As the scaffolding goes up in the ante-chapel this week, experts will be dismantling the organ piece by piece, preparing for its journey to the Harrison & Harrison organ builders workshop in Durham.
Director of Chapel Music at Wadham, Dr Katharine Pardee explained: “This is one of the only chapel organs in Oxford that has remained in near original condition since it was built in 1877, so is a very much treasured instrument. It has survived the winds of change that suggested in 1904 that it was too small and should be replaced by something bigger, and in the 1970s that it was too big and should be replaced by something smaller.”
As a result, apart from some small essential repairs that were carried out in the 1980s, the organ has remained virtually untouched. The restoration work will include a thorough clean, restoration of the original hand blowing mechanism (although the electric blowing mechanism will remain operational) and replacement of the 1980s repairs to the conduits using original materials.
Describing the organ sound which the restoration work will preserve Katharine said: “The organ does exactly what is needed to play music of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The wonderful sound is clear but with a variety that is powerful and exhilarating while being delicate and delightful.”
The organ components will be taken to the organ builders workshop in Durham for repair and restoration after which Harrision and Harrison will return to the Chapel to begin the reassembly and tuning of the organ.
Wadham’s Estates & Facilities Manager Chris Daw added: "The organ case will remain in position throughout the project and it is anticipated that the work will take about 19 weeks, finishing on 14 August when the organ will be restored to the chapel. From time-to-time access to the ante-chapel will be restricted to allow the works to progress safely. Our aim will be to reduce disruption to a minimum, however, no access to the Chapel will be possible in the last two weeks of the project when the tuning and voicing of the organ take place."
Read an article by Curtis Rogers about the Wadham College Chapel Organ in The Organ Magazine, February 2012
Wadham College was founded in 1610 by Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham, rich Somerset landowners. It was largely built in one go, including the chapel, so there is a remarkable uniformity in its architecture and it is a fine artistic monument to the Jacobean age. As far as is known though, the college did not possess an organ until one was built by Willis & Sons no less, in 1877, paid for by subscription of college members.
In his history of the college, the architect Thomas Jackson noted how ‘the organ stood at first without a case, nakedly on the floor of the south transept’, that is in the left-hand arm of the antechapel as one views the organ in its present position in the middle of the antechapel, standing with the altar behind one. It was Jackson himself who designed the present organ loft and case in 1886, in the same Jacobean style as most of the other furnishings in the chapel, with characteristic strapwork, obelisks and slender columns. Jackson also noted that ‘the organ is kept as narrow from front to back as the organ builder could be induced to make it, in order not to block the antechapel’. This explains the organ’s appearance then as quite flat, as though pressed up against the chapel’s west end, with the pipes of the [Great] division piled up on each other in two layers in the middle, Pedal pipe towers at the sides which are flat rather than canted outwards, and the console on the right-hand side (north end) of the pipework.
Apparently it was the college chaplain, Rev. J.C. Hanbury who was largely responsible for the choice of stops provided, which it will be observed from the specification includes a high proportion of eight-foot stops. In comparison to the Willis instrument in St. Peter’s College for instance, this organ in Wadham is, if anything, even richer or more orchestral in quality. Like St. Peter’s, it was as much through temporary neglect than judgment, that the instrument survives in the essentially intact condition that it is in today. [...] This means that the organ may be somewhat clunky at times, but that is a small disadvantage to the privilege of being able to hear the Willis trademarks of a distinctive array of colours that can be utilised individually, but also combined in many various ways to yield a satisfying and coherent blend of sound; there are also the fiery reeds and an overall clarity of sound, which is attributable to the fact that the pipework is all original. This results in a genuine versatility that enables the organ to realise a diversity of repertoire from the earliest organ composers to those of the present day.
[I am greatly indebted to an article in the Wadham College Gazette (1995) by David Maw, who was the then outgoing Brookman Graduate Organ Scholar at the college.]