Af­fairs of the harp

Since an­cient times, harp music has beguiled and soothed. Katy Bir­chall vis­its the Bri­tish com­pany en­sur­ing the heav­enly music plays on

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Katy Bir­chall vis­its the Bri­tish com­pany that’s pulling the strings to en­sure the heav­enly music goes on

In Mans­field Park, one in­stru­ment catches the eye (and heart) of the hero: ‘The harp ar­rived, and rather added to [Mary’s] beauty, wit and good hu­mour, for she played with the great­est oblig­ing­ness, with an ex­pres­sion and taste which were pe­cu­liarly be­com­ing, and there was some­thing clever to be said at the close of ev­ery air. Ed­mund was at the par­son­age ev­ery day to be in­dulged with his favourite in­stru­ment.’

Who could blame Ed­mund Ber­tram for be­ing so en­rap­tured—or be sur­prised that Jane Austen des­ig­nated the in­stru­ment to one of her most charm­ing and el­e­gant char­ac­ters. Just as Mary Craw­ford casts a spell over Ed­mund, so the harp has been en­chant­ing au­di­ences for thou­sands of years.

One of the old­est mu­si­cal in­stru­ments in the world, orig­i­nally made from hunt­ing bows, it’s de­picted on wall paint­ings of An­cient Egyp­tian tombs dated as early as 3,000bc and in Me­sopotamian art. The in­stru­ment has played a key role in cul­ture and the Arts ever since, from its Biblical as­so­ci­a­tions with King David and an­gels to the Muses of Greek mythol­ogy, Celtic folk­tales and ro­man­tic sym­bol­ism in the po­etry of Co­leridge and Shel­ley.

The en­tranc­ing na­ture of this stringed in­stru­ment lies not only in its rich, rip­pling sound, but in its gra­cious ap­pear­ance. no one is more aware of the im­por­tance of these qual­i­ties than the staff at Pil­grim Harps, the Bri­tish com­pany con­tin­u­ing the an­cient tra­di­tion of hand­craft­ing the in­stru­ments. Based in a con­verted coach house in the Sur­rey coun­try­side, the 10-strong team has been craft­ing bespoke mod­els since 1980.

‘We’re the tim­ber yard’s fussi­est cus­tomer,’ ad­mits co-founder Jerry Blu­mire, ex­plain­ing that the harp’s sound­box alone—the hol­low ‘body’ struc­ture to which the sound­board is at­tached, am­pli­fy­ing the sound—re­quires four or five dif­fer­ent types of wood, of a va­ri­ety of shapes and sizes. ‘It’s dif­fi­cult to find the right types of width for each part. We can spend hours search­ing through pal­lets of maple, beech, wal­nut and ash and re­turn with only a cou­ple of pieces. The sound­box needs to be both strong and light, so it’s very spe­cific.’

This metic­u­lous ap­proach ex­tends to the rest of the tri­an­gu­lar frame—the front, ver­ti­cal side of the tri­an­gle, known as the pil­lar, and the up­per, curved side, re­ferred to as the neck. ‘Each joint has to be per­fect and the grain di­rec­tion of the wood has to be right; even plot­ting out the com­po­nents on the planks is an art in it­self and that’s just the car­pen­try side of things,’ Mr Blu­mire con­tin­ues. ‘It’s a lengthy process, but each harp is an in­di­vid­ual work of art.’

The com­pany’s South God­stone work­shop is busy: a maze of rooms filled with wood­work­ing ma­chines, tools and harp

parts of all sizes and vin­tages. As well as of­fer­ing a bespoke ser­vice, Pil­grim re­stores an­tiques and sells sec­ond­hand harps. Step­ping over the wood shav­ings into the met­al­work rooms, where the mov­ing parts of the harp are pro­duced, is a bit like en­ter­ing the work­shop of a clock­maker.

There are two types of harp: the lever and the pedal. The for­mer, also known as the Celtic harp, is smaller and the lat­ter em­ploys a more com­pli­cated mech­a­nism worked by seven ped­als. It’s larger, heav­ier, louder and more suited to or­ches­tral and en­sem­ble play­ing. Each pedal is con­nected by a steel push-rod that goes up through the pil­lar to the in­tri­cate brass mech­a­nism in­side the neck, to which the strings, made of gut and metal, are at­tached.

‘There are nearly 2,000 mov­ing parts in the mech­a­nism of a pedal harp,’ Mr Blu­mire en­thuses. ‘It’s mind-blow­ing. Harpists are a lit­tle like swans. They may look very grace­ful, but their feet can be go­ing crazy at times.’

The harp’s im­pres­sive mech­a­nisms are fur­ther com­ple­mented by elab­o­rate paint­work and dec­o­ra­tive carv­ings. An artist as well as a car­pen­ter, Mr Blu­mire will hap­pily paint any­thing a client wants. Ivy, stems and leaves are peren­ni­ally pop­u­lar, but, as a keen bird­watcher and lep­i­dopter­ist, he’s fond of wildlife de­signs. ‘I’m es­pe­cially crazy about moths,’ he con­fesses. As a new gen­er­a­tion of harpists in­fil­trates the pop­u­lar music charts—tom Monger of Florence and the Ma­chine re­cently bor­rowed an elec­tro-acous­tic harp for record­ing ses­sions—mr Blu­mire says the com­pany is de­ter­mined to bring harp-mak­ing into the fu­ture, con­tin­u­ally pro­gress­ing and de­vel­op­ing its de­signs, while pro­tect­ing and pre­serv­ing a cen­turies-old craft. It’s this com­bi­na­tion of old and new that’s par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing to pro­fes­sional harpist Olivia Jageurs. ‘It’s great fun to sub­vert peo­ple’s idea of how the harp sounds,’ she says. ‘You can play all kinds of music on it, in­clud­ing pop and rock.’ Miss Jageurs, who is the of­fi­cial harpist for Wim­ble­don, has played with Deep Purple at the Royal Al­bert Hall and took part in the or­ches­tral tribute to David Bowie at last year’s Glas­ton­bury Fes­ti­val. ‘I’ve played all the UK’S ma­jor are­nas and some of the most beau­ti­ful wed­ding venues and pri­vate homes in the coun­try,’ she ex­plains. ‘My harp takes me on in­cred­i­ble ad­ven­tures.’ She at­tributes her orig­i­nal in­ter­est in this un­usual in­stru­ment to Pil­grim Harps, hav­ing grown up in the next-door vil­lage. With nearly 40 years of harp-mak­ing un­der his belt, Mr Blu­mire says there’s noth­ing else he’d rather do. ‘No harp is the same; each one is as in­di­vid­ual as its owner. Isn’t that won­der­ful?’

Pil­grim Harps (www.pil­grimharps.co.uk; 01342 893242). Olivia Jageurs (www. olivia-harpist.com)

‘There are nearly 2,000 mov­ing parts in the mech­a­nism of a pedal harp. It’s mind-blow­ing’

Fac­ing page: Pro­fes­sional harpist Olivia Jageurs. Above: Imag­i­na­tion is the only limit in the de­sign of a custom-made in­stru­ment. Be­low: An­cient harps pic­tured on the wall of the 14th-cen­tury tomb of Thut­mose at Thebes

Art of the harp: some 2,000 mov­ing parts are ac­com­pa­nied by elab­o­rate carv­ing and gild­ing

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