It was back in 2004 that I met Graham Rankin, enthusiast for and restorer of all things vintage. I was on the trail of a wonderful old Steinway piano once played by the classical greats. Neglected and in disrepair and by now more than 100 years old, it found its way to the remarkable Mr Rankin. When I turned up at his door I soon discovered that keyboard instruments were just one of his many passions. This is the story that emerged.
Words Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles
SHE is almost 103 years old and during a long and eventful life may have felt the caress of Rachmaninov, Bartok and Stravinsky. No, we are not talking about some geriatric classical groupie. The “she” in question is a magnificent Steinway model D Concert Grand found gathering dust backstage at Bournemouth’s now closed Winter Gardens.
But how long this huge and imposing instrument was in Bournemouth, who played her and which concerts she featured in remains unclear. That she was played by the great, the good and possibly the legendary is beyond doubt. For the Steinway Model D is the Rolls Royce of pianos and revered throughout the classical world. That those who played her included some or all of the above named musical A list is a distinct possibility. They all appeared at the Winter Gardens. But so far the old lady has kept her secrets.
Now the man who found her, bought her and is currently planning to return her to her former performing glory is determined to fill in the gaps in this grand old piano’s history. Graham Rankin, a builder and restorer of everything from antique instruments to vintage cars, knows that the piano was built at Steinway’s workshops in Hamburg, The company’s archives show that the instrument, registration number 104793, was first shipped new from Germany in November 1901.
What happened to it then, who played it and how long it was before it arrived at the Winter Gardens remains a mystery. “It would be very interesting to find out the background to the instrument,” says Graham. “I would love to publish a history with photographs so that its story can be kept for posterity.”
So far his inquiries have led to a number of dead ends. Many people connected with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which for many years used the Winter Gardens as its headquarters know the instrument well but no one seems to know exactly where it came from or when. Far from frustrating its new owner, this lack of information simply inspires Graham Rankin to make greater efforts to find out. “I enjoy a challenge,” he says. I am soon discover that this is possibly the understatement of the century.
A bright earnest man with sparkling eyes and a bristling moustache, he is an extraordinary enthusiast. In little over an hour in his company I was treated to fascinating insights into subjects as varied as turn of the century land speed records, the history of the pipe organ, the sound quality of the vintage gramophone horn, church turret clocks, historic timber-framed buildings and much, much more. And I’m sure that that only scratched the surface of Graham Rankin’s fascinating world.
He lives with his wife Mary-Anne in a huge and beautiful barn conversion on farmland that was once the estate of Jane Austen’s brother at Chawton in Hampshire. It’s an idyllic setting and big enough to house a collection of workshops and storerooms where he can work on a variety of strange and usually vaguely mechanical projects.
He greets us on arrival summoned from a nearby work room by an industrial sounding claxon he has wired to his front doorbell. We head for the music room but I’m stopped in my tracks on the way by the sight of a huge old car. “Oh that,” says Graham “That’s a 1905 Fiat that they were going to produce to challenge the land speed record.”
It turns out that the monster car never actually made it into production but that Graham got hold of the original design drawings and, nearly a century after it was originally conceived, is building it himself. Nearby in the same workshop is another vintage Fiat which he says he dragged from a bog in Ireland. It was a complete wreck and hadn’t been driven since 1913. Graham spent years restoring the vehicle to working order and in 1993 drove her again for the first time in 80 years. He doesn’t limit himself to Fiats however, elsewhere around his home I notice a Bugatti and a Vauxhall. I’m sure there are others too.
After all this the music room, where he intends to install the Steinway Model D, threatens to be something of an anti-climax. Not a bit of it. Not only is it housed on the upper floor of a magnificently converted barn complete with vast oak beams hewn from a single tree in the 15th century but pride of place is taken by an astonishning pipe organ. Another of Graham’s rescue projects, the 1876 two manual Sweetland was salvaged from a church in Bath.
It arrived in Chawton and was stripped down to 125,000 pieces before being painstakingly reassembled. Now with its 600 pipes in pefect working order, it has pride of place at concerts that the Rankins occasionally host. He gives me a demonstration of its capabilities, lifting the lid of a nearby carved oak chest to reveal a mini-mixing desk “we need this because of the flat acoustic in here” he explains. Flicking a couple of switches, he pulls out various stops before hitting the keys causing the Sweetland to swell into magnificent musical life.
As we make our way to the workshop where the Steinway is currently stored Graham takes us through his lounge. It’s hard not to notice the vintage gramophone with its huge conical sound horn that dominates one corner of the room. This is another passion. After finding a classic EMG Senior Gramophone, Graham was determined to locate an original horn to go with it. He was extraordinarily successful, tracking down the very first horn of its type complete with a “number one” embossed on it’s side. However the near impossibility of finding any other properly constructed gramophone horns, particularly ones made from applique mache (“the only material that produces the proper sound quality,” says Graham), has led him to build his own protype and examine the prospect of manufacturing them himself.
“Who exactly are you going to sell them to?” I ask. “Hmm, good question!” he replies before offering a demonstration of what he calls the “holographic sound” produced by the EMG and its magnificent horn. He selected a Mozart opera from a pile of old 78s and then rummaging in a box found a needle. “Burmese thorns,” he explained. “The only thing to use.” The result was indeed extremely impressive.
The Winter Gardens grand may well have been played on one or more of Graham’s old 78s, certainly its battered casing shows scars where microphones have been attached for recording sessions. It is currently stored in a room that in many ways gives clues to passions to be found in the rest of the Rankin household. It sits alongside a couple vintage cars, a turret clock, one of Graham’s monster gramophone horns and an old bicycle that looks as though Mary Poppins herself left it there.
Despite its scuffed and scratched casing and a cracked soundboard, the instrument is in remarkably good condition and even more or less in tune. It’s acquisition is something of a dream come true for Graham who has longed to own a Steinway Model D ever since playing one in a dealers showroom several years ago.“It was marvellous I decided there and then that nothing less would do, such was the joy of that instrument.”
Then he discovered the price and sat down – a decent Model D can cost £100,000. He started hunting for a good second hand instrument and eventually found himself at the Winter Gardens. However the piano they showed him dated fom the mid 1950s and Graham felt that it had suffered from being manufactured during a period of post war austerity. “My assessment was that the quality was not all that it might have been” he says. He rejected the idea of buying and was about to leave when he noticed a second Model D covered in dustsheets.
Undoubtedly much older but dating from one of Steinway’s finest manufacturing eras, the piano instantly appealed. Negotiations were soon underway and last summer, after offering a bid by sealed tender, Graham was its new owner. He is currently assessing how far to take the restoration process. “I am thinking very carefully before even touching it,” he explains. “It is vital that we find the correct balance between musical excellence and cosmetic appearance. The last thing I want is do anything to it that will effect the quality or character of its sound.” In the meantime he hopes that anyone with memories of or information about the Steinway will contact him.