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Thomas Tomkison  in London  square piano  ca.1822


5 and half octaves FF-c''''

English double action - one pedal for dampers lift

Square piano   Tafelklavier   Piano carré 

You may have looked up Thomas Tomkison in the reference books, and been disappointed to find not much more than that he operated from 55/77 Dean Street Soho between 1799 and 1851. (Even in his lifetime people couldn't spell his name correctly; and the death certificate when he died on 10 November 1853 was made out in the name of Tomkinson). We now have a lot of new light on his background, his family, and what his contemporaries thought about him, which we are looking to write up in accessible form. Frustratingly little has emerged on his apprenticeship, which we know started in 1778,  or on how he practised his trade before he set up shop in Dean Street (when he would have been a man of 35). Recent research shows, however, that in late 1798/early 1799 Tomkison emerged as successor to the bankrupt piano-making business of James Henry Houston, and that there are striking similarities between the first products of Tomkison’s workshop and surviving instruments of Houston.  Within a few years of operation, Tomkison succeeded in making himself s a rival respected by Broadwood and Clementi for the sheer quality of his pianos. He made instruments not only for the Prince Regent, later George IV, but for at least two other royal courts in Europe, knew all the leading makers and pianists in London, was on friendly terms with the Erard and Pleyel dynasties in Paris, and enjoyed a reputation as a connoisseur of pictures as well as music. Though we do not know of any technical improvements to the mechanism of the piano that he himself innovated, we can document his inventive use of distinctive and often striking elements, such as half size dustboards, pioneering the use of four, not six, leg square pianos (and three, not four on grands), making a remarkable 6.5 octave square as early as c.1824 and exploiting the string plate as a striking decorative feature. As witness to his commercial acumen as well as their structural stability, his pianos were widely exported to India, the Americas and Australia.  Contemporary sources regularly class him with the leading English builders Broadwood, Clementi and Stodart.

Tomkison thus deserves more attention than he has received as a manufacturer of significant merit and interest. But, furthermore, an online study of his work can, we hope, allow insight into just how much information can be gleaned via the internet and email, extraordinary tools  that were denied to previous generations of researchers. Tomkison is an ideal study for this purpose, since he headed, without partners, a continuous business manufacturing a large number of pianos over fifty years which witnessed remarkable change in the construction of the piano – throughout that period using a variety of design styles that allow us to chart his development, and a coherent and largely continuous set of serial numbers. Currently, the register records serial number ranges of 34 – 11,225 (squares), 22 – 2,405 (grands) and 214 – 1,390 (cabinets)


Text by David Hackett.

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