Johnson volunteer Sally Rumsey continues her series of posts inspired by musical instrument ephemera in the John Johnson Collection
Asked to name rock musicians and most people would probably think of Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Freddie Mercury or some other great name from the rock music hall of fame. I suspect few would come up with Mr. Joseph Richardson.
To be fair, while Jagger and Co created music that is stylistically ‘rock’ music, the enterprising Mr Richardson was making music using real rocks. He was described as the inventor of the rock harmonicon (although note the previous work of Peter Crosthwaite), an instrument built using pieces of rock, more accurately, hornfels, collected from Skiddaw in what was then Cumberland, in the English Lake District. Richardson, a stone mason, hailed from Keswick, so the hills of the Lakes would have been close by.
I say ‘inventor,’ but using stones to make musical sounds was not new. The term ‘lithophone’ (from the Greek ‘lithos’ – stone) is the term for a musical instrument formed of a rock or pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes. The use of stone as the basis for musical percussion instruments may date back even as far as the neolithic period (New Scientist, P8, 10/1/1957) and has been used across the globe (for example a performance from Vietnam)
Having built his rock harmonicon, Mr Richardson set about demonstrating his glorious curiosity across the land. This was something of a family enterprise – father, Joseph being the builder of the instrument, and three of his sons engaged to perform a selection of pieces to show off its capabilities.
The John Johnson collection holds a number of items that shed light on the unconventional and notable contraption. The items are primarily advertisements enticing people to attend demonstrations of the instrument, or reviews of those demonstrations. They not only provide evidence of the sound and capabilities of the instrument, but also illustrate the elaborate prose and poetry of writing at the time – around 1840.
One advertisement describes the instrument as an “Extraordinary musical novelty!” (fig. 2). The parts (the rocks) having been sourced in the Lake District, he took his invention to London and arranged demonstrations. The items in the John Johnson collection indicate that Richardson travelled to Ramsgate and Liverpool where ‘every variety of composition’ was ‘played upon this singular instrument.’
An 1842 advertisement for Richardson’s three sons’ demonstration at Mr. Stanley’s Rooms in Old Bond St suggest that they performed a wide-ranging programme daily from ten o’clock until seven – a full 9 hours per day. The sons are depicted in an engraving, seated on stools, two of them in tailcoats, before a colossal contraption which looks like rows of French baguettes on a stand. They appear to be tapping the ‘sticks of rock’ with mallets as a percussionist would play a xylophone. Equally notably, alongside such esteemed names as Mozart and Parry, is the item on their programme, ‘Mazurka and Galoppade’ composed, no less, by HRH the Duchess of Kent.
Compared to modern publicity materials, the advertisements are text heavy and verbose, but an entertaining read for the 21st
The more fulsome critiques of the instrument that were published in the press demonstrate rich and colourful Victorian language. For example:
“The rock harmonicon – The source of its effects is implied in its name; and thus, for the first time, are we made aware that after forcing all manner of treasures from the bowels of the earth – that after successfully ransacking stones for fuel, precious gems, not less precious metals, and even sermons, there is still music to be won for the trying.”
The Cumberland Packet from Whitehaven waxed even more lyrical:
“This was a work of immense labour and time, and required much determination and industry for its accomplishment, and after many hard days’ labour in the mountains, Mr. Richardson denied himself the repose which exhausted nature required, and spent whole nights, after his family had retired to rest, in hammering and chiselling the rough stones, and in selecting and arranging them, ere he brought to its present state the sweet-toned instrument which cost him thirteen years of unwearied labour and perseverance, under circumstances such as few minds, not possessed of uncommon fortitude, could have surmounted.”
Imagine reading such a long and picturesque description in the reviews section of today’s newspapers. It makes one feel exhausted in sympathy with the industrious and tireless Mr. Richardson.
We learn that Mrs Edward Thomas was so moved on hearing the instrument that she broke into verse, penning 22 lines of romantic poetry extolling the ‘organ of passion, anger, love,’ and praising the ‘glorious triumph’ of Mr Richardson.
Three of the items in the John Johnson (JJ) collection state that they were produced on the ‘Steam-press of W.H. Cox, 5 Great Queen Street’, highlighting other technology that had captured the Victorian imagination. A steam powered press was patented by Koenig in 1810 and became an early component in the production of mass newspapers.
Joseph Richardson died in 1855 aged 66 and, according to an obituary held in the JJ collection, “the surprising performances by the inventor’s three sons on these unique instruments have, in all parts of the country, created the greatest astonishment to all who have beheld their thrilling powers.” Joseph Richardson’s rock harmonicon can still be seen, and played, in its home at the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery. There is a book about the instrument written by one of Mr Richardson’s descendants (Phillips, J.H., The Rock, Bell and Steel Band – the story of Joseph Richardson and his Musical Stones, 0645141313). The melodious tones of the instrument live on – try a search for Keswick musical stones in a search engine to find more writings and videos.