Replicating the Bunworth Harp-

The Bunworth harp, the only early Irish wire strung harp that resides outside the British isles, is in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The BMFA is very proactive in making their collection come alive for visitors, in some cases literally. The commission to make a playing copy of the Bunworth is a example of this direction, under the curatorship of Darcy Kuronen. I am very grateful to him for trusting me to take on this task, and for the support he provided during the process.

I initially visited the harp in February 2009, accompanied by Ann Heymann and Nancy Hurrell. Together, we gathered all the data necessary to draw an accurate likeness of the harp. We also took MANY photos, from every conceivable angle.

Measuring a harp is not exactly easy, there are few straight lines, and they are often deformed with age. I have concluded that there are three points common to all harps, and I have developed my procedure for data collection based on this- The point where the neck meets the top of the soundbox I call point A. The point where the neck meets the front pillar, I call point B. In like manner, the point where the front pillar meets the bottom of the soundbox is point C. All other points on the harp can be described by measuring to two of these fixed locations. To be more accurate, I have added more points- I fix a telescoping wooden stick between points B and C. I then strike a line from this stick to the 15th string hole in the belly of the harp, at a right angle. This becomes point D. Additionally, I call the 15th string hole E, and the 15th tuning peg point G. This gives me many triangulation possibilities, to eliminate as much error as possible.

Once the data is entered in neat columns on paper, this needs to be converted to the likeness of a harp. I do this back in the shop on a large sheet of paper, first laying out my triangle ABC. I then add all the other points, and by constantly referring to my photos, I develop a drawing of the harp. By pasting this paper drawing onto sheet aluminum, I can cut out templates that not only give me the shapes to cut the wood, but also indicate very accurately where to drill holes and so forth.

Then, it is time to start cutting wood. The Museum had samples taken of the wood of the soundbox, the front pillar, and the neck of the harp. We expected the soundbox to be willow, but were surprised to find that the neck and pillar are also willow. As it turns out, English white willow has naturalized in the upper midwest of the US, and I was able to locate some wonderful large logs to work with.

After much labor with a very large chainsaw, I had the blocks of willow needed. From past experience, I knew that it is best to rough out the interior of the soundbox immediately. It dries much more quickly and with less cracking because the water leaves the wood evenly from all the exposed surfaces.

Carving the details is time consuming, but a very satisfying part of the job.

The parts must be fitted together very carefully, as they are held together in the finished harp only by the string tension, no screws or Super Glue! In this photo, the neck and pillar are made of walnut. I built a prototype instrument first, to test my design, and later got the information that the neck and pillar of the original are willow. Ann Heymann purchased that prototype harp (with the walnut neck and pillar) and has incorporated it into her study of the early Irish harp.

In an effort to do a thorough reconstruction of the harp, samples were taken by the Museum of the pigments present on the original instrument. By careful analysis of this information, Assistant Furniture Curator Christine Schaette developed a working procedure for the application of the various layers. She also carefully traced all of the decortations on Mylar film and sent them to me. Fortunately, the Mylar tracings coincided with the wooden parts that I had fashioned!

The first layer is a sizing of red lead in hide glue. Don't try this at home, the lead is toxic, notice my gloves.

After the sizing is smoothed out, the lines of the decorations were transferred onto the harp, and all lines were lightly incised. This made it easier to add each pigment in turn, just stay inside the lines. The pigments are naturally occuring substances in a linseed oil varnish. The red is vermillion, the black is furnace black, the white is white lead, the blue is azurite, ane the green is malachite.

Finally, the metal parts were installed, and the stringing could be done. The harp in this photo is the prototype again, it was painted before the true pigments arrived from the Museum. (The prototype's red is Rustoleum from the hardware store, not as elegant as the vermillion used on the final version.)

Here is the finished Bunworth on display in the BMFA next to the original. An inagural concert was given at the Museum on June 12, 2011 by Ann Heymann assisted by husband Charlie. She did great research to put together an appropriate program, and has since returned to the Museum to do recordings of much of this music.

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