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The Christchurch
Town Hall organ


David Bridgeman-Sutton muses about the finishing touches to organ pipes; how does Sir require his gilding?

Welcome to the website of the Rieger
pipeorgan home
in the Christchurch Town Hall,
New Zealand

Musings & Amusings


The finish of organ pipes often provides an immediate clue to the date and builder of an instrument.

st lawrence jewry

Picture 1
(Click on image to see wider view)

Gilding - the covering of the metal with gold leaf - was a common practice in the eighteenth century and is sometimes used in modern instruments. It provides a rich finish that contrasts especially well with casework in a dark wood. Despite the gold covering being very thin (about 1/1000th of an inch) it is extremely durable.


Figure 1. shows a modern choir organ case with gilded pipes on ~ approximately ~ 18th century lines. This is in St Lawrence Jewry, in the City of London: (the main case is visible in the background in the larger image - just click on the picture to the left). The gilt-finished pipes reflect the use of this material elsewhere in the building ~ notably on the capitals of pillars, ceiling bosses and candelabrum.

Numerous churches of classic design remain, especially in the City of London and in parts of the USA where colonial-style architecture is preserved. Where original organ cases exist, they are usually well worthy of examination. Copies and reproductions can easily be detected; a look at this smaller addition at St Lawrence's, even in a photograph, shows that it is modern.

Victorian taste for elaborate decoration led to a fashion ~ that lasted for half-a-century or more ~ for painted and ornamented front pipes. This Willis organ (fig 2.)shows gilt applied to paint. The arrangement is less formal and regimented than usual, with pipes of varying base colours. This may have been influenced by a vogue for Chinoiserie; furniture and clocks in similar style date from the 1870s as does this organ.

Fig. 2
Click on image to see large version

The more usual decoration of painted pipes, had "boot topping", mouths and sometimes centre panels picked out in another colour or in gilt. Numerous firms, large and small, catered for Victorian taste for elaborate, sometimes florid, decoration. Stencils and transfers in graduated sizes for application to display pipes appear in their catalogues, occasionally to be found in secondhand bookshops.

The final appearance these give was not always what the designer intended. One organ with block ornament on its visible 32' pipes has more than once elicited an enquiry as to the source and proposed use of such large rolls of linoleum (oilcloth).

The preference of some builders has been a finish unadorned metal. Zinc, with its bluish tint, is sometimes seen for bass pipes, as is copper; opinions on their beauty vary.

The material of choice of many is an alloy with a very high tin content: indeed many instruments, perhaps especially in Germany, Holland and Austria have pipes of proof tin. The final picture in the Diary of the building of the Town Hall Rieger (May 18th 1997) shows Wendelin Eberle giving front pipes a final buffing.

The beauty of this finish is unsurpassed and most durable; in churches, it reflects colour and light from windows and candles. So it does in Christchurch Town Hall as shown by Jenny Setchell's picture 3, which she calls 'pipeflames'.

~ Pipe flames ~
The facade of the Christchurch Rieger pit only by the house working lights.

Picture 1: Crown copyright: by permission the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments/English heritage. Pictures 2 & 3; Jenny Setchell.

Feel free to email with questions or feedback

David Bridgeman-Sutton, 2003

Other musings in Views and Reviews: