Rebecca FitzGerald’s description of the restored Farringford drawing room delighted me, bringing to verbal and visual life the setting of our play When Queen Victoria Came to Tea (2015). There in the photograph is a tea-table, ready set for Emily and her guests. If only, was my first thought, our play could be performed there. My second thought was to look for the piano. Rebecca FitzGerald mentions the ‘low organ’ (visible in the mirror?) but Emily owned a piano too. In December 1999, Lincolnshire Life published an article which the editor headed: ‘Piano with a literary past. From the time of her youth in Horncastle Emily Tennyson was never happy far from a piano and Margaret Crompton has turned detective in a bid to discover if one of her beloved instruments has come to rest in Lincoln’ (p. 10).
Here is a revised version of that article, with permission of Lincolnshire Life.
© John Whitaker (photographer)
Exposition: December 1999
This piano used to reside on the landing in Lincoln Central Library, outside the Tennyson Research Centre (TRC). A card announced: ‘This piano was formerly used by Emily Tennyson at Farringford and may have been used to accompany Jenny Lind on the occasion of her visit in 1871’. But was this really Emily’s piano? In the late 1990s, John and I tried to solve the mystery, studying archives in the TRC, and exploring leads in the Isle of Wight.
A 1970 summary of recent acquisitions by the TRC noted that the piano had been discovered in an antique shop in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, and presented to the TRC by Sir Charles Tennyson. A letter from Ernest Redfern of Burton Road, Lincoln, dated 7th August 1969, confirmed that he could collect the action of: ‘the piano in question – and do most of what is required in the workshop.’ And that was all. No correspondence about Sir Charles’s offer, or the Centre’s acceptance, of the gift – not even a letter of thanks.
The only evidence that this might indeed be Emily’s piano was the high reputation of Sir Charles himself. Grandson of Emily and Alfred, he had written the first comprehensive life of his grandfather. Would a man with so much respect for truth have procured and transported an awkward, bulky piano from Freshwater to Lincoln unless convinced of its provenance? Sir Charles told John that the piano he had bought in Freshwater was of the kind he remembered his grandmother playing at Farringford.
The piano had originated in the Isle of Wight. A plate inside the lid states:
‘Selected by J.G. Jones
Pianoforte and Music Warehouse
61, Union Street, Ryde, Isle of Wight’
We found that Josiah George Jones had owned a shop in Union Street between circa 1853 and 1863, but at number 78. His son, also Josiah, traded from number 61, from circa 1887 until 1893. This piano could not, it seems, have been used to accompany Jenny Lind in 1871 but might have been purchased for Farringford in or after 1887.
The Ryde piano is hardly the imposing instrument which might have been expected in the mansion of the Poet Laureate. But Alfred was known for his ‘economies’ and Emily’s piano was known as ‘inadequate’. Julia Margaret Cameron lent her own grand piano so that Edward Lear, a fine amateur singer, might be accompanied by a worthy instrument. Emily recorded in her 1856 Household Account Book: ‘March 28th Piano tuned 1. 1.0 [one guinea]; October 19th Piano tuned 10.0 [ten shillings].’ We found no further references in either household accounts or inventory. There was certainly a piano in May 1854 when the poet Edward Fitzgerald delighted and amused Emily by playing to her.
Ann Thwaite (1996) records that music was ‘at the centre of her life.’ Before her marriage, there were evenings of music at Somersby, with Mary Tennyson playing the harp. Emily learned the harmonium and played trios with her sisters (p. 48). Much of her sheet music survives, and Emily recalled visits to her Sellwood grandparents in Berkshire: ‘I was always fond of music and used to sing duets with my soldier-cousin Richard Sellwood’ (p. 40). There were dances, too, in private houses and public balls (pp. 94, 95). At Farringford, Emily played for Hallam and Lionel to dance (p. 351).
Emily’s music included setting several of Alfred’s poems. She composed ‘with one of Alfred’s poems propped on the piano in front of her and, in her mind, his voice as he read them’ (p. 288). Some members of the family considered that the melodic line reflected his characteristic vocal inflections when reading aloud. She chose her preferred version of the two drafts of ‘Sweet and low’ offered by Alfred and wrote on her manuscript book: Music written before publication of the words (p. 186). Some songs were published, usually arranged by professional musicians, for her harmonic range was limited (see p. 516). Her setting of ‘The Silent Voices’ arranged by J. Frederick Bridge (organist at Westminster Abbey) was performed at Alfred’s funeral in 1892 (p. 12).
Development: May 2017
Sue Gates (then TRC Librarian) explored possible restoration of the piano’s action but cost was prohibitive. However, in December 1999, she commissioned restoration of the panels of delicate red and green flowers, which she took to Burghley House. However, when revising the original article for this blog, I encountered a new mystery. Some years ago, the piano was removed from its perch on the Library landing. Sue’s help and service is remembered with great gratitude. But where was the piano with those lovely panels, which might, once, have been played at Farringford?
I was impelled into a scherzo of emails and telephone calls. Grace Timmins advised me that, while still the property of the TRC, the piano is now resting in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life store. After penetrating the labyrinth of local authority telephone numbers and musac, I was rewarded by a conversation with Sara Basquill, the Collections Officer, who directed me to Textile Conservator Sheila Landi. Sheila responded to my out-of-the-blue telephone call by almost-at-once remembering the panels and their host-piano. Meanwhile, Grace emailed that Sheila had dated the piano as 1860.
Then Sheila emailed her report from May 2000: ‘English, Piano about 1860 but embroidery probably later, possibly worked by the lady herself? Both panels worked on fine unbleached linen in coloured wool, of red, green and brown and some silk for brighter colours and the remains of black. A continuous garland follows the edge of the large panel and a straight garland is worked across the centre of the smaller panel. Beneath the larger panel there were the remains of a pink taffeta covering for the stretcher that was most likely to have been the original. Nothing of this remains on the smaller panel but there is evidence of a previous set of nail holes, indicating that the current embroidery is a second cover.’
So the piano which John and I had deduced could not have been sold by J. G. Jones before 1887, was dated by Sheila Landi as circa 1860. And the embroidered panels which she restored were themselves replacements – is it possible, worked by Emily herself?
Where will this much-travelled piano live next? Will Sheila Landi’s exquisite panels ever be admired? Who will continue the tale of Emily’s piano?
Coda: The designer of the poster for the October 2016 Wolds Words Festival production of The Sellwood Girls, just a few yards from the site of their home in Horncastle Market Place, provided Emily with the superior instrument she might have enjoyed – but surely never did.
With thanks to:
Grace Timmins, TRC.
Sara Basquill, Collections Officer, Lincolnshire Heritage Services.Sheila Landi, The Landi Company Ltd., Burghley House, Stamford PE9 3JY.
Crompton, M., and Crompton, J., 2015, The Sellwood Girls and When Queen Victoria Came
To Tea, Lyme Regis: Magic Oxygen.
Thwaite, A., 1996, Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife, London: Faber & Faber.