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The Carving of the "Sirr" Harp

by Charlotte O'Faolain-Hallett


Charlotte O'Faolain-Hallett and her husband William Hallett of Amesbury, Massachusetts, arrive at their artistic expertise from a lifelong involvement with applied arts and crafts. When I discovered that Charlotte Hallett had personally carved her own wire-strung harp ... a Sirr harp by legendary harp-maker Jay Witcher ... I became very excited and invited her to share her creation and her personal approach to ornamentation with the readers of the Folk Harp Journal. At the time of our first conversation, I hadn't as yet seen her work but when the first set of color photographs arrived, I was jubilant. Something in the designs reminded me immediately of those brilliantly incised, cuneiform patterns found in Waterford crystal. As it turned out, she and her husband had indeed designed in crystal, specifically for the internationally known Steuben Glass Company a creative division of Corning Glass. As the photographs which accompany this article demonstrate, the artist's beautiful ideas of design ... which I imagine sparkle with pristine clarity in crystal ... translate warmly into the rich medium of carved wood under a caring eye and a sensitive, well-practiced hand.

Please enjoy these intimate reflections from the heart of an inspired old-world craftsman ...

- Copyright© 1998 Adam Victor Christensen


oday there will be snow. It will be a delicate , thin sifting, as insubstantial as dust motes in a sunbeam; there will be enough to rim the fallen leaves in white and silver, the bittersweet vines, but no more than that. Far to the northwest in the distant reaches of the river, the wind is rising, high in the trees with the song of a woman keening. Birch smoke braids from a neighbor's chimney. I am aware that this time of early winter is a time of disclosure in this very old place. Leaf piles all raked and gone away; the earth now become a pelt of soft, shorn grasses; garden and lawn inscribed by a sturdy parade of pine and fir layed against the counterpoint of maple lace. Today is a good day to work in wood.

We have our studio some distance from the house, and the walk is a pleasing space and a calm interlude. Our studio - a renovated boat house - looks down on a small tidal river. For the most part, all our work is carried out in it. With high ceilings and generous light, it houses many aspects of our lives. We are designers and craftsmen, using a variety of materials. Working mainly for industrial and church clients, we design silver, bronze, crystal, porcelain and wood, as well as church vestments and paintings. (Please see the masterful triptych designed for the altar of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, Texas.) The tools before me on my bench this morning are a poetic mix of wood and fine steel, many having been collected over the years, or given as gifts by colleagues. A selection of tools is laid out for the day's work - gouges, spoon gouges and straight ones in a range of sizes, parting tools and chisels from small to generous - and each is carefully honed. There is a sense of anticipation in the room. An enormous project with many components went on its way to a client yesterday. The final part of it was the completion of an elaborate processional cross. Highly carved with delicate tendrils and dramatized in polychrome, its departure has left an all too brief time in a hurried schedule for a very personal project - the carving of my own harp.

The instrument in our studio today is a beautiful reproduction of the "Sirr" or O'Neil harp whose first incarnation resides in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. . Since my major interests are in Irish and Scottish traditional music, I already own a lovely wire-strung instrument that I greatly enjoy playing. Two considerations emerge - the first, that I wish to have an instrument of thirty-six strings - the second, since I play with the fingernails only, that I feel a narrower string spacing would be more congenial to the techniques I generally employ. However, many might find a concert harp's wider spacing more fitting for their requirements, especially if they play both gut and wire-strung instruments. Having resolved that the narrow spacing designed to admit the nails rather than the entire fingerpad was an important point to me, I contacted Jay Witcher to investigate the variety of instruments he makes, and to discuss the particular attributes each might have that makes its voice unique.

My search was greatly assisted by a collection of CD's and tapes that feature the clairseach, and display the individual sounds particular to a number of reproduction instruments. Finding the sound most appealing to me was a factor equal to the importance of the total harp design. The "Sirr" harp, unornamented save for an eagle's head terminating the forepillar and an "unidentified creature ( a seal perhaps? )" at the neck, was the instrument I kept returning to, until at last, I placed my order, and asked that it be finished only to the rough sanded stage. The wait was about a year and a half for delivery.

Since we have had a long career in ornamental design and its requirements of drawing - modeling and carving, and an extensive experience with the tools that make it possible, I resolved to compose a design that would articulate the surface of the instrument in such a way as to emphasize its dramatic personality. For this approach to operate successfully, the ornament was drawn as a carefully contained and continuous interweave of structure and pattern. Animal forms and geometric passages move in a balanced interrelationship. Their forms and placements are planned for a composition that plays abstract detail against the movement of the animal forms.

The term"ornament" is employed here whether it refers to historical references or contemporary styles, and may be considered, in this instance, as an interpretive process of revealing , rather than enhancing or decorating. Ornament, integrated into our instruments, serves to expand, describe and amplify our music and by extension, ourselves. As a language, formal ornament can establish its own visual conversation with the observer. It transmits information in a vocabulary of line, mass, energy, harmony, proportion, dynamics and details, not unlike music itself, but music articulated as sculptural form on either a bold or an intimate scale.

Ornament can be explosive or reticent, controlled or free, dominated by antique symbolism, by the dynamics of the natural world, or the spare, elegant structures of contemporary design. Arguably, the most beautiful of instruments, the harp, exerts a powerful attraction, even silent and unplayed. For example, at a recent chamber music concert given by a trio of flute, violin and harp, the audience was invited on-stage after the performance to chat with the musicians. As is often the case, an enthusiastic and enchanted company were clustered around the harpist. They were musically knowledgable, and enjoyed conversing with the performer. More than a few, however, chose to meander slowly around the harp in silence, simply to absorb and appreciate every angle, curve and glistening detail. The object of their attention was majestically proportioned, strong and powerful. The ornament emphasized and underscored Victorian confidence. It was an effect entirely in keeping with the character of the music played upon it, and the atmosphere created by the ensemble - an elegant ambiance.

In planning a design for our harps, successfully communicating the overall effect we ultimately searched for, structure, in the architecture of instrument construction, as in our music, is a primary consideration. In the anatomy of harp forms, we encounter a dialogue of masculine and feminine attributes perhaps more apparent in our instruments than in other. Balance and harmony integrate the curve with the straight line, the delicate surface and slender string blend the grace of a muse with the bravery of a warrior's bow. These elements so compose the architecture that even in its construction state, strength and grace are immediately evident. Designing with ornament appropriate to such structure invites the undertaking of much preliminary research and investigation that are, to me, pure pleasure. The elements of discovery and of journey are addictive elements for a designer.

or work involving period ornament, a bulging library, and a bursting "morgue", or file of pictorial sources, are a critical necessity. Since I have noted that we have been engaged in this career for a considerable time, one might expect that we pick our way around tottering piles of books slumped beside the groaning library shelves, and one would be correct. Art, architecture, design and history form the largest sections. These function as "memory refreshers", as do sketch books from many sources, and working drawings, together with design blueprints from previous commissions. Reading about the cultural history of a given period is an absorbing method to become familiar with the society that produced the aesthetic concepts that articulate a certain style and its expression.

The "Sirr" harp, I felt, would lend itself well to a design based on traditional Irish ornament. Carried and enclosed by the dramatic architecture of the instrument, it would be managed in such a way as to emphasize elements already present such as the bird heads, overall energetic, elegant lines, , and an eagle foot design in the stand. Since the harp is already a beautiful , sculptural form, the purpose of carving is to encourage the eye to move more slowly over the surfaces - to pause, to linger, and to draw closer to examine the details. An instrument designed to be heard in an intimate space may not require ornamental features on a large scale. If the piece were, for example, a large baroque harp that demands an imposing presence in a concert hall, the ornament would then be planned to claim attention from a distance much greater than that required for a smaller more delicate chamber instrument.

fter assembling a number of basic sketches based on my research, these drawings were then rephrased to incorporate some personal details - symbols and images relating to me personally, and to this area. The interlace of hounds on the forepillar alludes to a hound device in my family's crest that I wished to include. Since nearly all my work is commissioned, this rare opportunity for self-indulgence was impossible to pass by. Our house, a pre-Revolutionary structure, is sited between two rivers. The smaller river at the back plays host to a population of ducks in winter. They huddle under the overhanging bank, occasionally venturing out in twos or threes to paddle ceremoniously behind a drift of ice, used as a mobile wind break. Fish hawks have nested in the neighborhood. At the front of the property, several bald eagles cruise the broad stretch of water, their white heads ghosting against the dark pines. There is a mix of salt water from the ocean that brings with it many marine creatures bourne in and out on the swing of the tides. Something of this atmosphere found its way into the ribbons and twists of carving, twined in wood as they are in forest and river.

From sketches the work then went to full scale, accurate, working drawing which would then be transferred to the harp. As in most of our work, there are, in today's terms, the minimum of mechanical assets. For the most part these are simple: dividers, compasses, calipers, pencils, pen and ink and so on. Simply as a personal preference, the individuality of a drawing produced by hand, as opposed to the near absolute mathematics of electronic assists, creates a design "fabric" in which elements may appear positively identical but yet possess the infinitely minute differences that promote interest. Perhaps these are sensed rather than seen; yet they are actively present. When the drawings, rendered in ink line on vellum are finished, they are rubbed with graphite on the reverse and transferred to the wood with a stylus.

he larger elements which will carry a heavier border are outlined with a V gouge or parting tool, the smaller delicate lines with the miniature game tool. Other carving tools remove stock from lower or negative space areas. A mix of bent and straight gouges, chisels and parting tools are used as the carving progresses. The grain and "figure" in the mapleiven close attention. High relief carving, in this instance, might have interfered with the drama of the harp's construction - the impact of the bird's heads and the smooth passages of grain patterns. A shallow relief was employed to add complexity and detail to the design, while maintaining the strength of line already present. All procedures were tested on scrap maple when an effect was being considered.

After all the elements have been established, each edge is gently treated with an ultra fine sanding, and the incised lines cleaned with dental picks and tack cloth. Perhaps, at this point, the importance of very careful hand sanding should be emphasized. Before any procedures were begun on this piece, every surface was thoroughly sanded in stages, with a succession of ever finer grits from about 240 to 600 until the surface was positively smooth. This procedure assists me in achieving accurate details on a small, delicate scale. Considerable care was taken not to rest the hands directly on the surface, if possible, because oils from the skin may inhibit the various stains from penetrating effectively. Since sanding steps to raise grain, and then render it smoother were carried out by moistening, sanding and drying, and repeating these procedures twice, a water soluble stain might have been employed. As it happened, we had on hand a large number of jars containing dry stain crystals made to be dissolved in alcohol. A custom mix was developed and tested in two values - a dark, reddish tone, and a paler value of the same stain with a slightly golden cast. All mixing procedures with dry pigments must be carried out wearing eye protection and using a respirator type mask. Handling of these pigments also must be carefully avoided. We employ products available to the trade only and they are definitely not suitable for craftsmen working on the occasional project.

efore staining, the sound holes were enlarged and provided with an underlip to support a disk of faux ivory inlay which would be positioned later. Staining is done very rapidly on a completely clean, dust-free surface, with lint-free wadding on the broad surfaces, and artist's brushes in the details. Since the carving cuts are sharp and relatively deep, the geometrics and feathers, for example, are colored in several values with a number of applications of different stain tones. Creeping is minimal since the dividing incised lines are keen. All cuts are then emphasized with blackish brown artist's oil color in a thin mix.

The instrument then spends several days air drying. In the humid atmosphere of warm weather it would rest somewhat longer before varnishing could begin. The varnish, of a type developed for violin making is applied by brushes made for the purpose. These varnishes must be applied very rapidly in continuous motions to avoid lap marks. Several coats are used, with each one given a massage with fine bronze wool after drying. The final stages involve considerable hand-rubbing with felt pads and paraffin oil using first a mix of pumice and rotten stone powders, and lastly oil and rotten stone alone for a final rub down. The surface becomes lustrous with a beautiful subtle shine that retains a soft glow.

To maintain this instrument, I observe all the good old rules about avoiding direct sun and heat sources. In the cold season a humidifier is running constantly in any case, since the atmosphere tends to be overly dry from central heating - not for harps, furniture, or humans either. Occasionally, I treat the harp to a polish marketed by Lyon and Healy which cleans and produces no build-up. When I detect oxidation on the strings, I use a polish /cleaner that is available, as I understand, under a couple of names. "Nev-r-dull" is available in New England in hardware and supply stores. It is a can of cotton batting/wadding with a cleaning solution that is soaked into the fibers - a pinch is pulled off, and working from bottom and top towards the middle of the string, any oxidation cleans away completely with gentle rubbing. As each string is cleaned, it is wiped with a regular cotton ball until no trace of tarnish shows. Any cleaning procedure using abrasives, such as steel wool, on brass strings does not attract me, since strength can be compromised by such operations - a gentle process is preferred.

s I write this piece the autumn here in New England is catching fire. Wagon loads of pumpkins appeared at local farm stands, and yesterday there was the whirring surprise of migrating wood cock in the back garden. Woodpiles have grown in the clear air, while boats are hauled up and stored snug for the winter. Soon now the packed earth in the drive will be iron underfoot and paper thin ice will rim the puddles. Time comes in long strands of early darkness, candlelight and ancient tunes on an Irish harp.

My thanks to Jay Witcher for his expertise in building this beautiful instrument and to the staff at the National Museum, Dublin, Ireland for their helpful assistance in my research adventures. Also thanks to Ann Heymann, and to Grainne Yeats whose magnificent talents drew me to the enchantments of the wire-strung harp.

The author, Charlotte O'Faolain-Hallett, welcomes inquiries regarding her art and design services. Please contact her by phone/fax at (978) 388-0120 or write to : Hallett Associates Design Studio, 356 Main Street, Amesbury, MA 01913-4105. Or email to


"The Carving of the "Sirr" Harp" ... Copyright © 1997 Charlotte O'Faolain-Hallett

Photographs by Charlotte O'Faolain-Hallett and William Hallett


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