Sunday, 20 May 2012

Early 19C square piano by William Gray

For a long time I have wanted to own a square piano. Square pianos are not, of course, square but rectangular.  A few weeks ago one came up at an auction nearby and I was the successful bidder. I was particularly pleased to find that it was made by someone better known as an organ builder, William Gray (c1757-1821). It appears that Gray advertised himself as a pianoforte maker in the the early 1800s. There are two earlier pianos known by Gray and were made jointly with his brother Robert who died in 1796. Mine is the only one (yet) that I have found to bear his name alone.
Here is the nameboard - no date or number - with calligraphy typical of the early decades of the 19C

The solid mahogany case has some small repairs and needs some more but there is some nice inlay work and what appears to be original brass work.

The action is now all taken out and the cloths (not felt) have all been well eaten by moths. A number of hammers need to be made and they all need new vellum or goatskin hinges. I suspect that there has been some restoration, but a long time ago, and many of the original overwound bass strings are still there.

The main thing about this restoration project (for myself this time not for the business) is that these pianos date form a time when everything required can be made from readily available materials (wood, leather, cloth [of the right kind], iron and brass) using tools that are found in a reasonably equipped but not specialist workshop. In short they have the same appeal for me as the early organs.


  1. Hello, very interesting post. I am currently researching about Robert Gray, William's brother and I thought that a square piano now in the National Museum of American History in Washington was the only one built by this firm. I am very pleased to find your post.
    I would like to know what kind of sources or references you have about Gray brothers and, for example, about hte fact that he advertised as a pinao maker.
    Thank you very much

    1. Many thanks for your comment. I can't just lay my hands on the source of my information about William Gray advertising as a pianoforte maker. However, there are two other square pianos that I aware of by Robert and William Gray (one in the Castle Museum in York UK and a piano with organ pipes by Merlin and the Grays at the private Colt keyboard collection in Kent UK). I have also come across a reference to another square piano by William Gray in a Sotheby's sale as follows: A SQUARE PIANO by William Gray inscribed on the satinwood nameboard William Gray, New Road, Fitzroy Square, London, the mahogany case with boxwood stringing, the five and a half octave keyboard, FF-c3, with ivory naturals and ebonised accidentals, two hand stops, on stand.

      Date of sale: 22 October 1970.

      I hope this helps.

  2. Let me send you a link for the american piano


    1. Thanks for this. Robert and William Gray are sometimes listed as organ builders and harpsichord makers in the 1780s in the records of the Sun Insurance company. Given the decline in harpsichord manufacture in the late 18C it would seem logical for them to have switched to piano production in addition to their organbuilding activities

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