The Tomkison Page

"Prince of Wales" label   © Stockholm Music and Theatre Museum.

 

Do you have a piano made by Thomas Tomkison? Or do you know of a surviving Tomkison piano?

"Prince Regent" label,  courtesy of The Stanhope Collection.  Photo by Jean Maurer.

 

With the support of FSP, a trailblazing project aimed at recording and describing all Tomkison's surviving instruments is up and running. As a by-product, it is enabling us to assess the power of the internet as a research tool in keyboard organology. Results so far are encouraging -  in the year since we started putting a register together, the number of his pianos known to exist has more than doubled, to now more than 165 across all types (grand, square, cabinet and upright). Outline patterns of construction and style have started to emerge, which we intend to develop further and make available to all.  So we badly need your help to identify more pianos and, we hope, unearth more information about the man himself.

Number 3705, courtesy of the Christine Brown Trust.

 

You may have looked up Thomas Tomkison in the reference books, and been disappointed to find not much more than that he operated from 55/77 Dean Street Soho between 1799 and 1851. (Even in his lifetime people couldn't spell his name correctly; and the death certificate when he died on 10 November 1853 was made out in the name of Tomkinson). We now have a lot of new light on his background, his family, and what his contemporaries thought about him, which we are looking to write up in accessible form. Frustratingly little has emerged on his apprenticeship, which we know started in 1778,  or on how he practised his trade before he set up shop in Dean Street (when he would have been a man of 35). Recent research shows, however, that in late 1798/early 1799 Tomkison emerged as successor to the bankrupt piano-making business of James Henry Houston, and that there are striking similarities between the first products of Tomkison’s workshop and surviving instruments of Houston.  Within a few years of operation, Tomkison succeeded in making himself s a rival respected by Broadwood and Clementi for the sheer quality of his pianos. He made instruments not only for the Prince Regent, later George IV, but for at least two other royal courts in Europe, knew all the leading makers and pianists in London, was on friendly terms with the Erard and Pleyel dynasties in Paris, and enjoyed a reputation as a connoisseur of pictures as well as music. Though we do not know of any technical improvements to the mechanism of the piano that he himself innovated, we can document his inventive use of distinctive and often striking elements, such as half size dustboards, pioneering the use of four, not six, leg square pianos (and three, not four on grands), making a remarkable 6.5 octave square as early as c.1824 and exploiting the string plate as a striking decorative feature. As witness to his commercial acumen as well as their structural stability, his pianos were widely exported to India, the Americas and Australia.  Contemporary sources regularly class him with the leading English builders Broadwood, Clementi and Stodart.

Grand made for His Majesty King George IV Courtesy of the Colt Clavier Collection.

 

Tomkison thus deserves more attention than he has received as a manufacturer of significant merit and interest. But, furthermore, an online study of his work can, we hope, allow insight into just how much information can be gleaned via the internet and email, extraordinary tools  that were denied to previous generations of researchers. Tomkison is an ideal study for this purpose, since he headed, without partners, a continuous business manufacturing a large number of pianos over fifty years which witnessed remarkable change in the construction of the piano – throughout that period using a variety of design styles that allow us to chart his development, and a coherent and largely continuous set of serial numbers. Currently, the register records serial number ranges of 34 – 11,225 (squares), 22 – 2,405 (grands) and 214 – 1,390 (cabinets)

Elegant 6½ octave rosewood square number 7038, courtesy of Catriona Hall, Tasmania.

 

Given these helpful parameters, we hope to be able to provide detailed and reliable comparative information for anybody interested in Tomkison and the development of the English piano between 1800 and 1850. The register will also, we intend, shed light on the general survivorship of square, and his other models of piano, both by outright percentage and any perceptible bias by style or other factor. Any information you might like to contribute should please be sent to  ttregister@hotmail.co.uk. We have already compiled a register of known pianos, where willing owners can either be named or referred to as private, by preference. This colour coded and comparative register, in PDF format, will be made available to anybody who would like to receive it. The most valuable information you can provide is the serial number and details of the type, action, compass, case and legs. Pictures of course are the best and preferred tool and we keep a photo library as well. The register will also serve in due course as a feeder to the major Clinkscale online project . Following the spirit and practice of FSP, we welcome the input and advice of Friends and hope to provide a useful facility to all. Thank you very much for any assistance you can give.

Cabinet Piano number 214

 

Norman MacSween and Tim Harding 

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© David Hackett