This article appeared in the Dolmetsch Foundation Bulletin, New Series No. 38 (Autumn 2020), and is here presented by kind permission of the editor
In the winter of 1893–4 Arnold Dolmetsch moved into 172 Rosendale Road, West Dulwich (a suburb to the south of central London). He was the ﬁrst occupier: the house had been specially adapted for him, creating a concert room on the ground ﬂoor and a large ﬁrst-ﬂoor workshop. Arnold named his new home Dowland after the seventeenth-century composer. Here instrument making began in earnest.
In a brochure published in 1929, he wrote:
In 1894 I began making clavichords, copies of a ﬁne large instrument in my possession. The ﬁrst went to Mr Fuller Maitland; Sir George Grove secured the second for the Royal College of Music; Herbert Horne decorated the third with inscriptions and paintings; it is now in a museum in Italy. The fourth is in my possession [Note 1].
These four clavichords, completed at Dowland, were (as far as I can establish) the ﬁrst to be made anywhere in the world since the 1850s [Note 2]. Over the next three years, at least two more large unfretted clavichords and one completely new harpsichord [Note 3] were made; at least one major clavichord restoration was undertaken; and a spinet and at least two antique harpsichords were restored [Note 4]. All this was done alongside routine maintenance of instruments for concerts.
This is an impressive work-rate, the more so when one considers that all through this period Arnold was busy organising and performing in concerts (both at Dulwich and in Central London), lecturing in towns all across Great Britain, and providing music for theatrical events. Moreover, in 1895 he had to cope with relocation of home, workshop and concert room from Dulwich to Bloomsbury.
He was not, however, working alone. How do we know this? Well, when some years ago my colleague Miles Hellon restored a 1763 clavichord by Johann Adolph Hass (probably the ﬁne large instrument that Arnold referred to in 1929), this inscription was found on the underside of the soundboard [Note 5]:
Nowadays inexpensive miniature cameras are available which can be used to look inside the soundbox of an instrument like a clavichord without any risk of causing damage. Using this technique, I have been able to establish that very similar inscriptions are to be found in Dolmetsch clavichords No. 1 (dated 1894, now at the Bate Collection, Oxford) and No. 4 (also dated 1894, now in the Horniman study collection) [Note 6].
So it is clear that W. Nearn was working alongside Dolmetsch from 1894. The only public acknowledgment of his contribution seems to be in the catalogue to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition held in the New Gallery, Regent Street, in October and November 1896. Item 178 (the Green Harpsichord) is listed as follows:
HARPSICHORD. Designed and constructed by ARNOLD DOLMETSCH assisted by W. NEARN. Decoration invented and painted by HELEN COOMBE. Exhibited by ARNOLD DOLMETSCH.
Nearn is not mentioned in Mabel Dolmetschs Personal Recollections [Note 7]; he is named in a footnote in Margaret Campbells 1975 biography [Note 8], but he did not make it into the index.
So—who was W. Nearn? Luckily the surname is uncommon, and now that nineteenth-century records are easily available on the internet, it has been possible to identify him with a fair degree of certainty.
William Benjamin Nearn was born in 1860, two years after Arnold, in Woolwich, SE London. He was the son of William H. Nearn, a naval rating, and his wife Jane, both of whom were quite young: William was 23 and Jane 21. In 1860 they were living at 51 St Mary Street, Woolwich; by the time of the 1861 census they had moved to shared accommodation at 6 Maria Terrace, Marshalls Grove, still in Woolwich. I can ﬁnd no trace of the family in the 1871 census; but at the time of the 1881 census William Benjamin was living with his mother and stepfather, Thomas Sheehan, at 7 Mornington Road (now Mornington Terrace) in St Pancras Parish. Presumably his father had died in the interim, perhaps on active service with the Royal Navy.
William Benjamin would now be 21 years of age. His profession is given as cabinet maker; presumably he had passed an apprenticeship in this trade. On Christmas Eve of the following year, he was married at St Georges Hanover Square to Eva Beatrice Fitze Ford, aged 19. The young couple must have continued to live in St Pancras parish, since their ﬁrst two children were born there [Note 9].
In 1886 they moved to 27 Eccleston Place, Pimlico; two more children arrived while they were living there [Note 10]. Eccleston Place is shown on Charles Booths famous poverty map as a mixed area, with some inhabitants comfortable and others poor. It was a street of small houses and shops jumbled together with industrial buildings and stables, a service area for the grander houses in nearby Eaton Square. In what may have been a sign of increasing prosperity, the family left in 1891 to take up residence in what may have been a newly built house at 148 Selkirk Road in the South-London suburb of Tooting Graveney. The 1911 census shows them still at that address [Note 11]; three more children were to be born there, making a total of seven.
So it was from Tooting that William Nearn made the daily journey of about 4½ miles to Dowland and to his work reviving, with Arnold Dolmetsch, the art of clavichord making. How did he travel? Possibly by train from Tooting Station to Tulse Hill, from where it is a short walk to Rosendale Road. But it is quite possible that he walked the whole way—not uncommon at the time.
How can we be sure that we have the right man? No other Nearn that I have been able to ﬁnd—and there are not many of them—has the right dates and the right profession. And we can compare the signature on the 1763 instrument (above) with Nearns signature on his marriage certiﬁcate:
The writing of the surname, in particular, is so distinctive that I think, taken along with the other evidence, it is probably the same man.
In 1897 Mabel Johnston joined the Dolmetsch entourage as workshop assistant. It is possible that by this time Nearn had left and Mabel was his replacement: in due course (1903) she was to become the third Mrs Dolmetsch.
Of the later career of William Nearn we know little. In the 1911 census return, his profession is given as cabinet maker’, but the industry in which he worked is shown as garden furniture. Did he miss the pioneering days in Arnolds workshop? Or did they part on bad terms? Was there any contact with the Dolmetsch family when they returned to England in 1918, following periods in the USA and France? It would be nice to think that an old acquaintance was renewed, but there is no evidence of this. William Nearn died in 1932 in Battersea.
Many thanks to Dr Brian Blood for correcting errors in the ﬁrst draft of this article, and for suggesting areas for further research; and to Christopher Nobbs for information about Dolmetschs restorations in the 1890s
1. Dolmetsch and his Instruments, brochure issued by Arnold Dolmetsch Ltd, Haslemere, 1929, p. 3.
2. See my article Arnold Dolmetschs Clavichord Making in the Years Before 1914 in De Clavicordio VIII, Magnano, Italy, 2008, pp. 27–43; also available online at www.peter-bavington.co.uk/Bavington-Dolmetsch.pdf. See also Jenny Nex and Lance Whitehead, The six early clavichords of Arnold Dolmetsch: their construction and inspiration, Galpin Society Journal LIII, April 2000, pp. 274–300.
3. The Green harpsichord, now in the Horniman Museum reserve collection, No. M72-1983.
4. These were: 1. a spinet by Joseph Baudin (now in private ownership); 2. the so-called Ham House Ruckers, now known to be an early eighteenth-century English instrument, then in the ownership of Lord Dysart; and 3. a double-manual harpsichord by Jacob Kirkman, which was used in Dolmetsch concerts and in 1903 became the property of Dolmetschs second wife Élodie upon their divorce; its subsequent history is not known. The date is reported as 1738, but that is surprisingly early for a harpsichord signed by Kirkman. See Margaret Campbell, Dolmetsch: the man and his work, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1975, p. 92, n. 13. On Dolmetschs restoration of the Ham House Ruckers, see Christopher Nobbs, Counterfeiter and Innovator: the Maker of the Ham House Harpsichord in Christopher Rowell (ed.), Ham House: 400 Years of Collecting and Patronage, Yale University Press, 2013.
5. The photograph was taken through a hole which had been cut in the bottom during a previous restoration.
6. No. 6 (Edinburgh University collection No. 4323) will be investigated as soon as possible when the collection re-opens after the present coronavirus restrictions. W. Nearns name also appears inside the Baudin spinet (I thank Christopher Nobbs for this information).
7. Mabel Dolmetsch, Personal Recollections of Arnold Dolmetsch, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957.
8. Margaret Campbell, op. cit. (see note 4), p. 108, n. 19.
9. Their birthplace is given in the 1891 census return.
10. The previous occupant of No. 27 was William Ford, possibly a relative of Evas. Interestingly, an entry in Kellys London Post Ofﬁce Directory (Commercial section) for 1891 shows Nearn running a chandlers shop at 27 Eccleston Place. Perhaps this provided a supplementary income for the family (I thank Brian Blood for bringing this to my attention). The street has been redeveloped and the buildings have twice been renumbered; no trace of the Nearn familys house remains today.
11. The section of Selkirk Road containing No. 148 is now (since 1928) part of Khama Road.