Handwashers’ Newsletter 18th October 2020

A VERY UNUSUAL MUSICIAN discovered by Sue Nashe:

Whilst in lockdown, I researched a musician who designed a very strange looking item with an even stranger use!  It is called a ‘Blind Musician’s Notation Board’ and can be found at the National Trust property, Snowshill Manor, near Broadway, where I volunteer as a Room Guide.  For those of you who are not familiar with Snowshill, this is a manor house full to the brim with one man’s collection of handcrafted items from furniture, toys, samurai armour to bicycles, costumes, musical instruments and everything in between!  

Snowshill House

The notation board was created by a very gifted Scot, James Watson who went blind aged 5yrs due to smallpox and at 13yrs old, went to school at the ‘Asylum for the Blind’ in Edinburgh, where it was noted that he was very good with making mechanical items.

The Notation Board (H 2’9”, L 3’2”, W 2’)

He designed the notation board so that he could teach music to the blind and presented one of the boards in 1822 to the Society of Art (now the Royal Society of Art) with instructions of how to use it. It is about the size of a small desk and extremely complicated to use suffice to say it has lines of holes and different shaped pegs to go in the holes to represent every notation on a sheet of music such as notes, sharps, flats, bar lines, rests, tempo and so on.  There are extra boards which are just visible in the photo under the top board.

James also played the violin as well as the cello and performed at many concerts but he wanted to play both instruments together! He devised a device he could play with his feet using his right foot in a kind of shoe for bowing and his left foot controlled the stops by which he shortened the strings.  His first attempt was not very successful but with further work, his concerts became well attended. However, not satisfied with that, he invented a second cello to play alongside the first!  In a review of one of his concerts in 1821 it was stated ‘the one upon which he plays the principal strain, is so contrived as to have the power and tone of two played by different performers: so that he may be said to play three cellos – the principal strain upon two and bass upon a third’. 

So, it can be seen that James Watson was indeed a very talented man with an unusual but inventive mind as well as a musical one.

(Sue’s description of the amazing James Watson playing on several cellos at the same time reminded me of a one-man-band I used to see in London many years ago. This isn’t the one but is similar:


and then, in a very different genre, there’s Dr Cole playing the Minchinhampton Organ and his cello at the same time. By using technology and a clever cameradaughter you may think he’s cheating but he’s definitely worth hearing again:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_xBcN7_ziI   Ed.)

ASHLEY RICHES Last week Andy described Ashley’s successful career triggered by his appearance with CCS in 2010. Tomorrow he will be giving the Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at 1.00. Here’s a taster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-N1JegR1Uw 


Thanks to Jane Read for this advice: