The harp in early nineteenth-century Britain : innovation, business, and making in Jacob Erat’s manufactory

Baldwin, Mike (2017) The harp in early nineteenth-century Britain : innovation, business, and making in Jacob Erat’s manufactory. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This thesis examines the early nineteenth-century, London-made harp, with particular regard to its mechanical and decorative development, and to the business practices of Jacob Erat (1758-1821), a prominent maker, and his immediate successors. The key protagonists are identified and situated in relation to one another, revealing a hitherto hidden sector of London industry. Forensic analysis of financial accounts (constituting a pioneering big-data study of an instrument) reveals new information about the harp, demonstrating how statistical methods can enrich organology, design history, and cultural history.

A rise in popularity of the harp is traced through quantitative assessment of performance and the publication of printed music. The form and decoration of the harp are considered in relation to architecture, furniture, and pictorial representation of costume, thereby identifying it as the most costly, ornate, and fashionable instrument of the era. A product of industrial revolution, the mechanised harp enjoyed a period of swift development in London, during which predominantly foreign innovators and makers produced a distinctly English instrument, in contradistinction to the French one, which blossomed a generation earlier. Twenty-three British patents (1794-1845) show that competition was intense and that makers vied for superiority.

The Erats’ manufactories at 100 Wardour Street (1798-c1821) and 23 Berners Street (1820-1858) are reconstructed from documentary evidence. Changing patterns of workshop use and organisation are revealed by comparison of three inventories (1821, 1822, and 1824). The Erat family is positioned in terms of social class, by analysis of household accounts and wills, showing declining wealth as the business passed between generations. Analysis of company accounts offers insights into manufacture and consumption of the harp: the full range of Erat’s products are described, and customers (yielding income) and suppliers (incurring expenditure) are identified. The wages, training, and working conditions of the workforce illuminate the complex organisation of a craft-based company in the midst of industrialisation; Manufacturing techniques, specialised and those common to other trades, are discussed. The workshop diary (1819-21) of Robert Willis (1800-1875), written while an interloper in Erat’s manufactory, serves to illuminate the intersection of innovative design, prototyping alongside manufacture, and the web of business relationships between proprietor and workforce, and with customers and competitors.

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