Of Lightning and Glass Harmonicas

Towards the end of the last century a Georgian house in Craven street, by Charing cross station London was saved from dereliction after twenty year’s abandonment. After restoration it was opened to the public in 2006. Inside, the building is remarkable for having conserved the majority of its original architectural features intact. The floorboards, the staircase starting with three columns rising from each step and decorated with floral motifs on its side, the doors, the mouldings, the windows, which on the first floor descend down to floor level and are graced by shallow wrought iron balconies,  fully impart the feel, the smells, the genuine atmosphere of a  terraced house in a newly gentrified quarter of eighteenth century London.

Why all the attention paid to this house, just one among several others in this lovely terrace? It’s because it’s the only extant residence of one of the greatest founding fathers of the USA, Benjamin Franklin.

A supreme polymath, with interests ranging from journalism though physics, the arts, politics and philosophy, Franklin is a truly fascinating character to study. He influenced and was friends with such diverse people as Adam, Malthus, and Mirabeau. Without him the gulf stream would have never been properly explained and charted, Mozart would have never written his divine compositions for the glass harmonica, abolition of slavery would have never taken such a prominent place in American and world affairs, lightning conductors would never had been standard fixtures on buildings and so much else we, in the Western world, take for granted like freedom of speech (still so violently challenged as recent events sadly demonstrate) would not have been regarded as natural birthrights like the pursuit of happiness itself.

Benjamin Franklin lived in his Craven street dwelling for close on sixteen years and met and entertained the most illustrious figures of the English and Scottish enlightenment like Hume and Priestley, for example. How wonderful to have been part of those gatherings where such illuminism blossomed.

It was this side of Franklin’s life that was vividly brought to life for us yesterday when we attended a historical re-enactment with an actor playing the role of Mary “Polly” Stevenson, his landlady’s daughter who married another lodger, William Hewson, a doctor who set up an anatomical laboratory in the house and who  formerly worked with Hunter (see my previous post on the Hunterian museum). In fact, when the house was being restored bones were found in its garden initiating a murder enquiry by the metropolitan police before forensic investigation and archaeological deduction referred them back to the anatomist’s discarded specimens!

The performance received our full marks for its multi-media presentation. In the voiceovers I even recognised the voice of an old friend of mine playing, among other parts, those of John Stanley, the blind organist, and the dying William Pitt. So not only does David travel across the world but he travels across time as well!

The amazing thing about the show was that it took place in an empty house. Although in the USA there are significant relics belonging to the great man, in his London house nothing remains of his furniture or belongings. So why fake up interiors as has been so unsuitably done in several other famous people’s homes? (In Florence, for example, Dante the poet’s house is a fantasian reconstruction. Far better, and of the same restoration philosophy as Franklin’s house is Modigliani’s in Livorno where nothing remains belonging to the artist but where the emphasis is on the “feel” of the domestic environment where he passed his earlier years, which is truly awesome.

Our visit to Benjamin Franklin’s house reinforced our belief that it is London’s smaller museums, and especially those relating to former famous residents, that can offer some of the capital’s most rewarding museal experiences.

And we haven’t even started describing the other amazing (and often ghostly) residences we visited on our excursion to the United kingdom…

4 thoughts on “Of Lightning and Glass Harmonicas

  1. I was truly fascinated by the two ranges that are still in situ in the below stairs of the property one in the ladies and the other smaller one in the front room both supposedly once kitchen area these it seems to me are the forerunners of the Aga Cookers and it would be great to try to cook with them as they both seem to be fully functional they are beautiful wrought iron pieces! Certainly it was great fun to have a hands on experience on the glass armonica once foot pedal powered but now run electrically it is an instrument whose sound truly touches the depth of ones soul this is still played by hand, Mozart introduces this sound in his Adagio and Rondo K617 in one of his last pieces, Gluck also wove this sound into his music by using a glass harp. Another fascinating invention took place here that was the lightening conductor achieved in the first instance experimentation by the use of a kite and a key and the first one is placed on St Pauls. The bifocal glasses too that can be seen in the small Museum area below stairs where too are the cranium and bones of other experiments. Benjamin Franklin was certainly a most fascinating character who enjoyed the UK and overstayed his intended 6 months by 16 years, but was most welcome!

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