Born in Los Angeles, USA, David Winston originally trained as a violin maker before becoming a keyboard instrument maker and restorer. He has restored some of the most important and rare keyboard instruments in the world, including those of Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. He established his Period Piano Company 45 years ago, in 1976, and was awarded the Royal Warrant in 2012, as the conservator and restorer of pianos to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Talking to Dreweatts prior to the auction of The David Winston Piano Collection on 23 September 2021, David gives us an insight into some of the stories behind the collection he has built up over the last 50 years.
People ask me where the music comes from. My maternal grandfather emigrated to the US in 1914 from Lithuania and he played the mandolin – I still have his mandolin - so I think the music came from him. But my father was a mechanical engineer, and I inherited his interest in taking things apart, fixing them and solving problems.
A lot of what I do is self-taught from instinct, research and working on these instruments, letting them tell the stories and guide me. And of course, I’ve also worked for other people and gained a lot of information from them. But in 1976, I started out on my own, working in the spare bedroom of a little cottage – I don’t know how I even got the piano in there – with a little investment of £50! And it just grew. I’ve collected more instruments, built the company up and found that I got some really interesting high-profile projects such as the restoration of Beethoven’s piano, Chopin’s piano, Liszt’s piano. I’ve been lucky and privileged.
But it’s not been a straightforward path by any means. I did a degree in landscape architecture, I’ve been a lobster fisherman on the Isle of Islay in the Outer Hebrides, I apprenticed as a violin maker for 4 years, I’ve lived in different countries, learnt different languages, I’m also a photographer - and I bring all this to what I do. I think if you can do that, the end result is better, a much richer palate you’re presenting to the world.
I’m really interested in stories, and I sometimes think to myself I wish these pianos could talk and tell me their stories. But they actually do, they are like people, they store everything that has happened to them, and it all just comes out when you play them or when you just sit with them.
I think sometimes collecting pianos is a bit like having a dinner party – you select all these different people from different walks of life, different ages, different cultures, different languages, and you put them all together and see what happens and hopefully they’ll all talk to each other. I think that’s what I try to do. I’ve assembled a dinner party – it just happens to be that the guests are pianos.
As a child I was always fascinated by time machines, and that’s what these are. I think that has something to do with growing up in America where the past is not so evident as it is in a European environment. Each one of these instruments is very reflective of a particular time, not only the design of the case but also the sound. The sound of an 18th century piano is completely different, it’s a very personal instrument designed for a small space – and then you have a modern concert grand piano which is designed to fill a concert hall with 3,000 people in it and so not really appropriate for your sitting room.
I studied design at university and the design aspect of these instruments is a really important influence in my choice of what I collect. I have a little 18th century instrument with beautiful Wedgwood plaques on it (Lot 32) – an exquisite little jewel of an instrument. And some wonderful Art Deco examples, some highly decorated painted instruments right through to a very futuristic piano made from cast aluminium that looks like spaceship (Lot 7). It’s a very personal collection which reflects my own sensibilities, my own way of looking at the world.
Some of them are really strong designs, for example the Arts and Craft instrument (Lot 15) with the case attributed to C R Ashbee who was an iconic Arts and Crafts designer, is a really strong Arts and Craft design. You can’t get away from it, it’s wonderful. You’ve got to put these instruments in context with the mind set and the culture at that time.
Sometimes you find really interesting clues but you can’t always fill out the whole story. For example I have this very early Bluthner grand piano (Lot 16) made in 1854 which is the first couple of years of the establishment of the Bluthner company, and it has about eight signatures in it, including Paderewski and some very famous French musicians. But we don’t know why or where the piano was but clearly it was in some important place or belonged to a well-known musician at the time – we just don’t know but that's part of the fascination.
When I made the copy of the Brodmann piano (Lot 9), I signed my name on it and also the other people that helped me work on it, we all signed our names and dated it. Then year’s later I bought it back from the original owner. I took the keyboard out to do some work on it, and there was my signature inside. It was such a weird feeling. I’m always finding signatures and little notes inside these things and here was one from myself from 1991! That one is really my child and still an instrument full of mystery to me. Every time I sit down at it, I wonder at its voice and if at this stage in life you can still be full of wonder, what more can you ask for!
People have asked me “Why are you selling the collection, you refer to them as your children so how can you do this?” Well, the obvious answer is you have to give your children wings and let them go out in the world and find their own way. And its time. I am very aware that as a collector you are only ever the caretaker of these wonderful objects and you have to recognise the right moment when it is time for somebody else to have them, and I feel generous hearted about that, I feel good about where they are going to go and that they’ll have a new lease on live. Yes, it’s strange, seeing a lifetime’s collecting and building this collection – but I’m ok with it.
If I had to take one piano with me, given that I have a bad back from working on pianos for so long, I would probably take that little tiny square piano from c. 1795 with the Wedgwood plaques (Lot 32), because it is such a sweet exquisite piano … I just love the design, its personality. So I would probably take that and just admire it and it wouldn’t be so difficult to move around!
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The auction will take place at Dreweatts on Thursday 23 September at 12pm BST:
Berkshire RG14 2JE
The sale can be viewed by appointment at the Period Piano Company (not Dreweatts) from Monday 6 September:
Period Piano Company
Park Farm Oast
Kent TN27 8LG
To book an appointment, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 44 (0) 1635 553 513.
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