An early William IV period mahogany square piano by Thomas Tomkison of Dean Street, London.
This six octave piano is constructed of beautifully figured mahogany throughout with superbly executed turned and reeded legs and original brass cup castors. Much like campaign furniture of the period, these legs are attached to the body of the instrument by means of a wooden thread secured into the top of the leg and received into the base. This allows for portability of the instrument which although heavy is much lighter than its later descendants owing to the lack of an iron frame. The leg bases on the body of the instruments have a subtle but robust scroll motif below a square section column to the front and more unusually, this is continued to the back of the instrument allowing the same decorative attention to the entire instrument. For this reason, we can be certain that this instrument was intended to be a centre piece rather than placed against a wall.
All of the keys on the instrument are original and manufacture of the instrument can be accurately dated to 1831 by means of a journeyman pencil inscription to the side of one. It includes the date and the name Marshall who would have worked for Tomkison or provided parts to his workshop for the creation of this superb instrument. Above the keys remains the beautifully inscribed original maker’s plaque stating the following, “Thomas Tomkison, Maker to His Majesty, Dean Street, Soho, London.”, and it is surrounded by the most intricate floral Satinwood inlay. The same motifs are continued to either side of the keyboard and the workmanship is good enough to rival the top cabinet makers of the period. The faceplate also contains two fretwork sound holes either side of the name plaque with their original velvet backs.
The body of the instrument has a two part hinged lid to allow for partial opening and full opening to view the action. Both sections have a wooden fold out sheet music stand, the latter also providing additional support to the lid when fully opened. It is further supported either side by two wooden struts.
The action itself has been fully overhauled and tuned to A-415 which is a semi-tone below modern pitch of A-440 appropriate for a piano of this age and further attention should be pointed to the unusually intricate solid brass hitchplate which reflect the initials TT, clearly denoting the maker’s name Thomas Tomkison. The inside of the case also contains a stamp with the serial number, 9497. An example of a Tomkison piano with the serial 9353 dating to 1830 is held at The Carisbrooke House Museum in Sydney, Australia which gives an idea of Tomkison’s output during this period.
Little was known about Thomas Tomkison in comparison to his late eighteenth and early nineteenth century counterparts within the piano making industry but Tomkison has recently been the focus of much needed attention and in depth research by Norman McSween and Tim Harding for The Galpin Society. All of the following detail surrounding Tomkison’s life and work below is summarised from their article entitled, ‘No Maker to be Compared’ – The Early Pianos of Thomas Tomkison (c1764–1853)’ and I thank them for allowing me access to this document and for their enthusiasm in helping me bring this instrument back to its former glory.
Tomkison was born in around 1764, the son of a jeweller and goldsmith and lived in Covent Garden. His early years and his beginning in the instrument trade still remain somewhat of a mystery but it is likely that by the last decade of the eighteenth century he had mastered his trade. Rumours of a partnership between the piano maker James Henry Houston prompted Tomkison to release a statement in the Times in 1799 refuting that an agreement with Houston ever existed but that he had taken over the business of Houston (following his bankruptcy presumably) and now traded from number 55 Dean Street in London.
By the end of 1804, records exists to show that Tomkison’s reputation was of such a high standing that his pianos were being ordered for the Prussian Court with two pianos being sent to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. The archives of both Clementi and Broadwood also prove a good source for mentions of Tomkison given the rivalry between the companies and his successes at selling to various high standing clients becoming a constant source of frustration to his competitors. The numerous examples of his work that can still be found in European museums bears testament to Tomkison’s success on the Continent and he is considered (perhaps more so than in the UK) to be one of the great innovators of the early piano industry.
On home soil, Tomkison’s success during his lifetime was equally buoyant, in around 1809/1810 he fell under the favour of royalty and it is at this point that his nameplate cartouches start to bear inscriptions for the Prince of Wales, later the Prince Regent and of course to His Majesty on the final accession of George IV to the throne. There are some further records held in the Royal Collection suggesting that Tomkison also held a Royal Warrant for George III but this fact is not evidenced on any Tomkison instruments that are currently available for examination. Perhaps he considered his long term options were better with the Prince Regent given George III’s failing health! His favour with royalty continued throughout his life, with his later instruments also referencing “her majesty” denoting a relationship with Queen Victoria’s court.
In April 2017, the Brighton Pavilion with the assistance of funding managed to purchase a Tomkison grand piano which had originally been manufactured for George IV to stand in the entrance hall at The Pavilion. Having been divested from The Royal Collection during Queen Victoria’s reign following the gifting of The Pavilion to the public, it recently gained much publicity after its appearance in the salerooms. The piano appeared in John Nash’s famous aquatint collection of The Royal Pavilion in 1826 and further preparatory sketches undertaken for Nash during the period by Augustus Charles Pugin have also come to light showing the piano in its original positions at the property. Further written evidence remains within the Royal Archive stating that the piano costs the princely sum of £236 in 1821, far more expensive than any other piano provided by Tomkison’s competitors. The archive also hints at other examples of his work within the Royal Collection but this remains the only one currently identified. The piano has now been positioned at The Pavilion and is on public view.
Tomkison continued to trade until his death in 1853 and with no children, the business died alongside this most prestigious piano maker. Trading during the golden age of the piano’s development, he must be ranked amongst the innovators of the period. Sadly, without the longevity of some of the other family firms, some of which are still in existence today, Tomkison has sadly faded from the limelight, however with new focus and continuing research, he is happily reclaiming his place as one of the virtuoso piano manufacturers of the early to mid-nineteenth century.
This beautiful creation has been lovingly restored by one of the few remaining conservators of early pianos in the UK and is in perfect working order.