Latest revision: 16 July 2014
When James Longman set up as a music seller in Cheapside in 1767, the pianoforte was just coming into fashion. Although he did not make any of the instruments himself, piano manufacture was to be the thing for which his company became internationally famous.
Longman's shop was located by the sign of the Harp & Crown, at No. 26 Cheapside, which was then the most prestigious shopping street in London. (It was not until Michaelmas 1782 that a second address was acquired, at 13 Haymarket, near the opera house.) Ever ambitious to expand the business, James Longman took a partner in 1769, Charles Lukey. A square piano bearing the inscription Longman, Lukey & Co, Musical Instrument Makers, 26 Cheapside, London (dated 1770) is preserved in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass. In appearance and specification it is indistinguishable from the work of Zumpe & Buntebart, who were then the most prestigious makers of square pianos. However, this piano has been severely compromised by ill-advised restoration, leaving little to show whether it was in fact made and supplied by Zumpe & Buntebart, or was merely a very careful copy of their work.
Still expanding, in 1773 the firm gained a new name when Francis Broderip joined them, presumably bringing more capital into the business. The instruments were then marked as being from Longman, Lukey, and Broderip, but this lasted for only three years because Lukey died in 1776. Thereafter the business traded for twenty years under the title most frequently encountered: Longman & Broderip. Square pianos remained a very important part of their sales throughout the 1770s. The variability seen in surviving examples suggests that they were commissioned from several originating makers. Nevertheless, they were all of standard English design, with the so-called 'single action' with lever over-dampers, as used by Zumpe. One of their suppliers has been confirmed by the researches of Jenny Nex as being Christopher Ganer, whose workshop was in Broad Street. He received payments for various sums during the late 1770s and early 80s. Thomas Culliford, making harpsichords and spinets for sale in Longman & Broderip's shop, worked with a number of other craftsmen in Fountain Court, just off Cheapside, and from other larger premises in subsequent years.
Longman & Broderip's merchandise included every variety of musical instrument, as well as printed music originated by themselves or sourced from other music publishers throughout Europe. But keyboard instruments were their most prestigious and lucrative line, and as the pianoforte increased in popularity so did their profits. A quantum leap occurred in the mid 1780s when organ builder John Geib, living in Southampton Row, near Bedford Square (but originally from Staudernheim in the Rhineland Palatinate), secured patent rights for an improved type of square piano with an escapement action. Subtlety of touch gained much from this innovation, making possible a more refined expressivity, previously obtainable only on good quality grand pianos. James Longman and his partner were very impressed and signed an exclusive contract with Geib. Typical specimens dating from the 1780s have an escapement lever closely resembling one of the three designs shown in Geib's patent drawing. Shown below is piano No. 1027, believed to date from 1786, containing exactly this action.
This piano exhibits the extraordinary high quality cabinet work on some of these early 'patent' squares. The principal timber is dense, Cuban mahogany (perhaps from Haiti), bordered with honey-coloured Central American satinwood. The nameboard is inlaid with exquisitely executed arabesques similar to those found in Robert Adam's book of classical designs. The quality of this inlay is very impressive. Inside there is a green silk-covered 'dustboard', covering most of the working parts, and four hand-operated stops. Three at the left work the divided dampers and a harp or 'buff' stop. The fourth, at the right, presses small pads of buff leather against one of each pair of unison strings. This appears to have been intended simply as an aid to tuning, making it possible to go through one set of strings and afterwards tune the unisons, as players would be accustomed to do on their harpsichords. As an una corda stop it is not as satisfactory as the true una corda found on early English grand pianos in which the keyboard shift provides that only one string is touched by the hammer while the unisons are free to add sympathetic vibration. This stop was discontinued soon after 1786.
Most square pianos sold by Longman & Broderip were not so elaborate, and some did not have escapement — these remained their basic pianos presumably sold at a much lower price. Both kinds were manufactured in new dedicated workshops where Thomas Culliford and his team produced hundreds of instruments annually, while the patent pianos were supplied by John Geib and his team of craftsmen, who developed further improvements. The escapement mechanism went through several stages of refinement leading, around 1788, to a design which became so successful that it was universally known, to nineteenth century piano-makers, as 'English action' for square pianos — copied not only in London (even before the patent had expired) but also in America and Germany, and adapted for upright pianos too. The most common form of this is shown in the drawing below.
An L-shaped bracket (unshaded) is fixed to the key lever. Attached to it by a vellum hinge is the escapement lever (or 'hopper') and a steel wire return spring. Adjustment requires no special tools or skill. Each note can be adjusted by turning a little eyelet screw — clockwise (to make the hammer carry up nearer to the strings) or anticlockwise to make it escape sooner. One important refinement was added after 1793. In the version shown above the hammer falls directly back onto the cloth-covered hammer rest, with the disadvantage that under some circumstances, repetition could be faulty as the hammer has a tendency to bounce. An improvement was made by fixing to the back of the escapement lever a tiny block of wood, topped with soft leather. This arrests the under lever in its return movement, so supporting the hammer in a halfway position until the finger releases the key. Repetition is greatly improved by this small addition, so sometimes it was added retrospectively to earlier pianos. In this form it remained standard for all good-quality English square pianos until about 1830.
With these refined instruments Longman & Broderip were for some years the premier manufacturers in Europe, so their shops in Cheapside and Haymarket became an essential call for all musical visitors to London. Most of their pianos, though plainer than the one above, are given at least a little decorative inlay on the nameboard (see below), and generally have the usual three hand stops, though some have only two. Some have a pedal to raise and lower part of the lid (the so-called 'swell'). A new fashion becomes apparent around 1790 when many of the pianos have hand-painted decoration on the nameboard, featuring either laurel wreaths or floral garlands featuring roses, sweet peas and eglantine.
Never willing to be outdone when further inventions came to light, James Longman bought the rights to another important patent in 1794. The originator of this was William Southwell, previously established in Dublin, whose patent included the first adjustable, wire-operated dampers (sometimes called 'dolly dampers', and otherwise 'Irish dampers'). These, being virtually silent in operation, were a great improvement on the older style, lever over dampers. Southwell's 'Irish dampers' led directly to those used in modern grand pianos. But his best remembered innovation was a novel way of making a keyboard extension upwards from five to five-and-a-half octaves by passing eight 'additional' notes (f to c) under the soundboard, from where the hammers appear to jump up through a slot at the back. This patent design was eventually to become ubiquitous, but for the time being Longman & Broderip held exclusive rights to it, with Southwell content with the prospect of half a guinea on every such piano made and sold in England.
However, in the mid 1790s things were starting to go wrong, not with the pianos but with the company finances. War with republican France disrupted trade with Europe, creating many economic difficulties. Longman & Broderip were heavily in debt having borrowed large sums in earlier years to finance their expansion, and now creditors wanted to call in their loans. It soon became evident that everyone who had worked for Longman & Broderip, or who had provided funds for their business expansion, had the greatest difficulty in getting any money from them. The extent of their debts, amounting to thousands of pounds, were soon to become public knowledge when legal actions were brought by some of the aggrieved parties. Eventually, in 1795 both partners were declared bankrupt. But rather than fleeing to France in time-honoured fashion they went into the debtors' prison. There are in existence square pianos fitted with enamel plaques showing 'Longman & Broderip', with the date 1796, but clearly these plaques must have been commissioned before their fall from grace, and the workshop used them regardless. Their business empire was so vast, and its prospects so good, that a consortium led by Muzio Clementi bought out the interest and presumably paid off some of the debts. From 1798 square pianos appeared bearing the new company name Longman, Clementi & Company. These were significantly better still, because they combined a five-and-a-half octave keyboard with the escapement action, and a pedal to obtain the sustaining tone. For many of these design improvements they were indebted to William Southwell. His other improvements included a larger soundboard and a lighter, more flexible bridge. He was also the originator of the open fretwork at either side of the nameboard (see photo below) backed with brightly coloured silk, and similar open panels behind the wrestplank. The tone of these early Clementi square pianos was better than anything heard before, and in well-restored specimens remains as delightful as ever.
After just over a year in prison James Longman and Francis Broderip were released. Broderip formed a new company with Charles Wilkinson, trading from 13 Haymarket. Pianos sold by Broderip & Wilkinson have exactly the same technical specification as those marked Longman, Clementi & Co, and are similar externally, the only difference being that they are usually plainer above the keyboard and the ivory key plates are often compromised for quality. John Geib meantime emigrated to America, where he set up a new business in lower Manhattan, which prospered in the new century as John Geib & Sons of New York.
Back in London, James Longman was pursued by more creditors and was again in the Fleet prison in 1803 where he died in November that year. The business empire he had lost now traded under the name Muzio Clementi & Co The Longman name lived on for some years as John Longman, James' kinsman, started another company trading from 131 Cheapside until about 1816, and after that under the name Longman & Heron. Francis Broderip died in 1807, but the piano-making business was continued by Wilkinson, with various associates, including Robert Wornum, now remembered chiefly for his improvements to the actions of upright pianos.
When Clementi died in 1832, the business named after him was continued by his foreman Frederick Collard. The firm of Collard & Collard (the brothers Frederick and William) continued manufacturing square pianos until about 1860, but as the piano industry contracted in the late nineteenth century the business declined and was ultimately sold to Cramer who produced standard trade upright pianos.
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