Georgian and Victorian organ-building: the work of Gray & Davison, 1772-1890

Nicholas Thistlethwaite introduces his new publication Organ-building in Georgian and Victorian England, part of the Music in Britain, 1600-2000 series.

With a history stretching back more than one thousand years, the craft of organ-building is more fully-documented than any other skill involving the manufacture of musical instruments. One of the reasons for this is that organs were commissioned by churches and royal households where records of expenditure were kept from an early date; as a result, we know the names of many organ-builders, what they were paid, what materials they used to construct particular organs, and the locations of those instruments. The early organ-builders were often monks and frequently members of the Benedictine order who had an interest in craft and art, and were part of a network of monasteries scattered throughout western Christendom. This enabled the transmission of knowledge to take place and encouraged the use of organs in worship. Later, once the essential components of the organ as we know it – a keyboard, pipes, and bellows to supply the wind – had been developed, organ workshops appeared in major centres of population, often under the protection of the trade guilds. The instruments these workshops produced varied considerably in size, but the largest of them joined windmills, clocks and carillons as among the most complex machines known to medieval men and women.

Organ Console of St Vincent de Paul church Liverpool

In England, organ-building suffered at the time of the Reformation when many instruments were destroyed. Under the Commonwealth in the seventeenth century, the use of organs in worship was actually banned by Parliament. However, following the restoration of Church and King in 1660, organs were reintroduced in cathedrals, city churches and college chapels.  Although workshops were established in Bristol and York, most organ-builders settled in London, many of them in the streets to the north of High Holborn, and by the middle of the eighteenth century the craft was thriving again.

In 1772, a young man named Robert Gray opened a workshop in Leigh Street, Holborn. He made harpsichords and pianofortes as well as organs. In the 1780s, he was joined by his brother William. The business moved to new premises on the north side of what is now Euston Road, and began to undertake larger projects including rebuilding the organ in Gloucester Cathedral (1790) and a large new instrument for Holy Trinity, Clapham (1794). Following Robert’s death in 1796, William enhanced the firm’s reputation with a series of major contracts including new organs for St Paul’s, Covent Garden (1798) and St Martin-in-the-Fields, the parish churches in Wakefield (1804) and Huddersfield (1812), and a particularly ambitious instrument for the new St Marylebone Parish Church (1816).

Bolton Town Hall, 1874

William was succeeded by his son John in 1821. He further expanded the business, and his careful management is demonstrated by the meticulous entries in the firm’s earliest surviving ledger (1821-38); it provides a unique insight into the activities of an organ-builder in late-Georgian England with its record of clients, transport costs, wages, stock-in-trade, turnover and profits.

John Gray was a progressive figure who sought to adapt the design of his instruments to changing musical fashion and the increasing demands made on organs in worship. The acquisition of a junior partner, Frederick Davison, in 1841 brought about more radical change. Davison belonged to a coterie of London organists whose father-figure was Samuel Wesley. Wesley in turn was a passionate advocate of the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach (hardly known in England).  English organs were poorly adapted to the performance of Bach, not least because they seldom had proper Pedal divisions, and a reform movement emerged in the 1840s determined to correct this. Davison was a leading member of this group, and following the inauguration of ‘Gray & Davison’, ensured that the firm began to build organs that reflected the requirements of Bach’s music.

Bach, 1725

Davison also modernised organ design to make his instruments better adapted to the performance of transcriptions of orchestral and choral music. Borrowing ideas from contemporary French organ-builders, and exploiting new technologies (pneumatic actions, hydraulic blowers) he built a series of ambitious concert organs in the 1850s of which the largest were those for the Crystal Palace in Sydenham (1857) and his magnum opus in Leeds Town Hall (1860). These semi-orchestral instruments in turn influenced the design of Davison’s church organs as can still be heard at St Anne’s, Limehouse (formerly in the Great Exhibition, 1851), Usk Parish Church (1862) and Clumber Chapel (1890).

Usk Priory Church, St.Mary

By the time of Davison’s death in 1890, the firm had built more than five hundred new organs for churches, cathedrals, concert halls, synagogues and private individuals since he assumed sole proprietorship in 1849. Working from a purpose-built factory, and adopting modern business and production strategies, Davison ensured that for much of that time, Gray & Davison remained one of the two or three leading metropolitan builders. The firm’s work is therefore a fascinating case study of how a craft-based industry begun in Georgian London was successfully transformed by the challenges and opportunities of Victorian England.

This guest post was written by Nicholas Thistlethwaite. He has written extensively on the history of the English organ and has acted as consultant for the restoration and rebuilding of organs, most recently at St Edmundsbury Cathedral and Christ Church, Spitalfields.

You can view a supporting online supplement for the book here.

Organ-building in Georgian and Victorian England
by Nicholas Thistlethwaite
9781783274673, Hardback, £42.25 or $64.35

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