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About the artwork

The ‘Object of the Month’ is number 10 in the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s Catalogue of Commodes.

‘Commode’ is a French word meaning ‘easy’ or ‘convenient’, which perhaps explains why the generally accepted modern sense of the word is that of a discreet piece of furniture to be found in a sick room concealing a chamber pot. Commode is also French for chest-of-drawers. Highly decorative, and more to be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities than for its utility, this article of furniture became extremely fashionable in England during the latter half of the eighteenth century. It retained its French name in order to set it apart from the mundane native chest of drawers familiar here since the seventeenth century.

A common feature of the new English style of commode was the enclosure of the drawers in doors. Manufacturers would call this a ‘Commode a Vanteaux’ or even a ‘Commode a l’Anglais’. This is another reason why we now think of a commode as containing a chamber pot: it is a piece of furniture which conceals another function. What looks like a cupboard is in fact a chest of drawers. Catalogue number 10 deceives us further. It is neither a cupboard, nor a chest of drawers. It is a piano.

There are clues to musical function in its marquetry decoration. A seated Muse playing a tambourine occupies the round medallion in the central front panel, while another Muse plays the lyre and Bacchantes dance with tambourine and cymbals in the corner panels at either end. The central emblem of the frieze comprises a lyre, a bow and a quiver of arrows.

There are cupboard doors at either end which open sets of shelves. The lid, decorated with a bouquet of roses, is hinged at the back and lifts to reveal the piano, while the front frieze panel is removable to allow access to the keyboard. Originally the recessed section of the front plinth was also removable to make room for the player’s feet, but this is now screwed in place.

The instrument is inscribed in latin with the maker’s name, place of manufacture and date: ‘Fredericus Beck Londini Fecit 1775.’ The address was no. 4 Broad Street, Golden Square.’ Arnold Frederick Beck is thought to have been one of a group of German musical instrument makers, known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’, who came to Britain during the Seven Years War.

Although Beck described himself as a ‘Musical Instrument Maker and Cabinet Maker’ he was not responsible for the case. If he had been there might not have such a puzzling disparity in size between case and instrument. Reliably attributed to the Swedish cabinet maker Christopher Fuhrlohg - who made the nearby commode (Catalogue 9) decorated with a central medallion of Diana - the case appears proportionally far too big for the piano. It does not appear as though either component was designed specifically with the other in mind. 

The keyboard has a compass of 61 notes, covering five octaves. On the left of the keyboard are three brass-handled steel stop-knobs. The first was intended to lift the treble dampers, the second to lift the bass dampers and the third pressed buff leather against the end of each string so as to imitate the sound of a gut-strung harp.

The instrument was never player-friendly. There is no music stand nor, it would seem, has there ever been one. Also, although the central panel in the plinth was originally removable to accommodate the player’s feet, no similar provision was made for the seated player’s knees. The keyboard is too low to be played comfortably from a standing position. The presence, intact, of the original strings suggests that it has not received a great deal of use in the last 232 years.