The Piano Maker

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This account celebrates Studley’s accomplishments and leaves no doubt as to the stature he – and his tool cabinet – held in the world of piano craftsmen. (Image courtesy of Arthur Rebletz)


This is an excerpt from “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley” by Donald C. Williams, photographs by Narayan Nayar.

Unfortunately we have no record of exactly what Studley did at any point of his employment with Smith. However, the later portrait of Studley as a piano’s action builder does allow us to propose that he had a similar role at Smith.

In his 60th year, Studley left Smith American Organ Company to work for the recently formed Poole Piano Company. The reasons, motivation and terms of that change are unknown, but the reference in The Music Trade Review of Dec. 17, 1921, to Studley’s having been hired by Poole Piano to be in charge of its “voicing” (or action) department surely means he was well-accomplished and respected for the tasks and responsibilities incumbent to the new position. Part of the larger economic reality of the organ and piano trades at that time was the falling popularity of organs and the growing role of pianos in the American home.

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The decorative details of the organs built during the early part of Studley’s career, such as this illustration from a Smith American Piano and Organ catalog (roughly coincident with his tenure there), no doubt served as inspiration for many of the decorative details in the tool cabinet. (Winterthur Library)

The 1899 illustrated catalog from the Poole Company, roughly contemporary to Studley joining the firm, emphasized its grand and upright pianos and is instructive, even given the florid prose of Victorian marketing. Three brief passages in particular caught my eye. “We make no pretensions as manufacturers of cheap instruments. Considering the fact that we use only first-class material and employ only the most skilled workmen…”

And, “[finish] may apply either to the workmanship of the action and other interior details, where it cannot readily be seen and appreciated, or to the exterior appearance. Straws indeed show the direction of the wind, and the nicety of adjustments and carefulness with which every detail of our instruments is worked out, although such things may be regarded as unimportant, certainly show the character of the final work.”

Finally, “Tone. It will be admitted that this is a much-talked-of and much mystified subject. The general public can get little knowledge of it by reading over the worn-out adjectives usually employed in piano catalogs.

“If, however, we may attribute any special quality of excellence to the characteristic of the Poole Piano, we would say that the almost freedom of vibration is insured by the well-drawn scales employed, and the nicety with which every detail is worked out.”

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Though this aesthetic is decidedly over the top for our sensibilities, it is the atmosphere in which Studley perfected his skills and achieved renown. (Winterthur Library)

Of course there is no way to know how much of this is bloviation and how much is an honest statement of mission and purpose, but at least rhetorically Poole is throwing down a marker. The advertising copy is saying all the right things to describe an atmosphere that allowed Henry Studley to express that excellence in his work ensemble.

To the extent that there is any historical record of him in either the organ or piano trades, it refers to him as a prominent and respected craftsman. The indication of Studley’s stature in the Boston piano manufacturing world can be seen in an article in the periodical The Music Trade Review during the final year of his career, celebrating his 46 years in the trade. Simple arithmetic allows us to affix approximate working dates for him as 1873-1898 for Smith American, and 1898-1919 for Poole Piano. The breadth of tools in the cabinet, combined with the photographic portrait, leads us to the fully defensible conclusion that Studley was at various times both a case builder for Smith and a builder of piano actions for Poole.

In the only known image of him, Studley is seen as an 80-year-old man standing formally at a workbench, his famous tool cabinet hanging on the wall behind him. Dressed in the peculiar (to us) attire of a dress shirt and necktie that was typical for skilled tradesmen of the era, he is shown with a felt cutter in hand and an open upright piano nearby. Thus we are left with the distinct impression that he was not merely running the action department, he was still actively engaged in the trade himself.

Meghan Bates

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One Response to The Piano Maker

  1. Eric R says:

    I wish I could have studied under him.
    The amount of knowledge you can learn from such a man as this is incalculable.

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