Chris Bragg

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8:00, 5th July 2017

Arriving on the Isle of Bute, organ sleuths Chris Bragg and Matthew Hynes puzzle over the history of a 19th-century English organ in an 18th-century Dutch case.

It would be difficult to conceive of a more flamboyant Gothic Revival dwelling than Mount Stuart House. Located on the Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde, Mount Stuart is the seat of the Stuarts of Bute (direct descendants, illegitimately, of the first Stuart King of Scotland, Robert II, and of Robert the Bruce). Not for the first time in this series, conflagration prompted grand creation. Alexander McGill’s Georgian house was all but destroyed in 1877, allowing Sir Robert Rowand Anderson (1834-1921) to realise his vast sandstone palace at the behest of the flamboyant 3rd Marquess of Bute, John Crichton- Stuart (1847-1900). While the house is known as the first in Scotland to have enjoyed electric lighting, and the first in the world to accommodate an electrically heated indoor swimming pool, its complex organ history has been largely obscured.


The relatively straightforward part of our tale plays out in the beautiful marble chapel, its lantern featuring deep red stained glass-studded clerestory, based on that at Zaragoza Cathedral for which the 3rd Marquess had a particular affection.1 In 1904, following his death, this Catholic Chapel (the Marquess had controversially converted in 1868 and spent much time translating the Roman Breviary into English) gained an unusual organ from Lewis and Co. (Opus 596) of just four stops, all at 8ft pitch and operable from its inception via an electro-pneumatic action. The completion of the organ at a time of near-continuous output from Brixton to the west of Scotland marked a rekindling of patronage from the Butes, for whom the firm had supplied a two-manual instrument (Opus 398) to St John the Evangelist RC Church at Cumnock in 1884. There, as more notably elsewhere, the 3rd Marquess had entrusted the design work to Gothic Revival architect William Burges (1827-81), whose potent collaborative efforts with Lewis (both 1875) remain at Studley Royal and Skelton-on-Ure in North Yorkshire. The Established (Presbyterian) Church in Cumnock (with Dumfries House – another Bute seat inherited in 1814 – close by) also benefited from family patronage both before and after the conversion of the 3rd Marquess, and Lewis had already provided a two-manual instrument (Opus 342) here in 1881.


The Mount Stuart organ is housed in one of a series of fine and richly carved organ cases by Rowand Anderson, including the spectacular short-lived (1893-1914) example which accompanied his restoration of Dunblane Cathedral, and the surviving case (1895) housing Charles Hamilton’s organ at (Anderson’s) Holy Trinity, Dunfermline, with which the necessarily shallow Mount Stuart example shares obvious similarities. Despite its diminutive size, the Lewis organ has a remarkable presence in the acoustically live space, with a typically stringy edge to its Diapason rank and a broader vowel sound to its Lieblich than the examples produced by many of Schulze’s other admirers. As part of Henry Willis & Sons’ overhaul of the instrument in 1990, a 4ft Viola supplanted the original 8ft Unda Maris, the console also being relocated from the chapel floor to an upper gallery in the west wall, where its folding music desk was adapted to accommodate Perspex, allowing the player a view of the altar. The organ is used regularly for weddings, and is happily in good condition following a recent overhaul.


0719 nThis charming little organ would be worth a trip on the Rothesay ferry alone, but the adjacent 80ft tall Marble Hall houses a second, entirely unique, organ of infinitely more intrigue. Testament to its initial history, as an 18th-century Dutch house organ, is found both in its characteristic Netherlandish rococo case and the inscription above the manuals: H:H:HESS . FECIT . GOUDAE. 1781. However, it is immediately clear that the organ contained within the case is of English 19th-century origin and the case’s extension at the rear and sides to house the zinc basses of a new Open Diapason, a wooden 16ft/8ft Pedal Bourdon unit and the rear of the swell box, handled with an unlikely sensitivity to the original, are clearly the work of a British maker. The question as to who this might have been has never satisfactorily been answered, and the traditional attribution to Father Willis (as on the NPOR and elsewhere) seemed to us highly unlikely. We were also keen to establish whether any of the original Hess pipework might, against all odds, have survived. Fortunately, our investigations answered both questions, although many others remain shrouded in mystery.


Hendrik Hermanus Hess (1735-94) was one of the finest Dutch organ builders of the second half of the 18th century. That his international reputation is perhaps less prominent than some of his contemporaries can be attributed to his focus, largely, on domestic instruments. Indeed, as Gierveld has noted in his seminal study of the Dutch house organ, Hess’s voluminous output rendered him the Republic’s most important such builder, even if the quality of his organs was too variable definitively to declare him the finest in the field.2 Originally from Leeuwarden in Friesland, Hess came to organ building via his elder brother Joachim, the famed organist and carilloneur (from 1754 onwards) of the St Janskerk in Gouda and author of books including Luister van het Orgel (which includes a detailed, rare insight into the registrations he commonly used on the 1733-36 Moreau organ in the Janskerk) and Dispositien der merkwaardigste Kerk-Orgelen, a collection of specifications of  rgans as far afield as Tours, Prague and the Dutch colony of Curaçao. While Hess the elder’s well-documented tastes are likely to have had a significant influence of the younger’s organ building style (Joachim both consulted on, and championed H.H.’s work),3 with no trace of an original client or location for the Mount Stuart organ, one must look at other contemporary Hess organs for a likely specification. For reasons which will become clear, we believe the organ to have had two manuals and, therefore, to have been among the larger of Hess’s domestic instruments. A two-manual organ built for a relative in Schiedam in 1777 is somewhat typical:4


An 1893 entry in the 3rd Marquess’s diary, traced for us by Karen Horsley, alerted us to the fact that the Mount Stuart organ had spent time in homes other than in the Netherlands and on Bute:


Organ (which remember in old dining-room at Cardiff [Castle] and afterwards gave to Llandough Church) being put up in hall [at Mount Stuart]. It was always said to have lain under water in a dyke in Holland: my old tutor, the late Frank Stacey, told me he had often played it to my Father [the 2nd Marquess of Bute].5


The implications of this brief quote are highly fascinating. First, as the 2nd Marquess had died in 1848, the Hess organ had likely survived in Wales in its original condition for some considerable time, its rebuilding and enlargement clearly having occurred at a later date. Cardiff Castle had been in the hands of the Marquesses of Bute since the 18th century and a major rebuilding project, undertaken by Burges (who also subsequently worked at Mount Stuart), was begun in 1868. The organ does not, in any case, appear on the castle’s 1870 insurance inventory.6The second implication is that the work to the organ may have been carried out not by a builder with Scottish connections but rather by one from Wales or the West Country. Could its supposed removal to Llandough have coincided with Burges’s work at Cardiff, or have been intended to render it fit for church use at an earlier date? Local newspapers of the time throw up a host of puzzling information on this front. The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian reports the opening of an organ at Llandough in its edition of 27 November, 1863; this is noted to have been built by J.N. Gregory of Newport.7 The opening of a new church is reported by the same journal on 13 July 1866,8 while another new organ, by Henry Willis, is reported by the South Wales Daily News of 6 May 1876 as having been dedicated.9 Its listed specification leaves no room for confusion with the Mount Stuart 0730 norgan. The Marquess’s links with Llandough seem primarily to have been through his ‘Kinsman and Agent to the Bute Glamorgan Estates’, John Stuart Corbett, who died in 1894, a day after the opening of the enlarged church where he had sung in the choir and acted as churchwarden.


0711 nFortunately, after some detective work, the Mount Stuart instrument surrendered some of its secrets. In the first instance, the identity of the organ builder responsible for its present form was almost certainly revealed through the discovery of ‘W.G. Vowles’ punched on the CC block of the Oboe rank. As such, the instrument is almost certainly the only example of the prolific Bristol builder’s work on Scottish soil and indicates that the organ was rebuilt prior to its coming north. The identity of the builder who undertook this latter venture remains unknown but the presence of Richard Smith’s patented ‘Friction Brake’ trigger swell pedal might provide the clue. Smith had worked for Lewis, becoming their Scottish representative in 1878 following the installation of the firm’s magnum opus: the 75-stop organ at St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow (tragically lost in a fire in 1962). Following the establishment of his own business in 1888, he continued to look after Lewis’s Scottish work until 1902. The Bute-funded Lewis organ in the Catholic Church in Cumnock, previously mentioned, features a similar device.

0720 nVictorian self-confidence leaving little room for sentiment where old organs were concerned, it is interesting to observe the old material which charmed Vowles sufficiently to secure its retention. Hiding behind the name Stopd Diapason on each manual are a pair of oak Holpijps by Hess, easily identifiable by their characteristic parchment labels with note names in ink following the Germanic system for notation and octave delineation. Despite the manual compasses extending to g56, these labels stop at f54, corresponding with the manual compasses commonly found in Hess’s organs by 1781 and, maddeningly, in Vowles’s until at least 1870. This in turn raises a further question about the keyboards themselves, the sharps of which are covered with tortoise shell, as used in other instruments by Hess such as several for wealthy patrons in Dordrecht, among them, in 1776, Mayor Bellaerts van Blokland.10 The comparatively short naturals would also suggest that the keyboards are by Hess, but whether extended to g56 or made new in an older style by Vowles remains unclear. The front pipes also appear to be original and obviously had a speaking function. 0731 nHowever, these were relegated to the status of pure decoration in Vowles’s concept; the trebles of the latter’s Open Diapason, with their deep regular nicking and flattened mouths, are positioned directly behind the façade, together with a number of conveyed off-notes, resulting in a rather congested soundboard in Hess’s compact case. The highly florid music desk, typical of the late 18th-century Dutch domestic organ, with its valveless brass and drum, remains.


This organ is so unusual that a full survey of its contents would be a highly desirable exercise and would doubtless uncover more information than we have been able to gather. An overly efficient heating system additionally frustrated our attempts to garner much in the way of an aural impression. So many questions remain: who was the organ’s original owner? When and why did it end up in Wales? Did it really ever stand in Llandough, as the 3rd Marquess suggested? If not, where was it prior to 1893? Should any reader be able to shed any light on the tale of this enigmatic little instrument, enquiring minds would like to know more.

Thanks to: Lynsey Nairn, Karen Horsley, Ricky Harrison and Alice Martin of Mount Stuart House; Matthew Williams, curator of Cardiff Castle; Dr David Wyld, for help with gaining access to the organs at Mount Stuart and technical information; Bert den Hertog and Rini Wimmenhove in the Netherlands, for sourcing information and providing insights regarding Hess; Simon Glenarthur, for his ongoing assistance in facilitating access to instruments; The Eric Thompson Charitable Trust for their financial support of the series.

Chris Bragg studied organ at the former RSAMD, and the Conservatories of Amsterdam and Utrecht. He is concerts administrator at the University of St Andrews, and a freelance organist, teacher, writer and translator.

Matthew Hynes studied organ with Roger Bryan in Lincoln, and George McPhee at the former RSAMD. He is a freelance consultant following a 20-year career in organ building, and is Royal Burgh of Ayr Organist.

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