An important and valued Friend of the Square Piano world, Tim Harding, finally lost a protracted battle with cancer on 4 April at the Royal Trinity Hospice hospice in Clapham. With his passing, the piano world has lost one of the shrewdest and most capable contributors to our growing understanding of how these curious oblong artefacts developed.
Tim would describe himself laconically as ‘banker, lawyer, and owner of too many square pianos’.
Though the order may have been deliberate, it is in the third category that many of us knew him, and other that he had a great fondness of the sea near Portsmouth where he grew up, and that he had an abiding love of the sea and boats, we learned little about his early career. It is clear however that the formidable skills of analysis, taxonomy, the manipulation and choreography into spreadsheets of large quantities of detail which he brought to his work in the piano field, must have been honed in his previous professional life.
Tim’s approach to old pianos was always hands-on rather than academic. He bought and sold up until the latest phase of his illness. His house was always filled with anything between ten and twenty pianos perched on a variety of racks. He trailed provincial auction houses as well as online marketplaces assiduously, looking for items to document for his research as well as rarities to buy.
While his first acquisition was rumoured to be a Broadwood square picked up from his local auction house in Chiswick, the pianos he chose to hang on to were less the big names than smaller manufacturers such as Woffington and Southwell, and makers from the line which became a focus for his expertise, one that stretched from Garcka through Bates to Tomkison. He was fascinated by the interactions and relationships of these smaller firms, by their productivity compared with the bigger makers, and by what had led to certain instruments surviving into the twenty-first century rather than others: was it musical quality, innovation in design, or a pretty face? Never one to accept the received wisdom, he knew that often the smallest details yield the bigger secrets.
It might be thought that Tim was something of an unsung hero, in that his observations and conclusions were delivered in the form of email correspondence within a group of collectors, historians, and enthusiasts - with all of whom Tim would give generously and patiently of his time to answer questions, engage in dialogue, or share his large library of photographs. But his legacy to piano research is substantial: most obviously in the form of registers of the surviving instruments of the makers at 95 Wardour Street and their successor Tomkison, painstakingly built up over some ten years: the scale of which may be judged from the fact that his register for Tomkison squares alone numbers over 170 survivors with documented serial numbers (as compared with the 40 with serial numbers currently registered in the Clinkscale online database; of course there is work in progress, as Tim wished, to incorporate the others into Clinkscale). Thanks to a link provided by Friends of Square Pianos, Tim was able to offer an valuable online service in dating, putting acquisitions into context and advising on restoration to any member of the public who enquired. Engagement of this sort has surely led to many instruments being restored which might otherwise have been relegated to the scrap-heap. In his search to improve the registers, Tim was never content to sit back and wait for people to contact us; he would badger auction houses, eBay sellers and collectors all over the world for serial numbers, construction details, tell-tale signatures and inscriptions.
Always keen to share his findings, Tim co-authored the article on Tomkison in the edition of Grove online. In May 2016 he joined in a presentation charting many new findings on the Garcka-Bates-Houston line of 95 Wardour Street at the Conference ‘Made in London’ held at the Metropolitan University.
Tim always maintained that it was the advent of social media and digital technology that enabled him to build up his expertise. But that would be to underestimate seriously the combination of tenacity, forensic penetration and keen judgement that was evident in everything he tackled. Friends will also recall how his calm approach was invariably tempered with an endearingly sharp sense of humour and self-deprecation.
You came away from any encounter with Tim feeling enriched and that you had understood the matter better. We shall miss him sorely.
Norman Mac Sween
Tim (in the red top) enjoying tea with a few Friends at one of our 'Piano Auctions' gatherings in Red Lion Square. Thanks to Marie Kent for the picture.