Piano Man

Piano Man

WORDS JUDE ROGERS
Photographs Phillip Sinden

John Delacour welcomes us inside his ‘Battersea Dogs Home for pianos’… Twenty minutes drive from Wool station in Dorset, down 10 miles of lanes cutting through the flat countryside, at the back of a farm, you’ll find an old grain silo. Bluey-grey and slightly rusting, it sits next to wet, grassy land, like a peculiar spaceship fallen out of the sky. Inside, we enter another world altogether.

Here, at the far edges of the village of Milborne St Andrew, the best piano strings in Britain, if not the world, are being made. They are made by John Delacour, a man who has been here for the past seven years, after the silo was converted by one of the farmers who own the land. Delacour is a man who reveals the art of his craft with the passion of an enthusiast, the kindness of a gentleman, and the openness of a teacher.

His ramshackle workshop is also a feast for the eye and the mind. Downstairs, piano keys are racked against walls like skeleton bones. Strings coil around themselves in huge silver haloes. Tiny brown bottles and recycled jars squeeze themselves into corners and creep up onto steps, containing French polish, colour stains, mysterious lotions and potions. There are also countless wire crates and wooden boxes, screwdrivers and pliers; the only furnishings here are of chamois and sandpaper.

 

Delacour acknowledges reluctantly that the business has outgrown the grain silo, but he has found new premises – a row of old stables – a few miles away.

 

And then we go upstairs. Here, we find our host’s pride and joy, his collection of late-Victorian pianos, made by the British manufacturers Brinsmead and Kirkman. They are being restored in impeccable detail – not for resale, but for Delacour’s love of the instruments themselves.

‘It’s like Battersea Dogs Home for rescued pianos round here,’ he says, edging around the rosewood, the walnut, the hammers and felts. ‘There’s no money in it,’ he adds, with a dry laugh. ‘I do this mainly – madly, even – for the pianos. They’re such fine examples of English craftsmanship that they deserve to be preserved in playing condition.’ He pulls a pipe out of his top trouser pocket and we go back downstairs. For firstly, we must drink together.

To have an insight into the inventive, brimming-over brain of John Delacour, you must first witness him assembling his gas, glass jars, water, and beans. He is long-limbed, oddly elegant, in his green jumper and navy trousers, bearing the look of a retired schoolmaster, or a self-effacing artist.

 

‘I’ve always been interested in
how mechanisms work…’

 

At his wooden counter, he lights a flame, then the chemistry begins: water bubbling, creating a vacuum, liquid slowly dripping down. Then we wait. Five minutes later, a cup of strong, hot, perfect coffee awakens all the senses. Now we can properly begin to hear the tricks of his trade.

 

 

John Delacour was born in Bradford just after the World War II. He fell in love with the piano when he was a child; his mother inherited one from an aunt not long after he was born. ‘I played on it all the time – inventing my own tunes and improvising – I was fascinated by how the notes corresponded to each other. But I also liked to take bits of it apart.’ He smiles, shifting his pipe out of his mouth. ‘I’ve always been interested in how mechanisms work.’

Delacour’s family moved to Dorset when he was a teenager, his soldier father having retrained to become a teacher. Delacour would later become a teacher himself, after studying Chinese and Italian at Cambridge University; he even taught in China just after the Cultural Revolution. But soon enough, Delacour’s attentions started to wander away from education back to the musical instrument that had obsessed him in his youth.

In 1974, Delacour began to learn the art of French polishing. This is a painstaking process that tests even the most patient of people, but one that Delacour still enjoys today. It involves applying shellac to wood in the direction of the grain; a thin film of resin is then left behind. The surface is then sanded down using fine sandpaper, then the polish is applied, in small figures-of-eight. ‘Then comes repetition, repetition, repetition.’ The pianos in the grain silo now – gleaming, grandly textured, gloriously coloured – show how such good things come to those who wait.

Delacour began restoring pianos then, too, and in 1981, began his own business. He took over an existing secondhand piano shop in Poole, and in 1984, also started making strings. He did so using a tool that may seem at odds with such old-fashioned craftsmanship at first – one of the very first Apple Mac computers.

 

 

‘I must have been one of the first people in Britain to have one,’ he says, smiling, moving his pipe between forefinger and thumb. ‘Back then, the Mac was just a little box, with its system on a floppy disk. But it also came with a programme called MacDraw, and I knew straightaway how it could help me.’

Using MacDraw, Delacour designed and built his first string-making machine. It still sits here on the ground floor of the silo, using a system of fast and loose pulleys. Delacour runs a steel string through it – it loops and loops and loops, and he beams… you see a man whose mind obviously adores watching systems work, and enjoys seeing them bear fruit. This process is full of the craftsmanship borne of distant centuries, but using a distinctly modern approach. ‘Everything in the pianos I love was calculated to make the best possible sound,’ he says. ‘These days, we can use more precise, modern methods to continue that.’

 

‘There’s no money in it – I do this mainly
for the pianos…’

 

In fact, Delacour is designing and building a new string-making machine at the moment, creating the drawings and animations using the computer programming languages Perl and JavaScript. His Apple Mac is nowhere to be seen in the silo, however. ‘God, no,’ he laughs. ‘I wouldn’t get anything done.’

 

 

As the 1980s wound on, Delacour Pianos started to gain a word-of-mouth reputation (it has never really advertised since the business began). His strings are used today in some impressive instruments, too: in the concert piano in the Sydney Conservatoire, and in the Yamaha Concert Grand in the Australian National Gallery.

Delacour has also had a few celebrity clients: he mentions them shyly, but later asks for their names to be retracted. Looking around, it’s obvious that his is not the world of starriness and showbiz. Still, it’s impressive that an internationally renowned concert pianist has asked for his strings, and that Steinway got him to make a string in a hurry for a very famous piano-playing pop star. Delacour made it his way, and that musician wanted to know why that string sounded so much better – not that Delacour would wish for that to be made public.

After all, he has never been impressed with names like Bösendorfer, or even Steinway or Bechstein if they were built after 1905. ‘It’s just like people saying that a BMW is The Car!’ The best pianos were often by smaller companies in the late 19th century, he insists; nowadays, the desire for higher profi ts has curbed quality, as have cut-price, modern production methods. ‘The piano at its very best was fully developed by 1890, which is astonishing, really. There were lots of clever designers back then, but there’s been lots of slipping back.’

We go upstairs again, back to the Kirkmans and Brinsmeads – many of which have been bought off eBay by Delacour himself. ‘I don’t like people bringing me stuff usually,’ he says, wryly. ‘I just work on pianos I like.’

 

Delacour favours pianos by Brinsmead and Kirkman over the likes of Steinway (unless they were built before 1905): ‘They’re such fine examples of English craftsmanship, they deserve to be preserved in top playing condition.’

 

Delacour then opens the lid of one of the Brinsmeads and starts to play. The sound is wonderful: clear, ringing and warm, the treble singing as beautifully as the bass. ‘It’s partly because the materials of these pianos are so good,’ he explains, ‘the rosewood veneers, the solid walnut. The trouble is, lots of these woods aren’t around any more. Once they were gone…’ He dashes his hand across the air. ‘They were gone.’ Delacour does anything he can to get rosewood these days, though – some old, broken lyres hanging on the walls will later come to good use, he says. But what really draws Delacour to the pianos is more than their materials. ‘If a piano doesn’t sound good, I wouldn’t touch it. A piano has to speak. It has to have its own character. You have to be able to talk to it.’ He tries out another trill. ‘It’s almost an animal relationship between you and the instrument. And most modern pianos are dead, you know. They may produce a good sound, but they have no soul.’

Delacour often buys Kirkmans and Brinsmeads when they are in their original unrestored condition – in terrible states, to most eyes. Work on them can take months or years; his last came from a Methodist church in Aylesbury, when its ministers decided to replace it with a modern piano. ‘I want to rescue them in a way. They shouldn’t be forgotten.’ He restores the instruments by carefully working on each individual original part, and using new cleaning tools to get them as perfect as he can – like his special bicarbonate of soda spray, which acts like a subtle sandblaster. All of this takes time though, time that might run out before he can finish his work.

He also knows, however, that he wants these pianos to be loved and to be used. ‘I don’t want people just buying them to look nice in the corner of a Regency house.’ He laughs. ‘Money and musicality rarely go together, I find. I want people to cherish them, play them, enjoy them.’

 

 

In the past few months, Delacour has started building up his business by training an apprentice. After that, he hopes to employ more people to take his work forward. He has also acknowledged that he will have to move on from the silo, and has found a row of stables a few miles away that will be restored to house the string-making operation.

These developments are good timing for Delacour Pianos for other reasons, too. Thanks to the internet, the business is now growing in far-flung places, such as the USA and South America. It’s not hard to see why, either. Standing here in this extraordinary place, seeing the love, care and attention that goes into this work, you sense a tradition that began long ago living happily in the present, and moving clearly, ringingly, into the future.

‘I do like this idea that I’m having contact with these wonderful workmen from over a century ago,’ says Delacour. He smiles, and runs the fingers of his right hand along the ivory keys.

 

Delacour Pianos, pianomaker.co.uk

 

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