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Our conservation work at The Firs

Close up shot of a piano keyboard with Elgar brothers mark on front board
Elgar's piano | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

The Firs possesses an eclectic and highly personal collection of items from Sir Edward Elgar’s past, and we are constantly working to ensure they will continue to be enjoyed by visitors for years to come.

Maintaining the collection

Much of the display is housed in the modern visitor centre which affords good insulation and environmental control as well as secure display cases. A typical National Trust property might display its collection openly in a draughty historic house, where fluctuations in humidity and light levels can quicken the deterioration of objects. Historic buildings tend to harbour more pest insects that eat historic collections and fabrics too.

Although the birthplace cottage could be considered a historic building, a lot of change has been undertaken since 1935 to secure the property and improve its insulation. Modern display cases also adorn the interior, reducing risk of theft and damage to objects on display.

A team effort

All of these factors help keep the collection safe from the different agents of deterioration, but this doesn’t mean we can rest easy. It’s still important to monitor light, humidity and pest activity, keep a clean environment for display and storage, and keep an accurate inventory. A small but dedicated team of volunteers are led by the house steward to ensure all these requirements are met.

To find out more about how these important pieces of musical history are cared for, come along to The Firs and ask one of the team.

A tale of two pianos

The Firs has been donated two musical items of interest. These are now temporarily on display in the Carice room, which now doubles as a performance and exhibition space.

Both pianos passed through the Elgar Brothers Music shop by the cathedral in Worcester, where H&M is situated today. In his youth Edward Elgar made the most of his father’s shop, taking every opportunity to play and tinker with every instrument he could.

‘I saw and learnt a great deal about music from the stream of music that passed through my father’s establishment. I read everything, played everything, and heard everything that I possibly could’

– Edward Elgar

Statue of Sir Edward Elgar gazing out to the Malvern Hills at The Firs, Worcestershire
Statue of Sir Edward Elgar gazing out to the Malvern Hills at The Firs | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

Elgar’s piano

At the end of 2017, a small upright piano was donated to The Firs that belonged to and was played by Sir Edward Elgar. The piano was in a stable condition but required the advice of specialist conservators to formulate a plan of care and to carry out remedial conservation to improve its condition.
Pianos are complex objects. Not only did it comprise a variety of materials such as woods, textiles , ferrous metals and animal glues, but its structure meant that the piano carried an immense quantity of tension within itself.

Despite all this, it seems a very humble and unassuming instrument to have belonged to one of the best-known composers of the 20th century. Manufactured in Paris by Antoine Bord in 1874, it seems the piano soon found its way across the Channel to become part of the retail stock of the Elgar Brothers Music Shop in Worcester.

A special gift

Whilst we’re not exactly certain how this piano came into the possession of Elgar, it’s entirely possible that he was gifted it, or perhaps purchased it from his father’s shop in his youth. In 1931, he took it down from his attic room at Marl Bank and gave the instrument to the young daughter of his chauffeur, Richard Mountford.

Richard Mountford’s daughter’s name was Bettey, and Elgar seems to have been very fond of her. As well as offering the young girl his piano, he also gave her family the care of Meg, one of his beloved dogs.

Bettey kept the piano her entire life. When she passed away she left it in her will to her friend and neighbour, who has since kindly donated it to the care of the National Trust at Elgar’s birthplace.

Restoration work

Under the care of the National Trust, the piano has been lovingly restored by restoration expert Chris Farthing, who travelled to The Firs from his hometown of Bristol to work on the piece. With up to ten tonnes of pressure exerted on the small wooden frame, tuning the century-and-a-half-old strings was a delicate process. The idea was to bring the piano to a playable standard without losing the original strings to breakages. As well as this, the internal mechanisms and frame were given a thorough clean out and new castor wheels were fitted to the bottom.

‘In a property where much of the collection is behind glass, it’s really exciting to be able to offer our visitors the opportunity to engage with an item so special. It’s fantastic to have the experience of hearing music flowing through the visitor centre on an instrument that we can be certain belonged to and was played by Elgar himself.’

– Joe Tierney, House Steward.

The Allison piano

In contrast the Allison piano is in quite a different state. It was made between 1885 and 1890 by Ralph Allison and Sons of Wardour Street, London, then purchased by the Elgar Brothers Music Shop and sold there. The Elgar Brothers Music shop traded from 1860 until its closure in 1928. As Elgar’s father, William Henry, grew older, the running of the shop was taken over by the youngest son, Frank, whose death in 1928 saw the closure of the shop for good. Sadly it was demolished during renovation of Worcester city centre during the 1960s. Although nothing of the original building now remains, many instruments bearing the shop’s label exist in private and museum collections, some in better condition than others.

Although we don’t know much about this particular instrument’s biography, save its origins, but we can see from its condition that it has suffered a great deal more than Elgar’s own piano.

It’s not certain what caused the deterioration of this piano. It is likely that a variety of factors, including over-playing and environmental conditions, have caused the weakening and eventual breakage of several components, most notably the brittle stems of the hammers used to strike the strings.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

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