(7 August 1937–4 December 2022)

[picture of John Rawson]

John Rawson in his workshop at Clerkenwell, c. 1980


John Rawson was one of a group of English harpsichord makers working in the 1970s and 80s, just at the time when there was a rise in enthusiasm for performances of early music on ‘authentic’ instruments. The book Modern Harpsichord Makers by John Paul (published by Gollancz in 1981) contains portraits of some of these makers, and includes a chapter devoted to John.

Even in childhood he showed a love of making things. His first material was cardboard and his first tool was a pair of scissors: with these resources, he made toy planes and ships. Later he acquired woodworking tools, and made a floor-standing loom on which he wove scarves, table mats and hot-water bottle covers for the family. And while still at school, encouraged by Thomas Goff, he made his first two clavichords.

He did not immediately take up musical instrument making, however; instead, he planned a career in architecture, and after training at Trinity College, Cambridge, worked in that field for ten years. The skill he acquired in technical drawing at this time was to come in useful later. He became increasingly dissatisfied with working in an architect’s office and having to negotiate contracts and planning permissions; eventually, in an abrupt change of course, he left his architectural job and enrolled in 1974 in the newly established harpsichord-making course at the London College of Furniture. David Law was the course leader there, with visiting tuition from Mark Stevenson and Chris Nobbs. While at the college, John made an Italian harpsichord (after Zenti), a French double (after Taskin), a Flemish virginal (after Ruckers) and finally a fortepiano (after Walter). I think he was the only student ever to complete four instruments in three years at the college: a tribute to his organisational skills as well as to his woodwork.

On leaving, he opened his workshop in Clerkenwell, from where over the next ten years sixty-four keyboard instruments were to emerge. In the early years, the bulk of his output consisted of small instruments, spinets, virginals and clavichords, based on models in Dr Rodger Mirrey’s collection and in the Victoria and Albert Museum: the small clavichords after the Mirrey triple-fretted instrument (now at Edinburgh University, No. 4486) were particularly successful. He was attracted by unusual instruments, and made two copies of the ‘folding harpsichord’ after Jean Marius. He also designed and made a child’s harpsichord with narrow keys for his daughter Josephine.

John’s workshop was one of about thirty craft units that had been established in a former school-supply depot, still belonging to the Inner London Education Authority but now surplus to their requirements. At first it was shared with Miles Hellon. When Miles moved into a room next door, John was able to undertake larger instruments, for which he employed a series of workshop assistants: I had the privilege of being the last of these when I joined him in 1985.

Working at Clerkenwell with John was to be a happy time for me. We had benches opposite each other, and in the space between, each new instrument would gradually take shape. As I looked across the room, I could see John standing in front of his impressive case of woodworking tools, regularly closed and locked each night. There was a canteen on the premises, and at lunchtimes there was plenty of company and a mutual exchange of information (and gossip!) with craftspeople from the neighbouring workshops.

I was able to help in John’s soundboard-testing experiments. These had begun in 1982 when he was dissatisfied with the sound of a double-manual harpsichord he had made after the V. & A. Hitchcock. One of the problems that the harpsichord maker faces is that he or she never knows for sure how an instrument will turn out until it is finished, strung and voiced. If you then feel you need to make changes, there is so much work to be undone; it is indeed a daunting prospect. Courageously, John set about dismantling his Hitchcock double and modifying the soundboard, making a private vow that never again would an unsatisfactory instrument come to completion in his workshop.

There was very little in the literature about the acoustics of harpsichord soundboards, so he devised his own method of investigation, which he later described in an article in the Galpin Society Journal (No. 43, March 1990). The soundboard under test was clamped in place without glue; a light powder (Christmas glitter) was scattered over it, and it was made to vibrate at known frequencies using a signal generator and vibration probe that John obtained from a school-laboratory supplier. At certain frequencies the soundboard would resonate strongly; these corresponded to modes of vibration, which would be revealed by patterns that appeared in the glitter (the so-called Chladni patterns). John found that he could shift the frequencies of these modes, and strengthen or reduce them as desired, by careful thinning of the underside of the board. The aim was to achieve an even response across the whole compass of the instrument.

I remember thinking at the time that these experiments revealed the reason – or one reason – for the extraordinary success of Ruckers-type harpsichord soundboards with cut-off bars. At low frequencies the whole soundboard moved vigorously, including the part to the left of the cut-off bar – it was as if it did not exist. But at higher frequencies, the area in vibration was limited to the part to the right of the cut-off bar. So it seemed the soundboard could act as a big vibrating plate for the lower frequencies, but as a small plate for the higher ones: a neat trick, to seem both large and small at the same time.

I also remember witnessing the dramatic effect of mode 1, where (at a very low frequency) the whole board moved violently up and down as a single unit, casting off all the glitter: an alarming sight, which led one to think the harpsichord would self-destruct, or take off and fly out of the workshop window into Clerkenwell Close. Harpsichord makers need to ensure that this mode only occurs at a frequency well below that of the lowest note of the instrument.

I learnt an enormous amount from John, particularly about the nature of craftsmanship, and the differences between precision engineering, where each part is made to precise dimensions so that they all fit together, and handcraft manufacture, where each successive part is adjusted to fit what has already been made. He was generous too, allowing me to keep certain materials and pieces of equipment when, in due course, his workshop was closed down. He was not, however, an easy man to get close to. The intense clarity of his vision, and the intensity of his focus on the work, led occasionally to a certain directness of expression. When I had a fancy to construct an instrument depicted in a medieval fresco, he left a note for me reading ‘Do not start a clavicytherium until you have cleared the deposit cheque’. It was good advice; needless to say I didn’t heed it.

In 1987 commercial pressures forced John to close the Clerkenwell workshop: a great pity, since (as he reflected afterwards) the quality of his instruments had been steadily improving, and the efficiency of making them had increased. Thereafter he worked in a variety of fields: making prototype office furniture and shop-fittings; as technical editor on an architectural journal; making and repairing wooden boats. We kept in touch sporadically, and occasionally I was able to help with a piece of information, or an unusual construction project. After retirement, he began on something quite new: ceramics. He wrote to me that it was much more difficult to make pots than harpsichords.

John died of cancer on 4 December 2022 after a year’s illness. In his last years, he produced an autobiographical memoir; the following words taken from it sum up his life:

‘I like to make things that do something. And, for me, the best thing to make is a musical instrument, because when it is finished it comes alive, as it were. And if it is a good instrument, it will give back to me more than I give to it.’


This obituary was written for the British Harpsichord Society’s online Magazine
Sounding Board but for some reason never appeared there