Biography of an Organized Piano
by Jenna Simpson with John Watson
Provenance relates to the life history of a piece – who’s owned it, where it’s been, what it’s seen in its lifetime.
Knowing where and how an object was used allows us to appreciate it not only for its own aesthetic and historical value; it helps us to put the piece into a broader context and further our understanding of the people who used it.
I’m Jenna Simpson, and I’ve been invited to put on my detective hat and try to trace the history of the Tucker organized piano after working this summer with John Watson. This page explores the many tantalizing details and a few remaining mysteries of its provenance.
Part 1: Where have you been all your life?
Colonial Williamsburg acquired this instrument from the proprietors of an antiques and interior design firm who said they had owned the piece since the 1950s. They had acquired it from a private owner during an interior design job. It had been in their shops and warehouses for the past half century. The previous — and unidentified — owner said the instrument had come from Castle Hill, an 18th-century plantation house in Albemarle County, Va., just east of Charlottesville near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The instrument itself offered a few clues to its origins.
A nameplate identified its seller as Longman, Clementi, and Co. of London, and another inscription gave its date, 1799. Another handwritten inscription from Jan. 1, 1805, indicated that it had been repaired by C. Veltenair. A handwritten note in chalk from the 1940s directed that it be set aside for sale to Colonial Williamsburg. But there was nothing on the instrument itself to definitively tie it to a particular home or owner.
As John explained in the first post on this blog, a researcher found a receipt indicating that in the summer of 1799, Benjamin Bucktrout set up an “organized harpsichord” for St. George Tucker in Williamsburg. We hypothesized that the piece now in our collection, with its unusual form, 1799 date and Virginia history, must be the Tucker instrument.
A further record showed that an organized harpsichord was present at Shirley Plantation in 1806.
Given how unusual this instrument was even in its own time, it is highly improbable that two such pieces were present in such close proximity. So we think it was very likely the same object.
But if that’s the case, how, when and why did it make this move? And what about that story that it came from Castle Hill? Has it been anywhere else? Is there any definitive proof of any of this?
Taking the scraps of information we had, we dove into the archives and history books to search for more evidence.
Part 2: We Are Family
I began trying to solve the mystery of the organ’s early years by looking at the families involved: the Tuckers of Williamsburg, the Carters of Shirley and the Walkers of Castle Hill, all of whom appear to have owned the organized upright grand piano.
Did they have relationships which might explain why the instrument might have passed between them? Connections appear strong between the Tuckers and the Carters of Shirley Plantation.
St. George Tucker’s wife, Lelia Skipwith, was the widow of Charles Carter’s son. That means St. George Tucker helped to raise Charles Carter’s grandchildren. Tucker’s direct connection to Shirley was indicated by a letter in which he mentioned plans to visit there in 1803.
As it happens, 1803 is also around the time we think the instrument left the Tucker household.
The organized piano was first ordered for a daughter of the house, Fanny Tucker. After she married and moved away in 1802, St. George Tucker soon ordered a Broadwood grand piano for his stepdaughter Mary, known in the family as Polly. It seems unlikely that the Tuckers kept two large grand pianos in their house at the same time.
So was there a connection that would explain why the organized piano might have gotten from the Carters of Shirley to the Walkers of Castle Hill?
At the turn of the 19th century, Castle Hill was owned by Francis Walker. His older brother, John Walker, who lived in a neighboring plantation in Belvoir, referred to Carter as his good friend, and stayed with Carter at Shirley for some time in 1801. The Carters and Walkers were also connected through the Nelson family of Yorktown.
The children of Thomas Nelson — a signer of the Declaration of Independence — provide the link.
Nelson’s daughter Mary wed Robert Carter, the heir to Shirley; Nelson’s son Hugh married Eliza Kinloch, John Walker’s grandchild and heir to Belvoir. And Thomas Nelson’s niece, Jane Nelson, married Francis Walker and became mistress of Castle Hill!
On top of all of this, the Nelsons were also known to be close friends of St. George Tucker.
There’s growing evidence that the instrument traveled from Williamsburg to Shirley to Castle Hill.
Part 3: Art and Aristocracy
I had significant circumstantial evidence of the organ’s early history but no definitive proof, so I decided to tackle the question from the other end – rather than asking how Tucker got the instrument and passed it along, can we prove that this organ really was at Castle Hill?
Castle Hill passed into the Rives family when Francis Walker’s daughter Judith married William Cabell Rives in 1819. The last Rives descendants at Castle Hill sold the house and disposed of its contents in 1947, so I began my search in the Rives family papers donated to various collections at that time. Visiting archives at the Virginia Historical Society, University of Virginia, and Valentine Richmond History Center, I found there was much to learn about this fascinating family.
Francis Walker, his wife and their son, all died between 1806 and 1808, leaving two little girls, Jane and Judith Walker. The orphaned sisters were raised by their maternal grandmother, leaving their home at Castle Hill to live in Yorktown and then Richmond. When both girls were married, they split their estate, with Judith taking the portion including the house and its furnishings. A tantalizing clue to the early history of the organ can be found in Judith’s autobiography, which she wrote c. 1861. Reflecting back on her earliest memories, when her mother was still alive, Judith wrote:
“A few of the noble chords of Beethoven or Mozart seem to recall that early period of my life, so deeply are they engraven in my memory. The organ which she is said to have touched with exquisite skill, survives her here, and it is more than fancy that brings again her sweet voice in unison with its harmonious tones.”
This suggests, then, that the organ was already at Castle Hill by 1808 (the year in which Judith’s mother died), and is our first definitive evidence that the organ mentioned in a tax record of 1815 was still there in the 1860s.
Of course, by 1861, the instrument may well have been unplayable – its construction would have made it particularly hard to tune. John Watson suspects that it was put into storage, and a fragment from an undated errand list in the family papers (likely from 1833-1849) may support this theory. The scrap includes the words “Enquire about duty on Pianos” and “Enquire about putting the Organ… [missing].” Now, this list was probably written by Judith’s sister Jane, who was living next door at Turkey Hill plantation. However, the families were close, and it’s not unreasonable to think that Jane might have been looking into things on her sister’s behalf.
We know that by the 1840s, the Castle Hill family had a new piano as their regular instrument. This piano would have been used by the daughters of the house in the lessons they were given by their instructor, F.W. Meerbach, who went on to publish a waltz in honor of one of the girls, “Souvenir de Castle Hill.”
Judith Walker Rives lived an interesting life; she went abroad with her husband when he served as U.S. Minister to France, she was a talented artist, and she was a published author, writing books on her experiences at home and abroad. She clearly passed her artistic genes to her descendants. Her son Alfred Landon Rives inherited the house upon her death in 1882, and his daughter, Amelie Rives, became a noted – even scandalous – author and artist in her day.
In 1888, Amelie Rives shocked society with her passionate romantic novel The Quick or the Dead – and she continued writing and publishing novels, poetry, and plays for decades to come. Her personal life was equally notoriou. She married Astor family scion John Chanler, divorced him just a few years later and wed artist – and Russian prince – Pierre Troubetzkoy. For the rest of her life she would be known as the Princess Troubetzkoy. Amelie’s younger sister, Sarah Landon Rives, was also artistic, making her name as an accomplished photographer.
So it is in this artistic – even aristocratic – atmosphere that the instrument apparently spent most of its life. But do we have any firm evidence that the Castle Hill instrument survived into the 20th century, or that it’s the same instrument we have in our collection?
Right Under Our Noses
Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy died in 1945, and it was in the wake of her passing that the house and most of its contents were sold. Accounts of the Sept. 10, 1947, auction at Castle Hill make it clear that there was a 1799 organ present, which they thought had been originally purchased for Francis Walker. In further researching the sale, I was leafing through letters in the Virginia Historical Society, and was shocked to turn to a page from 1947 and with a Colonial Williamsburg letterhead!
It turns out that before the auction took place, Landon Rives (Amelie’s sister) and Roberta Wellford (who also helped dispose of the estate), tried to interest Colonial Williamsburg in purchasing the instrument. When it remained unsold after the auction (possibly specifically held aside with hopes that Colonial Williamsburg would take it – so explaining the old chalk marking on the piano soundboard “Save for Sale to Wmsburg”), Landon wrote a letter with more information about the instrument, hoping to interest the curator. Following up on this lead, I went back to Colonial Williamsburg’s corporate archives and found more of the correspondence between Landon Rives, Roberta Wellford, and the curators of 1947.
These letters finally give us definitive evidence that the Castle Hill instrument was indeed an organized piano – or, as Roberta Wellford put it, an “organ with clavichord (‘piano forte’) inclosed.” Even more intriguing was Landon Rives’ assurance that she had, stored safely in her bank, the original “bill of lading” from when Francis Walker acquired the organ. She also offered information about the instrument that she could not have known from just looking at the organ, including details of its maker, which must have come from that historical document. This bill of lading is now our “holy grail” – unfortunately, we do not know what became of it after 1947. (Readers, can you help us?)
Not knowing the instrument’s local history, Colonial Williamsburg chose not to purchase it at that time, and it went into a private home. Soon after, it was bartered or sold to the Richmond dealers and decorators who would store it for the next half century before finally interesting Colonial Williamsburg in this fascinating piece. By then, hints of the Williamsburg origins had begun to emerge and the instrument’s significance was finally recognized.
All my hours in the archives have revealed lots of wonderful information about the people who owned this instrument and offered both evidence and possibilities relating to its history. Some mysteries have been solve and others remain as intriguing as ever.
It now seems certain that the Colonial Williamsburg organized piano is the Castle Hill instrument. We do not know where at Castle Hill it was kept or how long it was in playable condition, but it appears to have been in the family since at least 1808. Given how rare an organized upright grand piano would have been even in that time, it seems highly improbable that THREE such instruments (at least two of them – the Tucker and Walker instruments – definitively dated to 1799) would have been circulating in Virginia (at Williamsburg, Shirley, and Castle Hill). A working hypothesis is that the organized piano was ordered by Tucker in 1799, passed to the Carters at Shirley Plantation between 1802-1804, and went from Shirley to Castle Hill between 1806-1808. The chronology is possible, and there were many close family and social relationships which would have made such a chain of custody reasonable.
The search for evidence and that elusive bill of lading continue, as the conservation of the organized piano itself progresses and we continue to learn ever more about the history of this extraordinary piece.