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You may recall a scene in Patricia Rozeman’s adaptation of Mansfield Park where we see Julia and Maira Bertram playing a strange instrument for the entertainment of the family . Here is a scene cap from the film showing them  at work:

They were, in fact, playing a glass harmonica.

This is a fascinating instrument which was invented by the American polymath, Benjamin Frankin in 1761 while he was living  in London. He had heard Edward Delaval , a Fellow of the Royal Society, play on his set of musical glasses in 1759. This was an idea with which we are more familiar, I think , as we can still see these types of glasses played today by some variety artists. In fact these glasses -wine glasses filled to different levels with water which were played by rubbing wetted fingers along the rims- seems to have been the  brain child of a Mr Puckeridge of Ireland,  but he and his glasses perished in a fire. Edward Delaval was fascinated by the properties of glass and he studied the specific gravities of several metals and their colors when bonded with glass, and also how to use it in the manufacture of artificial gems, hence his interest in this instrument. Benjamin Franklin improved upon his idea- of the rows of glasses fitted in a cabinet, by creating a very different instrument.  Here is his design from the modern exponent,  Thomas Bloch’s fascinating website:

You can see that it is quite radically different: scores of glass bowls are nested within each other, strung centrally on a spindle that spins, and which is turned by means of a treadle.  Here, below,  is a late 18th century version in its wooden cabinet, with a handle to turn the glass bowls, not a treadle:

Here is a photograph of  Thomas Bloch’s  own glass harmonica, which shows the position of the players hands when operating the harmonica :

Frnaklin’s instrument was so improved that it  transformed the performance aspects of the harmonica. Now duets could be played,as in the adaptation of Mansfield Park, and individual players could now play chords .If you go here you can see the example in London Horniman Musuem which was used in the linked BBC Radio 3 programme below.

This was not an  instrument that could be enjoyed by everyone: it was very expensive to produce  and buy and needed very specifically trained teachers. Mozart was a fan and wrote some beautiful music for it. It was used by Mesmer as part of his electronic experiments, to soothe his patients. But this reputation for celestial soothing music was not long lived. One of its most famous exponents was the blind German-born woman, Marianne Kirchgessner, and she was famous for giving concerts on the instrument throughout Europe. She was rumoured to have been driven mad by playing the instrument, but this was probably not due to its strange sound( which I confess I can only listen to for very small intervals as it makes me grind my teeth!) but to lead poisoning. Playing with whetted fingers on glass that had high lead content most probably contributed to her demise.

Modern composers have use the instrument to great effect- in film scores and in rock music; Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for example. If you would like to know more of the history of this fascinating instrument  you might care to listen to this fabulous BBC Radio 3 programme, presented by Dame Eveyln Glennie, one of our most distinguished percussion players, shown below.

If Chimes Could Whisper is a short (45 minutes long) but totally enthralling history of the Glass Harmonica and contains a lot of examples of the instrument being played- pieces of music which date from the 18th century to the present day.

If you click on the link above you should be able to access the webpage linking got the programme which is available to “listen again” for another five days.

Alternatively here, above, is a video of Thomas Bloch playing his  fabulous glass harmonica, which I’m sure you will enjoy. It is a very evocative sound. How appropriate that the Miss Bertrams were portrayed playing  such an instrument; expensive, exclusive, seemingly celestial but with hidden dangers ;)

In our last post we looked at some of the interiors of Kirby Hall which were used in the 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, starring Jonny Lee Miller.

Let’s continue our tour with a look at  the rooms, some on the  on the upper floors which were very cleverly adapted for use in the film..

When Fanny first arrives at Mansfield we see a fleeting glance from a window in the Great Stair down into the ruins of what was the West Lodgings and the Long Gallery…

This is now a completely ruined space, the floors long gone….

We then see the room that becomes Fanny’s sanctuary….

Time passes and we next see the young Fanny transfigured into the feisty Fanny we all have difficulty recognising…

These scenes were filmed in the Bedchamber/Billiard room on the ground floor of the Hall, and this is one of the rooms in the Hall that has been recently restored to how it would have appeared in the late 18th century.

The bay windows of the rooms on the South Front of the house are a most wonderful architectural feature, both inside and out…

Sir Thomas’s study was a film set created within a room, and had sliding doors,a very unlikely feature in a 17th century house.

The room adapted for use by the production staff appears to have been the Great Chamber,which is to be found on the first floor of the Hall.

It is as you can see a very large space and is in a totally restored state.

As I understand it the set was a free standing room created within this room, rather like an inner skin, a technique also used for the formal drawing-room at Mansfield, see below.

The Secondary Stair was used for Fanny’s rencontres with Henry Crawford,and the distinctive carved handrail is still to be seen…

The formal drawing room was created by again making a room within a room, this time in another of the Bedchambers on the ground floor.

This was extremely cleverly done,  the columns were tromp l’oeil paint effects, and were painted onto the skin of the room…

The designers managed to incorporate the marble fireplace which is still extant in the room.

Though I did not enjoy the film, I have to say that the work of the production designers and staff was very cleverly done, not harming the fabric of the Hall at all, but by using certain architectural features within the Hall, they managed to crate a magnificent stage set, don’t you think?

Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire is a magnificent relict of a past age, owned and maintained by English Heritage. It is now half-ruined, having been abandoned by its owners in the early 18th century, and by the 19th it was in a ruinous state. This continued until 15 years ago when the gardens and some interiors were restored. It was used by Patricia Rozema in the 1999 film of Mansfield Park to represent the house owned by Sir Thomas Bertram that is so central to the book.

I ought to say, from the outset, that the 1999 version of Mansfield Park is not my favourite of any of the adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.By a long way… It failed to hit its targets, and accordingly the film failed for me on so many levels. Fanny was depicted as a strange combination of the young Jane Austen and one of the Pankhursts, Sir Thomas was a depraved monster,Lady Bertram as a drug addict and  the slavery allusions were conveyed in a less than subtle manner….and, as ever, the multilayered meaning of the original novel was lost, and it all boiled down to a sort of strange love story.  For me the film never set alight  despite having  a rather stella cast.

And I never, ever imagined Mansfield itself as being ruined, as it was portrayed in the film. Nor being that old, for Mansfield is described as a

a spacious modern–built house,

in chapter 5 of the novel, by Mary Crawford, a woman who knew about these things. As you can clearly see from the plan below, Kirby would clearly not qualify on that score.

(Plan of Kirby Hall, ©English Heritage)

In fact the only thing that was correct about the choice of Kirby Hall as Mansfield was that it is to be found in Northamptonshire where  the novel was mainly set. But….as you can see, Kirby Hall is incomparably beautiful, and I thought you  might be interested to see it. Today  and in the next post I’ll deal with the interiors and finally I’ll write about the exteriors as used in the film.

First,  a little about the history of the Hall. It was rebuilt by Sir Humphrey  Stafford in 1570, but was completed by Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite of Elizabeth I, in the hope she would visit so magnificent a mansion…sadly, she never came. For some years it was thought that the great Elizabethan architect, John Thorpe ( no, not that John Thorpe) was the architect of the Hall, due to an early plan of the house on which a John Thorpe has written

I layed  ye first stone AD 1570″

However, it has since been realised that John Thorpe was only then about 7 years old, and it was most probably his father,Thomas Thorpe a master mason who came from the nearby village of Kings Cliffe , who was most likely to be the man who oversaw the building of the mansion.  His son, John, most probably laid the foundation stone as  was a common practise during the Elizabethan era.

To the film….

The Great Hall was used as one of the main drawing rooms of the house.

Though we are not shown it, the east end of this room has a minstrels gallery, for the Great Hall was used as the main dining room for the grand Elizabethan household…

The ceiling is very beautiful…

And the door in the west wall leads to the Great Stair….

We first see The Great Stair when the young Fanny first arrives at Mansfield.

The Great Stair was meant to impress and leads upwards to the Grand State Rooms in the floors above

 

A feature of Kirby are the handrails of the staircases,which are carved from stone and set into the walls…

It is a rather wonderful space…bathed in the most beautiful light…

And the leaded lights throw interesting shadows onto the walls

And the very tactile handrails….In my next post I will describe the rooms used on the first floor. Do join me, even if this is not your favourite adaptation, as the rooms on the first floor are fascinating.

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