A piano that sailed to Australia with the first British settlers has been returned to home soil 231 years on, to be painstakingly restored in a workshop near Bath.
Dubbed the First Fleet piano, the mahogany instrument has survived (just about) the ravages of the ocean voyage, searing heat once it arrived, not to mention the attention of woodworm over the centuries and the indignity of being stored at one point in a laundry room.
It is cracked and warped but, as the first piano to be played in Australia, is revered as one of the most treasured instruments in the country. The key aim of the restoration project will be to give it back its original sound and provide a musical link with the 18th-century colonists.
“I’m looking forward to hearing the voice of this instrument,” said the Australian pianist and professor of historical performance practice Geoffrey Lancaster, who has accompanied the instrument on its return to the UK. “Australians are an intensely musical people. If we can recreate its voice it may enable us to touch our past identity, to have a greater understanding of what that might mean, to discover when, how, why we’ve changed.”
Over the next nine or 10 months Lucy Coad, one of the world’s foremost piano restorers, will strip the instrument down, replace some lost parts and lovingly put it back together.
Giving it back its voice, which Coad says is likely to be more “nasal” than a modern piano, involves making sure the materials she uses in the restoration are as true to the original as possible, even down to sourcing leather tanned using the same methods as 18th-century craftspeople.
Getting the tension of the strings just so is a complicated mathematical exercise – too light and the sound will be wrong, too tight and the structure of the instrument may be compromised.
Like the original makers, Coad will use animal glue (hers will be made from fish). Happily, the ebony and ivory of the keys are intact.
The square piano was built in London in 1786 by Frederick Beck. Smaller than a modern piano, it was fitted with “campaign legs” allowing it to be easily folded for storage.
In May the following year it was on board HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, in the ownership of the ship’s surgeon George Worgan.
It took eight months for the fleet, carrying seamen, marines, government officials, convicts and the piano, to reach Australia. It is not known whether the instrument was played while at sea but Worgan performed on it as the ship lay anchored off Rio de Janeiro.
Crew and piano endured some harsh conditions. Lancaster said he believed the piano suffered splits and cracking on its way out. “One day on the voyage it was so hot they couldn’t sit on the deck, next day there was snow, ice, rain. The humidity levels were shooting up and down. When the piano hit the colony [in January 1788] it was a Sydney summer – 104F (40C), humid with thunderstorms. It was housed in an officer’s tent with a dirt floor. This piano must have wondered what hit it.”
In Australia, Worgan gave piano lessons to a settler called Elizabeth Macarthur, and when he returned to England in 1791 he gave it to her. Lancaster said it may not have been the most generous present – the piano was probably not worth taking back.
By the mid-1830s the instrument is believed to have been sold on to a family of farmers in the town of Windsor, 30 miles north-west of Sydney. In 1965 the Sydney antiques dealer William Bradshaw heard of a “spinet” up for sale in Windsor. “The owners wanted to sell it to buy a washing machine,” said Lancaster. “It was stored in the laundry, though the recurring mantra in the family for generations had been: “Don’t bash on that piano, it came out with the First Fleet.”
It was, indeed, found to be the First Fleet piano and was sold on to a collector called Stewart Symonds, who donated it, along with 141 other pianos, to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, where Lancaster teaches.
The project is not just about restoring the First Fleet piano. It also highlights a critical lack of expert piano restorers like Coad. The piano had to be flown to the UK because of a shortage of restorers in the southern hemisphere, which Lancaster called a “looming disaster”.
Coad said: “There is a lack of restorers and funding to keep these skills going in the UK as well. We need to encourage more people into the trade. It’s a dying trade and we must put more funding into these skills to make sure these instruments can be preserved. It’s taken this project to stimulate chat in this, but it is a real crisis.”
The piano will be returned next year, in time for the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook setting foot on Australian soil – and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.