Tickling the ivories 20 June 2016
The piano is an integral part of the atmosphere at Polesden Lacey for both visitors and volunteers. One of our conservation interns, Rachel, got the chance to help clean the piano recently. In this blog post she explore the history behind the piano and explains how we go about caring for such a wonderful instrument.
Music in the air
I have only recently started at Polesden Lacey and I have found it a very welcoming place to work.One of the things I really enjoy when I am walking around the house is being able to hear music, either from a gramophone player in the billiard room or more often from volunteers and visitors playing the piano in the Gold Room.So far I have heard all sorts of tunes, from the Minute Waltz to the Dad’s Army theme tune and it really brings the room to life for me.
Our Steinway piano: a generous donation
We know that Mrs Greville had a Steinway & Sons grand piano in the Gold Room. Unfortunately, we don’t have photographs or descriptions of the room layout with the piano, so we don’t know for certain where the piano would have been originally. The piano that's now in the Gold Room isn’t the one Mrs Greville owned, it was kindly donated by a volunteer. Denis Walker had bought the piano from a family friend, who had inherited it from a concert pianist, Rose Keen. Denis went to the Steinway company’s archives in London to try and find out more about his piano. It was manufactured by Steinway in 1904 and imported from New York in 1905, but after that little is known about the piano’s history.
The art of displaying a grand piano
When Denis donated his piano there had to be careful thought about how to display it. Should the lid be up or down? If down, should there be any objects on top of the lid? One of Mrs Greville’s guests, the author and keen pianist Beverley Nichols, wrote in his memoir about getting up early one morning (10am!) and going down to the Gold Room to play the piano as he couldn’t sleep in. He mentions having to remove photographs in silver frames from the piano lid to stop them from rattling as he played and complains that the piano stool was the wrong height, which tells us that the piano probably wasn’t played all that often. Nowadays the piano music creates a wonderful ambience in the Gold Room, but it does create some challenges for the house team.
The challenges of cleaning a piano
Objects that are still used for their intended purpose bring special challenges for the house team. For example, having the lid of the piano open lets dust into the interior of the instrument. Once dust gets in it can be very difficult to remove from all the nooks and crannies, such as the gaps between somewhere around 220 strings. The ebony and ivory of the piano keys also absorb moisture from the air (and the pianist’s fingers), so we need to keep the keyboard lid open for at least an hour after the piano has been played to allow the moisture to evaporate and avoid damage to the keys.
Having the right tools for the jobs
We dust the top of the piano as part of our usual housekeeping routine but once a year we give the inside a really good clean as part of our ‘deep clean’ of the furniture in the Gold Room. I feel lucky that this happened during my internship and that I was able to get involved. We used brushes and museum vacuums with brush attachments to clean both inside and underneath the piano. My background is in conservation and collections care.
Conservation in action
I have always enjoyed the chance to share our work with visitors, describing what we are doing and why. So I was particularly happy that we were cleaning whilst the house was open, as one of our Conservation in Action demonstrations.I did manage to surprise a few people when they suddenly noticed somebody was underneath the piano. I look forward to getting involved in more Conservation in Action demonstrations soon, do keep an eye out for us as we are doing something every other week over the summer.
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