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A Tale of Two Harpsichords

200 years apart, artisans embark on a similar journey: create a chinoiserie harpsichord of the highest caliber. Taste of Life looks at what’s new and which traditions are being carried on.

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It was Bach’s favourite instrument. Mozart became a child prodigy playing one. Now I’m in the same room with a beautiful, new harpsichord. Gold leafing adorns its black lacquered panels, tiny picks are ready to plink the strings that levitate over a large panel painted with birds and flowers, paintings worthy of an art gallery. Before it says one word, I feel like I’ve been introduced to someone 250 years old who grew up but never aged, frilly shirt and all. Then it sings its sparkly song and I am transported.

It goes quiet again and I’m back in Craig Tomlinson’s living-room-turned-historical-instrument-museum in West Vancouver. Five types of historical key-board instruments, two of them intricately decorated, are exerting a force on me: my posture improves, my mind goes clear and a beaming attentiveness spreads over me. It’s partly self-awareness from being invited into such an intimate and refined enclave of culture. Is this how it felt to at-tend a Paris salon in the 1770s?

A harpsichord covered in chinoiserie

Chinoiserie designs (French for “Chi-nese-esque”) were born when the first ship returned to France from China in the mid 1600s. With it came the first Oriental scrolls, ceramics, room screens and other Asian items Europeans had ever seen. These artifacts depicted visions so exotic, so beautiful, so completely impossible to European eyes, that the genteel continent went wild for it. But who could produce more? European craftsmen began working overtime to copy the Oriental look and fill orders for chinoiserie anything.

The day I met him and his instruments, Tomlinson showed me photos of a chinoiserie harpsichord built in 1786 that still captures imaginations. Built by master carpenter Pascal Taskin and company in Paris, it now lives in the Victoria Albert Museum in London. “It’s one of the most decorative harpsichords ever,” Tomlinson says, “Nothing compares with it.” Tomlinson owns the only known photographs of its details—he was one of the last people granted access to it before it went behind protective glass. Historians and harpsichord makers who have questions about its measurements and artwork still call Tomlinson 25 years after he took the photos. Binders of his photos of historic harpsichords lay open beside tools in his workshop. Tomlinson can recite many of the old instruments’ measurements from memory.

A chinoiserie harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1786. Photos by Craig Tomlinson

This historic harpsichord is so small that only a child’s fingers can play the keys. Historians believe that a diminutive French duchess may have commissioned it, Louise Honorine de Crozat, Duchesse de Choiseul, or that it might have been created for Queen Marie Antoinette’s eight-year-old daughter, Marie Thérèse.

Was this doll-sized duchess a dreamer of Chinese dreams? Was Marie-Antoinette captivated by the Orient? Yes, it’s safe to assume, about whoever commissioned it.

Most harpsichords, even very ornate ones, Tomlinson says, were left bare on the side nearest a wall, away from the audience. Not this one. In gold bas relief across every surface, golden-skinned Asian people lift babies, feed birds and play ancient Chinese instruments. Scale be-came a plaything for European painters wanting to capture the whimsy and exotic spirit of the Orient: flowers tower above people, giving the scenes a magical quality. Bright colours still speak in excited tones. A closer look reveals great detail.

It bears Taskin’s mark but he wasn’t the only master responsible for its success. Taskin relied on sub-contractors to complete everything his woodworkers could not. Back then, metal founders, gilders, carpenters and painters were not allowed to touch the work that belonged to the others due to the powerful artisan guilds of the day. “Different people would have painted the lid, painted the stand and painted the rest,” says Tomlinson.

Left: Olga Komavitch-Tomlinson applying chinoiserie decor to a harpsichord. Top right: The thickness of the German spruce soundboard must be accurate to a tenth of a millimeter in the highest quality instruments. Bottom right: Gold leafing used to be applied solely by members of a guild. Not so anymore. Photography by Craig Tomlinson

202 years later, in 1988, Tomlinson created a brand new chinoiserie harpsichord. Although no artisan guilds offered him their services (even in Paris, now, they are gone) there is one subcontractor he uses on a regular basis… his mother.

“It’s wonderful working with Craig because he builds such beautiful instruments and puts so much effort into it,” says Olga Komavitch-Tomlinson who graduated from the Ontario College of Art while the Group of Seven painted iconic portraits of Canada there more than 60 years ago. She has been painting ever since.

To create the chinoiserie on the 1988 harpsichord that now lives in North Vancouver, Komavitch-Tomlinson preferred to “work down the middle” of European chinoiserie and authentic Asian art. “I would like to go back into the traditional chinoiserie which is new to me and absolutely exciting,” Komavitch-Tomlinson says. “I worked from a few books but there’s not much out there to look at. I’m anxious to see how [chinoiserie] was re-ally done.”

This year, Komavitch-Tomlinson will get her chance. A Hong Kong-born Canadian commissioned a new instrument decorated with authentic chinoiserie, the first order of its kind for the Tomlinsons since 1988. Preparations are underway.

“Chinoiserie originated with the whimsical Eu-ropean interpretation of the Chinese aesthet-ic brought about by a fascination with the exotic,” according to designer Ann Getty. On the left is detail of the chinoiserie harpsichord from 1786; on the right, the one from 1988. Photography by left: Craig Tomlinson; right: Hugh Zhao.

Will scale become whimsical again? Will the wonder and awe people felt the day they carried those Chinese arts off the pier be rekindled with help from the Tomlinsons’ skill and imagination? We can hardly wait to find out.

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