Today’s blog post comes from Michelle Kirk, a West Dean College student (MA Conservation of Furniture and Related Materials) who undertook a conservation placement with the CRC this Summer...
Although usually practising and training within the realms of furniture, this summer kicked off to a musical start with a work placement at the CRC, under direction of their musical instruments conservator Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet.
This was an especially exciting time due to the redevelopment of St Cecilia’s Hall, and I was presented with a number of objects to work with, one of which intrigued me more than anything else – a rather sorry looking late 18th century hurdy-gurdy (MIMEd 1052) made by ‘Ouvrard’ in Paris.
The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument where, instead of a bow, the player turns a wheel, which engages with the strings to create sound, much like the bow of a violin. Different notes are played when keys are pressed into the centre string(s) known as the chanterelle or melody string – gravity is utilised by the keys falling back, thus disengaging from the string.
This continuous wheel action also plays one set of strings, called the drone strings, placed on both sides of the wheel creating a similar sound to that of the bagpipes.
Another distinct feature of the hurdy-gurdy is a buzzing sound effect is similar to the tromba marine or marine trumpet. If the wheel is turned fast enough, the left drone string vibrates more, causing a movable little bridge called the chien (French word for dog) to hammer onto the soundboard.
Through investigation and research aided by the physical clues and Jonathan’s expertise, this instrument also embodies many layers of historical significance.
The decorative use of precious materials like ebony and ivory helps us understand the period and the social context in which this object was created – the tastes and trends of the French upper classes at the time, for rusticity and Arcadian life, led to the popularity of the playing the hurdy-gurdy in the French court. Known as Vielle a roué (old wheel), and also called ‘beggars lyre’, these names suggest its previous comparable social contexts. Hurdy-gurdies such as this one were adapted to suit the upper classes by refining the instrument mechanically and aesthetically.
There are historical references to the use of guitar and lute bodies for making hurdy-gurdies—when lutes and baroque guitars became less popular, these instruments were used to build others suiting the trends at the time. The body of this hurdy-gurdy bears many similarities with that of the baroque five course guitars made by makers such as Voboam. This was an exciting prospect, and another opportunity to learn about the evolution of musical instruments. We investigated the CRC archives and found drawing plans for Voboam guitars – when placing our hurdy-gurdy against these drawings the resemblances became even more apparent.
The aim of the treatment was to clean and stabilise the surfaces, a structural consolidation, and reinstate the missing components – this was to enable the instruments mechanical operations to be more clearly interpreted – since each component is significant of a musical function, and reflects historical developments.
The surfaces were cleaned, first mechanically and then using aqueous methods for the more ingrained dirt, taking care to immediately dry the surface after – this is important due to the hygroscopic nature of both wood and ivory, where unwanted condition changes such as swelling, and detachment from substrate could occur.
A previous repair on the base was loose and structurally unsound. Consisting of two nails hammered into deteriorated wooden fills, this was removed and replaced with a poplar block that was carefully shaped to fit the void. Losses in the sides were filled by fitting the same thickness of ebony into these areas. All pieces were adhered using retreatable hide glue.
The replacement of missing components presented the opportunity to implement practical skills gained from furniture making and conservation studies, and also to build upon this with further whilst working with Jonathan.
Some of the decorative purfling was missing, and was replaced by shaping pieces of reclaimed ebony and ivory to match, and adhering with hide glue. A sandwich of these materials was made to create the striped pieces.
Components as a missing button and the trompette-peg required the use of the woodturning lathe, where we problem solved a solution for a safe method to produce such small components. Replicating the missing ivory keys highlighted considerations like organising a production line for the pieces to be cut, shaped and drilled efficiently.
All the original bridges were also missing, in their place, the instrument had inaccurate crude replacements. These were substituted with newly made bridges made to resemble the originals with the advice of restorers Françoise and Daniel Sinier de Ridder. Sycamore was used for the main bridge, and cherry for the smaller drone string bridges situated at the head of the instrument, and on the soundboard. As before mentioned, one of these bridges was designed as a trompette system – the chien was shaped to fit loosely into the trompette bridge, and the one on the other side has an additional saddle to hold the sympathetic strings.
The four weeks spent working on the hurdy-gurdy enabled me to develop existing skills and knowledge from the furniture conservation discipline, and also gain some musicology knowledge and further refine practical hand skills for the precision required when making components for musical instruments.
Here it is finished:
Recently, I had a go at actually playing a hurdy-gurdy, albeit a different and newly made model:
Special thanks to Jonathan and the rest of the CRC team!
 Winternitz, Emanuel (1943) “Bagpipes and Hurdy-Gurdies in Their Social Setting.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2, no. 1 : p.5.
 NMM. “Images from the Pressler gallery” Available at http://collections.nmmusd.org/PluckedStrings/Guitars/Voboam/4143/VoboamGuitar.html