, discovery and disaster, is the Dutch encounter with Australia in the 17th century. The Dutch are viewed as having added the coastline of Australia to the world’s map through their landings on the continent from 1606 until 1644 and their subsequent issuing of printed maps. For example, the world map reissued by Daniel Stopendael shows New Holland’s position on the globe, yet its outline is incomplete and inaccurate and there was and is still much to learn about its bounds and character.

It was the lucrative spice trade that brought the Dutch to establish their (VOC) trading port in Batavia (now Jakarta) and on to Australia, sometimes purposefully, other times by fateful accident. Early landings encountered inhospitable shores and then in 1629 the ship Batavia lost course and was wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos islands off the coast of Western Australia. The astounding mutiny and massacre that transpired amongst the survivors is a grisly chapter of Australian history. [1.] Melchisédech Thévenot’s book, Relations de divers voyages curieux … (Account of diverse and curious voyages) (1663-1672), compiles many travel stories, including the harrowing shipwreck of Batavia. It also features an important map of New Holland showing its outline as it was understood in 1644. Sections of this coastline, which incorporates Tasmania and New Zealand, were charted by Abel Tasman (1603-1659) during two separate voyages in 1642 and 1644. This map was published in three states (versions) and the Baillieu’s copy has the addition of a wind rose at right. [2.] As Martin Woods notes in the exhibition catalogue, this map has dual Dutch and French labels, with the unexplored section headed Terra Australis suggesting the way forward for French navigational ambitions. [3.] Yet to the French of the 17th century the South Land was also ‘Gonneville Land’, a utopia of gold.

Tasman was commissioned by Anthony Van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company, to explore the Great South Land. The combination of Van Diemen’s death in 1645, savage coasts and unpromising trade prospects saw the Dutch abandon New Holland, and it was not until the 18th century that exploration to the South Land was again continued by the English and the French. Thévenot’s book was a model which inspired Enlightenment writers who followed in the 18th century.

The set of Dutch books De mensch, zoo als hij voorkomt op den bekenden aardbol (Man as he appears on the familiar globe) (1802) is an example produced from Enlightenment ideals. It brings together information from many published sources, with order and classification. It is a book of anthropological geography based on voyages of exploration, locating its subjects in the paradigm of the Noble Savage. Its illustrator Jacques Kuyper (1761–1808) was a director of Amsterdam’s drawing academy and his artistic style was Neoclassical, a hallmark of the Enlightenment. The images are regarded by scholars as derivative to the voyages as they were made in response to them rather than from direct experience, nevertheless they offer rich waters for researchers, particularly so as the Baillieu Library holds the majority of the preparatory drawings for the book, in which can be seen additional information such as inscriptions and differences between the planned images and the printed versions.

The image Niew-Hollanders [3.] is featured in volume three; this text and image draws heavily from the published accounts of Cook and Sydney Parkinson. The position of the image in the third volume is rather unusual as the preceding volume contains South Sea Islanders and includes New Zealanders and Van Diemen Landers (Tasmanians). A result is that Tasmania and mainland Australia have been separated; additionally New Hollanders have been grouped with first-nation peoples of North America including such distant locales as Alaska. It calls to mind those early Dutch experiences with the South Land and the three distinct landmasses and peoples they briefly encountered; at that moment in history Europeans could not have had a well-developed understanding of the relationships and individual complexities of these lands and peoples.

Australia straddles two oceans: the Indian and the Pacific. Each of these regions has quite distinctive environments and customs. So, does it belong with the islands of the East Indies, or the Pacific, or, as it has sometimes been perceived, as an extension of the Americas? While Australia’s coastlines became more defined, its identity is not so readily classified and its position on the globe more than merely its longitude and latitude. For its Indigenous people, and for different citizens of the world, Australia each has different meaning.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)

References and further reading

[1.] See the full account in Mike Dash, Batavia’s graveyard, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002
[2.] Robert Clancy, The mapping of Terra Australis, Macquarie Park, N.S.W.: Universal Press, 1995 p. 82
[3.] Martin Woods, ‘New Holland dreams and misgivings’ in Plotting the island: dreams, discovery and disaster, University of Melbourne, 2017, p. 28
[4.] The much needed conservation of this drawing was funded by Miegunyah.

Delius Buys a Gauguin

Delius, Jelka (1868-1935), Nevermore, Object 1, painting,(n.d),Grainger Museum Collection, University of Melbourne.

Here at the Grainger Museum we have a copy of Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore currently on show painted by Jelka Delius (nee Rosen), the wife of composer Frederick Delius. Following my curiosity at the provenance of this painting, I conducted a quick Google search and discovered an article that opened the horizon for just how peculiar this painting is. In his article, “Delius Buys A Gauguin” Stephen J. Bury, Chief Librarian at the Frick Collection in New York, succinctly outlines the narrative of a succession of paintings that reproduce Gauguin’s Nevermore and their place in the social life of Frederick and Jelka Delius. In doing so, Bury asks two questions that I was happy to realise that the Grainger Museum’s collection can help to resolve. After emailing Bury and providing him with some more details—although still partially incomplete—I decided to write some additional comments here.

In the portion of the article below, Bury gives the account of his inquiry into a painting closely related to Nevermore; a late-impressionist portrait of Frederick Delius believed to be painted by Jelka Delius. The portrait that Bury recalled from memory pictures Nevermore (or a copy) as a part of its domestic mise-en-scene—it frames Delius’ right shoulder, creating an oblique harmony of perspectives that gives the slight impression that Nevermore could be a window to a distant room; it aligns Pahura—Gauguin’s vahiné (Tahitian wife) as languidly resting within the nape of Delius’ neck (in an ease possibly in contest with the moody tension of Gauguin’s original). As discovered by Bury, the painting that he recalled was not in-fact the original presumed to be painted by Jelka, but a reproduction now held in the public collection of the United Kingdom. In his words:

“So it’s 1948 copy after Jelka Rosen, by Alexander Akerbladh (1886–1958). Jelka Rosen studied art from 1892 at the Académie Colarossi. I looked her up in the Library’s Paris Salons catalogues, where she appears in the 1894 and 1895 volume:  in 1894 she is described as a pupil of Gustave Courtois, with a contact address at Rue Campagne-Premiere, 9 and exhibiting (at?what?) Au bord de l’eau; in 1895 she has the address, Avenue du Maine, 23 and she exhibited De grand matin and En plein été. Both addresses were in Montparnasse, a fertile meeting ground of artists and musicians. Delius and Rosen met at a dinner party on January 16, 1896, and a few years later they moved to Grez-sur-Loing, and married in September 1903.”[1]

My next question was whether in the background of the Delius portrait it was an actual Gauguin or a copy — perhaps, by Jelka. The painting is easily identifiable as Nevermore (1897), which is in the Courtauld Collection in London. The online catalogue reveals that, indeed, Delius was the first owner. I could also have found this out using the Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive provenance information that sits alongside the photographs of the painting, or the 1954 printed Courtauld Collection catalogue by Douglas Cooper. The printed catalogue gives more details than the online one on how Delius might have become interested in Gauguin’s work. Delius knew the composer William Molard, who had lived in the same house as Gauguin, Rue Vercingéterix, 4, 1893–94 and Gauguin had painted a portrait of Molard (it’s on the back of a self-portrait in the Musée d’Orsay, dated 1893–94). And Gauguin was involved with Molard’s adolescent stepdaughter, Judith Gérard/Molard, the daughter of Ida Ericson, the Swedish sculptress. So Delius would have definitely have met Gauguin.

Nevermore was bought by Delius for 500 Francs (another 50 was spent on a frame) from Gauguin’s friend, correspondent and dealer, the painter Daniel de Monfreid (1856–1929) in 1898. In a letter dated 12 January 1899 from Papeete, Gauguin wrote to de Monfreid that he had done well to sell the painting to Delius: “Do you recall that you reproached me for giving this painting a title: don’t you believe that this title Nevermore was the reason for the purchase…Maybe!…I’m delighted Delius is the owner, meaning that it’s a purchase not for speculation and resale, but for pleasure…” [my translation from Lettres de Gauguin a Daniel Monfreid (Paris, 1950)]

It hung in Delius’ music room in Grez-sur-Loing, where we see it in the Rosen/Akerbladh portrait. The subsequent history is uncertain: the catalogue to the 1906 Gauguin section of the Salon d’Automne has Delius as the lender. This was the show that both Picasso and Matisse saw. It was probably sold during financial problems that plagued Delius in the 1910s. It went through the hands of three dealers – Alfred Wolff (Munich), Alex Reid (Glasgow) and Agnew (London and Manchester) before entering Herbert Coleman’s collection in Manchester. It was in Samuel Courtauld’s Collection by 1926, becoming part of the Courtauld Gift in 1932.

What effect Nevermore, with its overtones of Edgar Allan Poe, had on the work of Delius during the period he owned it is a tantalizing subject to explore. Meanwhile I need to track down where the original Jelka Rosen portrait is.

To respond to Bury’s Questions: firstly, here at the Grainger museum we have the original portrait Frederick Delius (1925) that was subsequently reproduced by Akerbladh, and as mentioned, we also have the copy of Gauguin’s Nevermore (Nevermore, no date) painted by Jelka Delius. Knowing that Jelka did indeed paint her reproduction of Nevermore, we can propose that the Nevermore pictured in the background of the Delius portrait may well be the copy that Bury guessed to be painted by Jelka, making it dubious to whether the portrait can be considered stable evidence the Delius’ ownership of Nevermore at the time of the portrait. To speculate on the effect of Nevermore on Delius—and therefore its continued presence in these paintings—we might look to Grainger’s account:

“Delius had sold the original painting [Nevermore] in 1898… We should remember how many of Delius’s greatest creations were inspired by thoughts of primitive nature:… It was this urge to express in art the mood of virgin nature, the spirit of wild races, that drew Delius and me so closely together.”

Such remarks are indicative of Grainger’s tone and style—an autodidact abundant with candour. They denote his ideal for an art comparative with nature (a Romantic Modernism, sketchily reminiscent of Rousseau), coexistent with a flimsy theory of racial identity not uncommon in certain intellectual circles at the time. One presumes that the appearance of Pahura in all of these paintings serve an iconographic purpose, expressing the quasi-Romantic ideals shared by these two composers. Whether or not we argue that Gauguin’s relationship to Tahitian culture was authentic, the reception of the painting by Grainger and Delius is indicative of the type of fetishism du jour for Western modernists (and very much in accord with Grainger’s broader interests). Without going into the deeper analysis needed for this theme, I might add that engaging with these subjects is very much a part of the complexities faced when engaging Grainger’s collection today. Some may have the reservation that this is in contest with Grainger’s aims for the museum, yet one duty of the collection is to be interpreted and to help bring history into dialogue with the present. This is the challenge that anachronism presents to the relevance of any museum.

By looking to Percy Grainger’s aims for his museum[2, it is certain that there is a desire to build an educational institution for students of music and composition expressly on his own terms. In the service of this cause, he collected items in aid of rewriting and revaluing the history of the Western tradition in an idiosyncratic and frankly personal manner; paintings such as Nevermore and the portrait of Delius, clothing, correspondence, instruments, photographs, and all nature of ephemera illustrate and support Grainger’s ideas about history. More interestingly, in an example rare for any museum, Grainger originally wrote, composed, and built all of the information panels by hand. The institutional acknowledgement of mentors and friends provide much of the contour for Grainger’s narration of history, and it is within these crafted accounts that Grainger wished to canonise Frederick Delius. Adjacent to this, we might observe that part of the cadence of autobiography is bias such as this, and although the ethics of Grainger’s history is by no means sound by most standards, the earnestness of his example provides a clear image of how museums institute value on historical narratives, social relations, and certain effects of private property. As a most basic fact, these paintings give shape to the outward appearance of an amicable relationship between the Delius and Grainger families, now public, historical, institutionalised and in the broadest sense of the term, preserved. But they have more to say than biography, and this is where we must depart on our own interpretations.

[1] Bury S. Delius Buys A Gauguin. Chief Librarian’s Blog, The Frick Collection. Retrieved from http://www.frick.org/blogs/chief_librarian/delius_buys_gauguin

[2] For instance, in these aims Grainger explicitly references the privileging of his social circle:

“I have tried in this Museum to trace as best I can the aesthetic indebtedness of composers to each other (the borrowing of musical themes or novel compositional techniques) and to the culturizing influence of parents, relatives, wives, husbands and friends (for instance, Cyril Scott’s inspiring encouragement of several British composers of his generation; Jelka Delius’s contributions to her husband’s artistic life; Balfour Gardiner’s championship of 20th century British music).”

Grainger Museum display legend: The aims of the Grainger Museum


Nicholas Tammens,

Client Services Officer

Grainger Museum

Unexpected romance in the Baillieu Library: Dulcie Hollyock, librarian by day, writer of love stories by night

Next time you attend one of the talks or displays regularly hosted in the Dulcie Hollyock Room in the University of Melbourne Library, you may be intrigued to muse upon an unexpected link to the world of romance.

This conference room, located on the ground floor of the Baillieu Library, is named in honour of admired librarian, educator and writer, Dulcie Iona Hollyock (an English surname with unusual spelling, historically associated with Leicestershire).

Dulcie Hollyock (1914-2004)

Born in Essendon in June 1914, Hollyock graduated from the University of Melbourne in the 1940s with degrees in arts and education.  After quickly advancing within the library profession, she combined a long and respected career as Chief Librarian of the Victorian Teaching Training Colleges (1950-1974) with a natural flair for writing.

Hollyock’s compact but impressive body of published work ranged over several genres – education, history and fiction – her talents receiving recognition as winner of the Society of Women Writers’ annual short story prize in 1972.  Her stories and articles – such as ‘Fish at Fergus’s’, ‘Cathy and Lizzie’, ‘Flight’ and ‘Mary Curley at Sullivan Bay’ – appeared in a variety of periodicals, including the The Australian newspaper, popular weekly women’s magazine, New Idea, and the Society of Women Writers’ occasional anthology, Ink.

A writer of Gothic romance

Perhaps the  pinnacle of Hollyock’s writing success was attained in her 70s, when two novels – both set in 19th century Ireland – were published in the Harlequin Books Gothic Romance series.

The first, An innocent madness (issued July 1984) tells the story of the inexperienced Charlotte Bolton who arrives at the ancient manor of the Chivers family to marry the heir, Richard.  She is startled to find that he protests no knowledge of the betrothal, and that their courtship is hindered by the ethereally beautiful apparition, Nell Dillon.

This tale of impeded love was followed in the next year by Double masquerade (issued September 1985).  This time Hollyock’s heroine is Hannah, foster daughter of a poor family who are evicted from their land during the Irish Famine.  The girl seems to be rescued from her deprived situation by the wealthy Richard Ralston, who installs her in his romantically named Gothic mansion, Balaleigh.  The tantalising secret to their fate is contained within a golden locket which had been given to Hannah by her birth mother long before.

It is interesting to reflect on St Valentine’s Day if it is mere coincidence that both male protagonists in Hollyock’s novels are named Richard, and whether the name had an association with Hollyock’s own family, or perhaps an admired acquaintance.  Such musings are, however, speculative, and to find out whether the Richards in her stories prove dastardly or honourable, you will need to devour the suspenseful endings in the Baillieu Library.  The books can be reserved for viewing in the Reading Room by placing an order via the Library catalogue, though you may need to be quick to be at the head of the queue!

The University Library’s Romantic Fiction Collection

Should your romantic appetite be whetted by Dulcie Hollyock’s imaginative legacy, there are some 3,000 further titles to choose from in the Baillieu’s Romance Fiction Collection.  Read more about these stories by Australian, New Zealand and overseas writers, published by Mills & Boon, Silhouette and other specialist publishing houses in our explanatory guide.

Who would have supposed that so much romance was waiting to be found in the Baillieu Library!

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator

Bibliography & further reading

‘Dulcie Hollyock’ in Austlit: the Australian literature resource http://www.austlit.edu.au.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/austlit/page/A46591

Flesch, Juliet (compiler).  Love brought to book: a bio-bibliography of 20th-century Australian romance novels.  Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 1995.

Hollyock, Dulcie.  Double masquerade.   Toronto : Harlequin Books, 1985.

Hollyock, Dulcie.  An innocent madness.  Toronto; New York: Harlequin Books, 1984.

Lindsay, Hilarie (editor).  Ink no. 2: 50th anniversary edition.  Sydney: Society of Women Writers, 1977.



Flemish baroque engravings donated to the Print Collection

A group of 14 Flemish baroque engravings by Scelte Adams Bolswert (1586–1659) was gifted to the Baillieu Library Print Collection by Dr Colin Holden in 2016. Bolswert was employed by the eminent artist, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and several of these prints are after Rubens’ paintings.

The Flemish Region, or Flanders, a Dutch-speaking area of Belgium, furnished a tumultuous political and social backdrop to its flourishing baroque art of the 17th century.  Rubens was the foremost painter in Antwerp, its capital, and he relied on pupils and studio assistants to help produce his extensive and influential body of work. He was not a printmaker, but recognised the medium’s importance to his career and actively commissioned engravings after his designs. [1]

Many of Rubens exuberant subjects are biblical, such as Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1640-60). This engraving illustrates the episode in which the discontented Israelites, who were left to trudge through the lands of Edom, spoke against God and Moses. In punishment, God sent a plague of poisonous serpents to attack them, which is vividly depicted by the roiling bodies. The Israelites sought Moses’ help, who in turn received the remedy from God. Moses, seen at left with a staff, made a snake out of brass and set it on a pole: the brazen serpent. All the people that were stricken were healed by gazing upon it.

The New Testament subject, Salome Receiving the Head of St John from the Executioner (1638-59) depicts the notorious story of Herodias’ daughter Salome, holding the head of the preacher on a charger. The expressions of the figures portrayed evoke a range of emotions.

Pan, Playing the Flute (1638-59) engraved after Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens, in contrast, is a mirthful scene from classical mythology. The gift included four impressions of this image, in three states. A ‘state’ in printmaking is created when a change is made to the engraving plate, for example further details are added to the inscriptions, or details in the image are adjusted. Students studying prints will benefit from seeing, in these prints, the execution of different states.

Also after Jordaens, The family concert (1630-59) includes another title in the cartouche at the top of the image which translates: ‘As the old sing, so the young pipe.’ This and other moralising Dutch sayings and proverbs were popular in the 17th century as this engraving illustrates. Likewise the compositional motif of a family gathered around a table appears in several works of art of this period. The engaging dog seen at left of the image is intent not on the nourishing mores offered by the picture, but instead longs to devour the feast!

The late Dr Colin Holden (1951-2016) was a great friend of the Print Collection. He was print scholar, collector and a senior fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Kerrianne Stone (Curator, Prints)


[1]. Art Gallery of South Australia, The age of Rubens & Rembrandt: Old Master prints from the Art Gallery of South Australia: Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Julie Robinson, Adelaide: Art Gallery Board of South Australia, 1993, p. 33

A not-so-familiar Father Christmas: A Merry Christmas Polka from 1847

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b3196976

Looking at Christmas music in the Rare Music collection from Victorian-era Britain, I was surprised to see an unfamiliar Father Christmas-figure—a grinning giant—at the head of a very worn copy of the sheet music of a Merry Christmas Polka from 1847. I had expected to find a Santa in a fur-edged coat and hat, with a stout pair of boots and, perhaps, a fir tree over one shoulder; what I found (here rendered in green for festive effect!) was rather different.

Just ten years into Queen Victoria’s reign is a little soon for that particular Santa to be ubiquitous. After some general reading, I discovered that other illustrators depicting Father Christmas in the 1840s use graphic elements similar to those employed by the illustrator for this piece of festive sheet music, Alfred Ashley (1820-1897). 1) The holly wreath (instead of the hat) was common then as was the raised goblet. And Ashley’s Santa has “companions” from folklore, something not unknown in the 1840s. Here a goblin-like figure pulls himself over the top of the chair and what must surely be a leprechaun dances on his outstretched hand. The element of fantasy is something often found in Victorian-era illustration in, for example, the well-established genre of fairy painting. 2) Ashley’s Father Christmas is remarkably plainly dressed, in a non-descript smock, barelegged and with no apparent footwear, but he is toasting himself by a roaring fire: a yule log perhaps? The suspended mistletoe and profusion of food and drink (here just visible on the table) are other Christmas traditions in the illustration that have stood the test of time.

Engraved illustrations were increasingly common on sheet music in the 1840s and no doubt a significant incentive to purchase. Pianos, including compact cottage (upright) pianos for home use, were luxury goods, but were owned by the well-heeled middle and upper classes in increasing numbers. 3) It is these people—particular the fashionably dressed family in the foreground—who are depicted in the illustration, dancing at home, as was then a custom. And this polka, a couples dance distinguished by a hopping step, coincides with the early years of “polkamania” in Britain. 4) With its regular repeated 8 bar phrases, this is definitely a polka written for dancing rather than listening to. To hear the distinctive polka rhythm, and to get a sense of what these simple piano dances written for domestic use were like, please listen to short excerpts from the Merry Christmas Polka Finale below—the “big finish” is a very clear signal to the dancers that the music, and the dance, is nearing its end.


With best wishes for the Festive Season from all at Special Collections.

Jennifer Hill, Rare Music Curator

  1. This is no. 113 of the Musical Bouquet series; the composer is not named. The publisher, active from 1845 to 1917, went on to issue at least 8106 numbers, producing one, then two per week. The website http://www.musicalbouquet.co.uk/  is an excellent source of information and devotes a page to Alfred Ashley, with many examples of his work.
  2. David Wootton, The illustrators: the British art of illustration, 1800-1999 (London: Chris Beetles, 1999), p. 21-28.
  3. Derek Scott, The singing bourgeois: songs of the Victorian drawing room and parlour (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1989), p. 45-49, 54.
  4. See Gracian Černušák, Andrew Lamb and John Tyrrell, “Polka” in Grove Music Online.

Wombat, wombach, whom-batt wonder: early scientific ‘trafficking’ of marsupalia to Europe

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b6230685The unique fauna of Australia intrigued, bemused and excited the imagination of their European ‘discovers’ from the moment of the first animal sightings in the late 18th century.  One of these puzzling oddities was the wombat, which was described as a type of bear or a badger by northern naturalists grappling to classify the strange animal within existing scientific taxonomies, and said to taste of ‘tough mutton’ by sailors eager to sample fresh meat after many months at sea.

The nocturnal and retiring habits of the wombat appear to have protected it from the notice of the expeditionary voyages of James Cook, and the exploration parties associated with the first settlers.   Indeed it was almost a decade after settlement before the first wombat was sighted (February 1797), shortly ahead of the platypus (November 1797), koala (January 1798) and Tasmanian tiger (1805), though all were preceded by the discovery of the echidna (1792).  The earliest description of a kangaroo (or more precisely a wallaby) was made in Francois Pelsaert‘s 1629 account of the shipwrecked Batavia, though this report seems to have been unknown to Cook, who remarks on a kind of jumping ‘grey hound’ in his Endeavour journal of 24 June 1770.

As a group these strange pouched and egg-laying creatures presented a distinct challenge to European classifiers, as articulated by James Edward Smith (1759-1828), founder of the Linnean Society:

When [one] first enters on the investigation of so remote a country as New Holland, he finds himself as it were in a new world.  He can scarcely meet with any fixed points from whence to draw his analogies.

The first transported wombat

If you should ever find yourself in Newcastle upon Tyne, visit if you can the Great Northern Museum of natural history and archaeology, and utter a friendly ‘wombat-cough’ to a well-connected and well-travelled 218 year old stuffed Tasmanian wombat, the first specimen to be transported from Australia to Europe.

wombat-great-northern-museumAfter several wombat sightings in 1797, a live female specimen was captured on Cape Barren Island (Bass Strait) in March 1798 by a party of British naval officers (including a young Matthew Flinders).  The creature was taken by ship to Sydney and presented to amateur naturalist and Governor of New South Wales, John Hunter, where the ill-fated marsupial died after six weeks in captivity.  Hunter wrote of the unfortunate animal:

it was exceedingly weak when it arrived, as it had, during its confinement on board, refused every kind of sustenance, except a small quantity of boiled rice, which was forced down its throat.

Not wanting to let the opportunity for scientific research lapse, Hunter had the corpse preserved in alcohol and shipped to his friend Sir Joseph Banks (President of the Royal Society) in London for more detailed taxonomic examination.  In 1799 the soused specimen was barrelled onwards to the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle (of which Hunter was a corresponding member), but not before the cask broke open, almost suffocating its carrier in ‘pungent and foul-smelling spirits’.  There Thomas Bewick prepared an engraving of the wombat (based on an original drawing by Hunter) which was printed in the fourth edition of his A general history of quadrupeds (1800), becoming the first published illustration of the animal.wombat-bewick-4th-edition

The ‘traffic’ in wombat specimens

From the early 1800s an increasing number of preserved wombats were shipped to Europe for dissemination amongst scientific circles.  Several other wombat pioneers found themselves unwitting live specimens, who were met with wonder and curiosity on disembarkation.  These included a wombat collected by the Scottish botanist Robert Brown (1773-1858) which he passed over to his friend, British surgeon and anatomist Everard Home (1756-1832), under whose watchful guardianship it lived cheerfully for two years:

It was not wanting in intelligence, and appeared attached to those to whom it was accustomed, and who were kind to it.  When it saw them, it would put up its fore paws on the knee, and when taken up would sleep in the lap. [1808]

The British were not the only nation with a thirst for scientific discovery, and the rival Pacific expeditions of the French also resulted in the capture and repatriation of marsupial specimens.  Three live wombats collected on the voyages of the Geographe and the Naturaliste commanded by Nicholas Baudin survived to arrive in France in 1803, at least one of which may have become the pet of Empress Josephine at Château de Malmaison.

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b6230685

A recent acquisition: Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s natural history studies, 1834-1835

The Baillieu Library is fortunate to have recently acquired a copy of the 1834-1835 published studies of the distinguished French naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). The volume includes two detailed papers on the platypus and echidna, and a skilfully rendered fold-out illustration of pair of wombats placed in a naturalistic setting.  As director of the Natural History Museum in Paris, Geoffroy was also administrator of the former Royal Menagerie, which had been relocated to the Jardin des Plantes after the French Revolution.  Here he could observe at first hand exotic animals which had been collected from a variety of sources, many of them previously held in private hands.  One of the more grisly directives following the 1789 revolution was that all exotic pets had to be turned over live to the former royal collection, or otherwise killed and given to the Jardin des Plantes for scientific studies, such as Geoffroy’s.  It seems that our two ‘French’ wombats were amongst the lucky survivors.

Susan Thomas, Rare Books Curator

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b6230685      L0020768 Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Lithograph by J. Boilly, 182 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Lithograph by J. Boilly, 1821. 1821 By: Julien Léopold BoillyPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Bibliography and further reading:

Australian Broadcasting Commission. ‘The wombat boy’, Australian Story Program Archives, 25 March 2002 http://www.abc.net.au/austory/archives/2002/05_AustoryArchives2002Idx_Monday25March2002.htm

Cowley, Des & Brian Hubber.  ‘Distinct creation: early European images of Australian animals’, The LaTrobe journal, no.66, Spring 2000, pp. 3-32.

‘The first wombat to leave Australia’  http://pickle.nine.com.au/2016/09/15/11/33/first-wombat-to-leave-australia

Flinders, Matthew.  A voyage to Terra Australis undertaken for the purpose of completing the discovery of that vast country, and prosecuted in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803… Volume 1. London: Printed by W. Bulmer and Co., and published by G. and W. Nicol, 1814.

Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, Etienne.  Etudes progressives d’un naturaliste pendant les années 1834 et 1835 : faisant suite a ses publications dans les 42 volumes des mémoires et annales du Museum d’Historie Naturelle.  Paris: Chez Roret, 1835.

Pigott, L.J. & Jessop, L. ‘The governor’s wombat: early history of an Australian marsupial’, Archives of Natural History, v. 34, 2007, pp. 207-218.

‘The tale of a wombat: a journey from Australia to Newcastle upon Tyne’, The Guardian, 30 December 2013 https://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2013/dec/30/wombat-australia-to-newcastle-upon-tyne

Woodford, James.  The secret life of wombats.  Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2001.

Library catalogue permalink: http://cat.lib.unimelb.edu.au/record=b6230685





Metal crafts, printmaking and the acquisition of a nielli print

Looking at a work of art on paper, it can be difficult to imagine the close relationship between a print, and metal craft. Yet printmaking owes much of its legacy to metal arts and this affiliation was more apparent in early western prints as many of the masters learned their art from the metal smiths, such as Albrecht Dürer who was the son of a goldsmith and was familiar with that art. In the 15th century and early 16th century many experiments and innovations in printmaking took place in the design of metal (from which printed impressions are taken). Some of these early techniques were short-lived and are now unfamiliar to 21st century audiences.

One such technique thought to have developed in Italy is nielli printing which was practiced up to the 16th century. This is technique utilises an engraved decorative design on silver in which lines are filled with ‘niello,’ a black chemical substance, which contrasts with the silver. Before niello is applied to the metalwork, the lines are filled with ink and an impression taken, and this is a neilli print. Rare examples of niello objects and their impressions are held in the British Museum. The Baillieu Library Print Collection has acquired its first example of a neilli print and like most of these impressions it is tiny work measuring only 4.2 centimetres diameter.

Nielli print

The portrait depicts Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402) who became the first Duke of Milan. While the artist of this nielli print is uncertain, the portrait was adapted from an effigy that adorned the monastery Certosa di Pavia. Another version of this effigy was engraved by Agostino Carracci for the book Cremona fedelissima città, et nobilissima colonia de Romani published in 1585.

Another substantial example of metal craft held in the Baillieu Library is the Wilson Hall presentation set organised by the Walsh Brothers. The set comprising trowel, mallet, mortar board and their box was given to Sir Samuel Wilson on 2 October 1879 by Sir Redmond Barry, on behalf of the Council of The University for use during the ceremonial laying of the memorial stone for Wilson Hall. If the ornate silver trowel from this set were to be inked, it is easier to imagine its decorative design appearing in reverse on a sheet of paper, just as nielli prints were made directly from metal objects.

Wilson Hall presentation set

Other examples from the Print Collection displaying the relationship between metal work and prints include designs for medallions and ornamental decorations.



Further reading

Arthur M. Hind, Early Italian engraving: a critical catalogue with complete reproduction of all the prints described, London: Pub. for M. Knoedler, New York, by B. Quaritch, 1938-1948

Australian-made piano rolls – a generous donation to Rare Music

While piano (or pianola) rolls might seem the ultimate in technological obsolescence, rare music was delighted to accept a generous donation of 126 piano rolls (just part of a larger collection) last year.


Piano rolls were first available for purchase in the mid-1890s and are, surprisingly, still being produced today, though only one company remains (QRS). For those unfamiliar with them, a piano roll consists of a roll of paper, 285 mm wide, wound onto a spool, with tiny holes (perforations) punched out that encode musical information such as the notes to be played and when the “soft” and sustaining pedals are to be depressed.

Early pianolas (or player pianos) were powered by a pair of foot treadles with a “tracker bar” (visible on the photograph of Percy Grainger above) reading the roll and “playing” the piano. There was also scope for the “player pianist” to control aspects of the sounds that were made; volume and speed, for example. With technological advances, manufacturers developed high-end, high fidelity “reproducing” pianos which offered something very different: fidelity to the interpretation of the best-known virtuoso pianists of the day. The Grainger Museum’s Duo-Art piano, belonging to Percy Grainger, is one of this type. Grainger sometimes modified piano roll recordings of his performances for effect (rather than to just correct a mistake), adding additional holes to a roll, for example, and producing piano music that would otherwise be unplayable by just 10 fingers.


While Grainger, as an international pianist, recorded piano rolls overseas, the collection donated to Rare Music is all Australian-made and the music is mostly popular. Provenance-wise the rolls can be traced back to 1947 when they were located in an outbuilding on a Euroa property at the time it changed hands; just possibly, given the number of rolls, the collection functioned as a lending library of some type.


The Australian rolls in our new acquisition were produced by the Anglo-American Player Roll Co. (Melbourne) and Mastertouch Piano Roll Co. (Sydney). The former business, producing Broadway Word Rolls, was essentially, a “one man show”, established around 1921 by Len Luscombe (1893-1957), who was both the sole recording artist and business owner. 1) His taste and interest was in popular dance music and our collection is dominated by fox trots plus a handful of waltzes and one-steps. Luscombe used a number of aliases to give the impression of a larger enterprise. “Word rolls”, by the way, have the lyrics written on the paper, parallel to the lines of perforations, and reveal themselves gradually as the roll turns–ready for singing along—very much as do the lyrics during karaoke.


Sydney’s Mastertouch Company was a little different, involving a larger number of recording artists, including in-house “pianola pianists”. 2) The firm was established by George Horton in 1919 and closed as recently as 2005. 3) Lettie Keyes from Nathalia (near Shepparton) and Katoomba sisters Laurel and Edith Pardey (later Edith Murn) dominate the performer list. Keyes (active for Mastertouch from 1923-29, and from 1961) was both an accomplished pianist and a highly skilled arranger of music and editor of rolls. Keyes’s speciality was opera arrangements and our collection includes her selections from Rigoletto, Faust and Martha, which exploit that potential for a liberally “edited” piano roll to deliver a complex, almost orchestral texture.


Four-handed arrangements were the specialty of the Pardey sisters, full-time employees of Mastertouch, specialising, like Luscombe, in popular music. The sisters recorded some Australian compositions, such as “After the Dawn: Waltz” by Jack O’Hagan (of Along the Road to Gundagai fame). The collection also includes a “Gippsland March”. Our collection also includes some “classical” repertoire, recorded by, for example, Russian pianist Paul Vinogradoff. Well-known pianists would simply visit and record, leaving staffers to edit for them.


Piano rolls, like recordings made with other early technologies, are currently of interest to musicologists as a rich source of information on performance practice of a variety of types of music. Testament to that interest is the Player Piano Project at Stanford University; it was Stanford which acquired Australian Denis Condon’s massive collection of 7540 piano rolls (including only very few Australian rolls) and ten instruments in 2014. There are some fascinating videos associated with the project, including one of the Stanford Orchestra playing the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor last year with Percy Grainger as soloist per-piano roll. Or to see a pianola in action close up, and to hear the distinctive popular “pianola sound”, sample Gershwin playing the opening of “I’m forever blowing bubbles”.

Returning to the challenge of technological obsolescence, time has already overtaken an earlier plan to digitise the piano rolls by playing them on a pianola and recording them digitally in “real time”. Stanford is developing and will fabricate, a dedicated scanner for piano rolls that will allow them to derive audio from digital images; playback will be via an MP3 player or perhaps another type of player that is “e-roll” capable. Internet searches have revealed other recent advances in this area, so a “watching brief”, keeping a close eye on the Stanford project, is probably the best option for Rare Music. We shall have to be patient!

Jennifer Hill, Rare Music curator

1) See Glenn Amer, “Len Luscombe: Australia’s premier piano roll pianist and arranger” and the article on Luscombe by Barclay Wright in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

2) See Glenn Amer, “Artists of the Mastertouch Piano Roll Co. 1919-2006”.

3) The Anglo-American Player Roll Company’s stock and equipment was bought out by Horton after Luscombe’s death and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, acquired the Mastertouch Piano Roll Company collection on its closure.

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