I was given the opportunity to tell the story of my work with the Erard Grand Piano Paper Washers on the world stage, virtually, at the annual conference of the Association of Historical and Fine Art Photographers (AHFAP) in November 2021. The presentation of my paper can be viewed here: AHFAP Conference 2021
Videos of the conference in full can be found here: AHFAP
The story of the Erard newspaper washers was given a national (and international) readership on 11th April 2021 when Steve Bird, senior journalist from the Telegraph, wrote the following piece in the same newspaper that the washers had been cut from 160 years ago:
Unfortunately my story was squeezed of visual content due to the sad passing and tributes to the Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. So, no photos of me!
The full text is as follows: Ever since the Telegraph first rolled off the printing presses in the summer of 1855, its well thumbed pages have been recycled in numerous ways. From wrapping up fish and chips, cleaning windows or even lining cat litter trays, this broadsheet newspaper has, on occasions, proven invaluable once its loyal readers have read the news.
But, a recent restoration of an 1800’s piano has revealed a remarkable use for old newspapers, as well as offering a fascinating insight into the trials and tribulations of people from a bygone era.
In 2019, Dave Green, a professional photographer specialising in cultural heritage, received an email from Ronald G Franklin, a wealthy Texan lawyer and keen pianist, who had bought a valuable Erard grand piano from Italy which was being restored in the UK.
Tucked under each key were found piano balance washers. Rather than being made from specially manufactured paper meant to cushion each keystroke, they had been cut carefully from an unidentified newspaper.
Analysis of the tiny rings of newsprint offered tantalising glimpses into life in London. There were fragments of stories of “ruffianly looking burglars”, mention of “gold earrings” and “prison”, a “dog … prosecution” and even an advert for a steam engine.
One washer coincidentally referred to Carl Czerny, the Austrian composer who died in 1857 and was a student of Beethoven, who had once owned an Erard piano.
The pianos were made by Sebastien Erard, a French manufacturer who had transferred his business to London in 1789 to escape the French revolution.
Mr Franklin commissioned Mr Green to solve the mystery behind the newspaper clippings, as well as create an artwork celebrating the stories behind each washer.
Mr Green, 58, from Bideford, North Devon, began scouring online newspaper libraries to try to find the original source of the washers.
The first breakthrough was the “ruffians” case- Thomas Ryan and John Cummings – who were found in Tower Street “with house breaking implements”. The court hearing was reported in the Morning Advertiser on February 7, 1861.
Other names, quotes or advertisements on the washers also tallied with various newspapers archives.
But, the discs never exactly aligned with the print versions. More importantly, the stories on the reverse of the pages used for the washers did not match what was on the other side of the archived pages.
“I hadn’t found one exact match to the newsprint on a single washer,” he said.
“I was curious to know why. Was it because the stories came from newspapers not in the British Library? I became obsessed with finding the single newspaper that must have been lying around the workshop when the piano was made.”
Four months later, Mr Green found out that digital copies of the Telegraph on the British Newspaper Archive only began from 1869 – eight years after the key “ruffian” court case he had traced to 1861.
He made a trip to the capital to view earlier prints of the newspaper.
“I hit the jackpot at the British Library,” he said. “I studied microfilm of the paper from February the 7th, 8th and 9th, 1861. Suddenly it dawned on me – all the washers came from two pages of The Daily Telegraph February 7th edition.
“It was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe they were all there from just those pages.”
Mr Green is now convinced that his discovery means the final finishing touches for the piano can be dated specifically to the publication of the paper.
He believes the technician ran out of the specialist paper and decided to use a copy of the Telegraph to make the balance washers.
Now, his research, those pages of the Telegraph with the highlighted discs that made those washers as well as the personal stories behind each one feature pride of place in Mr Franklin’s music room.
“I hit the jackpot in London today at the British library!” was how I started an email to my client on my train journey home from a research trip to London on 12th November 2019.
“After spending some time researching through the microfilm I have found, at last, the actual newspaper that all of your washers came from! Every single one of them comes from the Daily Telegraph dated 7th February 1861 pages 7 and 8. All I could do today was to download PDFs of the microfilm copies, so I don’t think they’re as good even as the British newspaper archive website (where they are missing) – although the librarians were adamant that the quality was as good!”
“I had requested the physical copies of the newspaper, hoping that it might deliver our goal, however, even though by email I was assured that the actual newspaper would be available it did not materialise and I was told that their policy is to only allow research of the original newspapers when another source, like microfilm isn’t available. I’m confident now, as I have identified literally one page – front and back – that I will be able to convince The British library to allow me make a high resolution copy with the camera, even if that means making many photographs of the newspaper page and stitching them together.”
“….everything comes from essentially one page, I shall look again at making something creative because I never believed that I would simply be dealing with a single page, numbered 7 and 8 of a newspaper. This will open up many more possibilities of interpreting the work….”
A few days later I made a mock-up of the newspaper washers in situ using an enhanced, PDF from the microfilm as a base. It was suggested that the final product could actually be laying the washers we have on top of a fine print of the newspaper.
However, I felt that to fix them on top of the actual newspaper, or copy of, would require some physical attachment, like glue, and that would make their positioning very permanent, like the three that are already stuck down and prevent one from seeing the reverse. I had considered some kind of panel so that both page 7 and eight could be seen through turning the panel over but it was seeming too complicated to hang on the wall. In theory, if only one page was necessary to be seen then the actual washers could be fixed down and perhaps held under some kind of acrylic to seal the whole thing in and enable viewing.
But another problem with using the actual washers is that it would dictate that the newspaper is made to its actual size. This would obviously be fine to read at arm’s-length, in an easy chair; but if it’s hung on the wall and viewed from any distance then it needs to be printed a lot bigger because the text, the story that gives the washers context, it’s so important it needs to be read.
Another problem of course with having the actual washers on top of the newspaper is that the Czerny washer is page 8 where as most of the good stories are page 7.
I came to my senses by 19th November, put on my museum hat and emailed:
“I think the safest place for your washers, to be quite honest from a heritage/archival point of view, would be to keep them in the dark. They have been held flat, under pressure, in the dark for 160 years; I believe that if they are left out for any length of time in daylight they will fade, just like all newspapers and books fade in time when exposed to light.”
“I started to move your washers from the old 35mm slide display pages to some new ones which are designed for antique coins but they have little flaps over the pockets which prevents the washers from moving or falling out. I think that if you have some artwork on the wall which includes photographs of the washers and the newspaper pages that they come from with the stories to give the whole thing context then you can refer people who are interested to the museum box on your shelf which holds all of the actual washers and the small stuck down display card of washers and other bits and pieces found by the restorer. The museum box file could also include additional research of the washers and a copy of the pianos restoration blog.”
In the meantime I started the process of obtaining high quality images of the Daily Telegraph, dated 7th February 1861 pages 7 and 8. The British Library’s service was very good as I received the files by transfer link in an email on 5th December 2019. The Tiff files were encouragingly large at 450mb each. The mock-up below was made using the new files.
I had been concerned about copyright issues that might come out of using the 1861 newspaper pages in new Artwork. However, I had a reassuring email from the British Library saying:
“If you found and downloaded the image from British Newspaper Archive, you are free to use the copy, the fees have been waived. Please credit the Library as the original source.”
On the 17th December 2019 my client emailed:
“……… beautiful empty landscape space in my music room. It is about 46 x 83 inches. Could we enlarge the double photo to cover this spot like wallpaper? What do you think?”
We talked up some ideas about making a spread of the newspaper pages and printing large like wallpaper onto the wall. My only reservation was that:
“it is only wallpaper and you will not get photographic print quality from it. Having said that, it might perhaps be more in keeping with the quality of a newspaper which would be quite appropriate.”
“This would print, high quality, as big of 6 foot wide. That’s probably way too big unless you live in an aircraft hanger, but at least we don’t need to worry now about quality of text for reading it easily. The image of the newspaper is just as I received it, I haven’t altered the colour or contrast here and I can only assume that it is a more or less accurate reproduction of how it looks right now. Your washers have yellowed with age and are grubbier through use but I want to work on my reproductions to make them less yellow and less magenta in the highlights.”
“…. I’m very much leaning towards some large reproductions of your washers which show off their translucency, textural and fibrous quality of the old newspaper medium. Alongside these standalone images of the key washers would be this double page printed at least full ‘broadsheet’ size approximately 30“ x 24“ – twice the size would make it easier to read if it’s hung on a wall.”
“An alternative to this that I have been thinking about would be to literally make the 1861 newspaper page seem like it is just that – a single sheet of paper approximately 15” x 24” with page 7 and your washers printed on one side with page 8 plus washers printed on the reverse. There could be many duplicate copies of this, and it could be printed quite low-grade so it was more like a newspaper, and then people looking at the framed artwork could literally sit in the chair and read a newspaper page which looked and felt like one. It could even be printed to fit the size of an American broadsheet Sunday paper that you might subscribe to?”
Still searching for the source of the newspaper washers; I quickly realised that the Guardian, although founded in 1821, the ‘Manchester Guardian’ didn’t become a national paper, based in London, until 1959. The Times have their own archive which I subscribed to but couldn’t find any of the stories from February 1861. I had once again drawn a blank. The Daily Telegraph was included on the British Newspaper Archive website however, there was a strange anomaly around the dates that I was looking for. Although founded in 1855, a few years were missing from the BNA website, their digitised copies started from 1869. I wasn’t sure if there was simply an omission of digitising and OCR processing these for the website or whether those physical newspapers were missing from the British library. So, I contacted the British library, found that those newspapers did indeed exist and arranged to view them when I was next down in London which was to be in a couple of weeks’ time.
In the meantime, I worked up some ideas that I’d had towards final artwork and sent them off to my client via email and WeTransfer on 17th October 2019:
“I’m including my thoughts around these ideas for you to consider but I think it would be good now to chat through some of these possibilities over the phone. This is not an exhaustive list and something more defined or even totally different might come out of a discussion.”
I was working on the grouping of the newspaper washers that were most interesting in terms of their story content. I was battling with the idea of arranging eight washers – thinking of an octave – but seven go together for more pleasingly within some kind of frame.
These are all of the visually interesting washers arranged so that the negative white space is kept to a minimum. I intended to crop the washers around the edge to imply that there are many more beyond the edge of the frame, as there are, if all of the plain ones are included. I’m trying to create the arrangement so that the different shades and tones of the individual washers aren’t too similar side by side and that the overall image is well-balanced.
Layering of the washers so that the ones with the most interesting stories to tell are laid on top and the others, sometimes the reverse of the top ones, lie underneath slightly out of focus.
All of these ideas are mock-ups of the potential artwork rather than them being the finished item. This particular idea may look quite different if it is taken to artwork because at the moment it is clear to see the white edge of the washers on the top. This was very important when I originally photographed the washers Individually, in fine detail, because their fine edges had wonderful textual detail where the paper fibres were starting to displace, and I wanted to make the most of this information in the images – harsh crop of their edges would devoid them of life. if this idea is taken to artwork, I would need to re-photograph them all in a single image using glass sheets to separate the layers of washers and so giving a similar effect.
Pairing the front and backs of the most interesting washers. I’ve included four examples in this one image and my idea is that there would be several pairs of washers framed.
We might like to discuss mounting, framing, displaying etc over the phone as there are many options here.
Ideas 5 & 6
Grouping of washers whose stories would be filed under the same category – in this case ‘crime stories’. Image 006 is the washers on their own grouped as an equilateral triangle but in 005 my intention was to make the image look as if one is noticing, and focusing on, the crime stories as all three washers are slightly raised and in sharp focus, whereas the other parts of washers in the image are slightly out of focus and not quite as bright.
I have been really hoping I could match up a washer with the actual text from the newspaper it came from and then crop a portion of the real paper as a background to the washer itself. I’ve included this idea as it was very much one that I wanted to pursue but I feel that it is just not going to happen! This example (see thumbnail image) is the absolute closest match that I found of a washer to the newspaper it was printed in. It would be hard to believe that this washer wasn’t cut from the Morning Chronicle of Thursday, the 7th of February 1861, the font is the same, if you look at my example image 007 (see previous blog for more) you can see that the text starts to line-up exactly and it finishes lining up almost exactly in the line ‘Mr Wontner in the course of’, which suggests that the column width was the same the font size in relationship to the line height is the same; but it still doesn’t match! I even attempted to add the text myself (see screenshot above) so that I could fine-tune all of those sizes but it doesn’t follow any of today’s standards and so I had to finish that idea somewhat defeated!
Simply a number of large images of single washers. It feels like going backwards to move forward but these are still strong images in their own right and the single washers now have far more weight with the complete stories that can be attached to them (not in a literal artwork sense!).
I think that whatever final artwork is decided upon it would also be worthwhile to have a small archival box file, which I am going to order, to safely store the washers. They will be held in sleeves that are designed for archival coin storage, as they are a similar size and value. I’m thinking that a set of images of the single washers could also be added to this file, approximately 10 in.². This would give you a handy reference and would be a lovely object on its own. A copy of all of the newspaper stories could also be added to the file.”
It seemed right at this point to open the dialogue up to include FaceTime video conversations, to progress the commission through live meetings. Some of those discussions follow my clients words in italics:
“Concerning the art work, I am thinking you should perhaps focus on several ideas. Although you said it wasn’t really working, I think you MUST incorporate the “background” newspaper into your design. To me, the newspaper IS the story and without it as a background, there is no context for the washer. The background newspaper should show the name of the publication along with the date of course. I don’t think it really matters if that requires some cropping or whatever. I visualize something similar to No. 7 in your ideas with perhaps a larger (landscape) newspaper in the background with the “washer” exhibited similar to what you have now. Again, I don’t think it matters that much that the washer is not an exact match. Just try to get close.”
“I think a second track would be how to present one of more of the washers photographically and I really like much of what you sent. My view generally is “less is more,” so that maybe even one washer with the right background and enlarged to the right size would suffice. I really like the “Czerny” washer for obvious reasons (Carl Czerny as in Beethoven’s student.)”
It was clear that my client was very keen on this particular washer because an earlier 1803 piano model had been Beethoven’s choice for 8 years. I had found the advertisement, relating to the text on the washer, in The City Press of 9th February 1861. It was for the ‘279th Edition of Hamilton’s Modern Instructions for Pianoforte enlarged and fingered by Czerny’. But it had little of the graphic quality present in the actual elusive newspaper source.
We talked around different print media, Giclee, aluminium, canvas, glass and of shape and size of finished artwork. I arranged the printing of a washer on the German fine-art Paper, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, so that my client would get an idea of the print quality achievable.
“I’d like to see the “final version” of FOUR washers with newspaper backing. Do we have 4? How about the Czerny? I can see framing and hanging four of them in my studio, OR just one larger poster. Haven’t decided yet.
I personally don’t find the glass appealing but I’ve never seen a sample. BUT how about multiple washers (6?) “under” glass in approximately 8 inch squares? Might be very cool.
Appreciate your continuing thoughts.”
I WeTransfered draught versions of the ‘Czerny’ washer and three others whose stories had been paired up with newspaper articles that had been found. Although at this stage only the ‘Southern trade’ washer in the Morning Advertiser of the 7th of February 1861 is close to finished. I made it clear that these were just indications of what might be but that I thought it best to leave them as they are until I got back to the British library, in a couple of weeks’ time and saw the Telegraph newspapers from Feb 1861.
“The two police stories, ‘John Cummings’ and ‘the dog’ that I have paired up with the morning Chronicle of February 7, 1861 might work as they are, but the washers certainly don’t match like The washer does for southern trade. I have indicated where the washer would be within the articles (although it is not the actual washer that I am using) so that the viewer of the piece would be able to read the article and understand the relationship to the washer.
The washer about ‘the dog that never touched him, it did not go within nine or 10 yards of him’, is an almost match, in terms that the beginning of it and the end of it match up but there is a mismatch in the centre. So here I conclude that it may well be from this newspaper but might be from a different edition or the mismatch might be due to production shaking, rattling, of the presses. Therefore, we could decide to just have this washer with the morning chronicle of the 7th of February and put the ‘John Cummings’ washer with another article of the same story from a different newspaper, if the actual one doesn’t turn up in the Telegraph.”
Copyright was potentially going to be an issue, if the artwork was created through a combination of the washers and the newspaper, so I contacted ‘Images Online’ at the British Library explaining what I was doing and how I wanted to use the material. I got a very quick and thankfully positive response back:
“If you found and downloaded the image from British Newspaper Archive, you are free to use the copy, the fees have been waived. Please credit the Library as the original source.”
I was not entirely happy with all the close-up photographs of washers I had made in the studio. Don’t get me wrong they looked great, but enlarged to 100% I was noticing some issues with focus and clarity that I believed I could make better. I’m always happy to reshoot something, rather than feeling I could have done better, so another shoot was organised, this time using a close-up ring (instead of a macro-lens) and carefully focusing everything manually. I was really pleased with the results and sent one high quality picture via WeTransfer to my client so that he would be able to see it blown up to 100% on his computer screen and notice the wonderful fibres of the paper coming through in the image. This could be printed to 3 ft.² as a fine quality print.
My closing sentences from late October were as follows:
“I’m next in London on Tuesday, the 12th of November so I shall put everything on hold now until that date. Once I have looked at the Telegraph newspapers, I really will be able to conclude that all of the newspapers still existing will have been thoroughly searched.”
It’s interesting that through all my research I haven’t found one exact match to the newsprint on a washer. I’m curious to know why this is whether it’s because of those stories have come from newspapers that were never kept in the British library and have disappeared from history. Or whether there were many print runs and they were all slightly different.
It seems that the paper used for newspapers back in 1861 was woodpulp but, as would be evident in some of the close-up images I have created, there are certainly bits of coloured cloth, be it cotton or linen, within the paper pulp. Nick Wyatt, from the science museum was convinced that paper pulp used in newspaper production back then would have been recycled in a very messy way using old newspapers woodpulp and bits of various other things including rag.
From an email to my client dated Oct 15th 2019
From early October 2019 I became increasingly obsessed with finding the source of the newspaper washers. I was starting to find the stories from The British Newspaper Archive website, but the big puzzle for me was that some of the wording was different to the washers and when I found a close match where all the words matched there was always a slight mismatch of the print. But more than this, the online search enabled me to see all the pages of any specific newspaper and so I could surmise what the reverse of a washer should have on it, or what it should not. However, the closest, imperfect match for a single washer was from the Morning Chronicle of Thursday, 7th of February 1861 shown to the left with the washer printed to scale on top.
I took a trip to London in search for some answers. First stop was the British Library where I was hoping to find a greater range of archive newspapers than they had in their website archive. And this was the first question, that I asked at the Newspapers reception desk. Unfortunately, the answer given did not help me, I was told that most of their physical newspapers were held off site and anyway most had been digitalised and were on the British newspaper archive which I already had access to. I was pointed to a list of all of the newspapers that were in print during the 1860’s and I was welcome to search through the microfilm of those that had not yet been digitised. I set about this task but after an hour of finding no references I put that on hold. Another question I had was regarding the printing process back in the 1860s, was it possible that the individual letters set in the press could move (through vibrations etc) to a detectable degree in that the printed text on the washer would not match that from the archive copy of a newspaper? And what was newspaper pulp made from? A librarian showed me a section of books that related to the history of the printing press and with reference to newspaper printing in the second half of the 19th century, picking a couple of them out for my research. These were scanned through picking out specific chapters relating to my question and copying those pages using Microsoft Office Lens, that I had installed on my phone. This would enable me to read it through again later, just in case there was anything that I had missed. Again, I had no answers to my questions.
I headed across town to Exhibition Road, choosing to walk rather than taking a bus or tube because there was a long train journey still to be taken at the end of the day. As I approached Kensington, heading towards the V&A I was caught in a torrential cloudburst and hurriedly ran into The Science Museum, thinking that they might have some answers about printing presses. I was a little taken back by the enthusiasm to help that I received from a lady at the enquires desk. There was no exhibition of printing presses and no display of the printing process, but her mission was to find an answer for me and phoned up the head librarian at the dedicated Science Museum library. I was summoned straight away to go over to the library that was just around the block but would take around 10 minutes to walk. The rain eased and I set off only to find the heavens open once more. I arrived at the library soaking wet but welcomed in as if I were a VIP. The Librarian, Nick Wyatt, was able to identify the washers as ‘balance washers’ for pianos and that they can be bought commercially now, referring to a website with similar washers as the ‘plain’ paper washers from the Erard Grand. But he couldn’t find out whether they were commercially made or handmade in the 1860s. Nick Wyatt suggested that perhaps the Erard factory simply ran out of balance washers on the day that the keys were to be levelled and so rather than wait for another delivery made their own from whatever paper card and board they had lying about. It could also be that very thin washers were needed for fine balancing and so again they were made in the factory. Doing a Google search for newspaper piano balance washers we came across the following blog: http://cazzbo.blogspot.com/2016/09/punchings.html This was fascinating because it described with illustrations another example of an old piano with balance washers cut from newspapers.
It seems like I had spent a lot of research time travelling many corridors but finding that they all lead to dead ends. Every door that was open shut down as I approached it. Surely when one door closes another one opens for you? Then I had a lightbulb moment which I relayed to my client on October 18th 2019:
My research skills maybe aren’t so great as it just dawned on me that the British newspaper archive doesn’t include The Times, The Telegraph or The Guardian. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if an exact match of the paper washers’ text can be found in one of these newspapers. At least I’ve pinned down the day, or couple of days that the stories would have been printed. The plot thickens…