Hatchlands in Surrey is the only place I know where keyboards that were once played by some of the world's greatest composers are on display and still in use. The house stands in a wooded park designed by 18th-century landscape gardener Humphrey Repton and the magnificent Adam rooms are furnished with the Cobbe Collection of old masters and historic keyboard instruments.
In 1987, Hatchlands was leased to the collector Alec Cobbe with the idea of it being resuscitated as a family home. Decorated and furnished by Cobbe and his assistants, the house became a setting for paintings and objet d'art collected by generations of his Anglo-Irish family, and for his own collection of pianos, harpsicords and clavicords.
In an imaginative use of an existing structure, Alec Cobbe enhanced and emphasised the best features of the handsomely proportioned rooms, so that this 16th-century house became a fitting place to display the collection, part of which came from the family home at Newbridge, outside Dublin. There are more than 40 pianos dotted around the house, some swamped by a clutter of books and papers, others standing in solitary grandeur. Fifteen of these keyboard instruments - probably the largest group to be housed in one building anywhere in the world - were once owned or played by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, JB Cramer, Elgar, Liszt, Mozart, Mahler and Purcell. Included among them is a unique "library table piano" on which Bizet composed the opera Carmen.
Not all the instruments in the house have such legendary associations, but they are all masterpieces and were brought together to represent instrument-makers who were highly regarded and patronised by composers, rather than to illustrate a complete or technical history of keyboard manufacture.
An example would be the harpsicord that's renowned for its rich and beautiful sound. It was made in 1636 by Andreas Ruckers (Antwerp), whose family had supplied harpsicords to many European monarchs, including Charles I.
From the court of Charles II we find virginals by John Player (London, 1664), and a square pianoforte by Johannes Zumpe and Gabriel Buntebart (1777-1778), which was taken to France by Bach. Other instruments include harpsicords attributed to the 17th-century Italian Girolamo Zenti, a chamber organ and a spinet, a piano in the form of a metamorphic half-moon table by Dubliner William Southwell, many square pianofortes, including one reputedly made for Marie Antoinette in 1787 by Sebastian Erard of Paris, and another by the London firm John Broadwood amp; Sons that was used and signed by Elgar.
All the instruments are maintained in excellent playing condition, enabling the sound characteristics of different ages and composers to be heard during the concerts that take place in the house's magnificent Music Room.
Hatchlands may be famed for its musical instruments, but the Cobbe family's books, papers, and mundane possessions that are stacked on chairs and tables in every room defines its character as a much loved home. It's worth wandering through the house to see the red-silk hung Saloon, the picture collection, the bronze and marble sculptures and the unusual architectural features.
* School tours (mornings only) are subject to prior arrangement.
Occasionally, musical demonstrations are given, depending on the special interests of the students and in the context of the tour, however, these can't be guaranteed. The cost per student is pound;3.