The Spencer Collection of Musical Instruments

posted in: Blog, Collections, Museology | 3

‘I am very anxious to have them remain in the museum for all time where I am sure they will be well cared for … and admired by many people’

Albert Charles Spencer

Albert Spencer c.1897
Albert Spencer c.1897

Biography:

Albert Spencer in the Penticton band, Canada c.1912
Albert Spencer in the Penticton band, Canada c.1912

Albert Charles Spencer (November 1880 – February 1969) came from a large musical family from Hackney, North London. In 1902 Albert and three of his brothers established a minstrel band called La Pimposh Band. After winning various prizes and medals the group was renamed La Pimposh Prize Band. They played at the Crystal Palace in 1908. After 1910 Spencer moved to British Columbia, Canada, where he continued to show his passion for music as a bandmaster with the Penticton Band. In 1914 he and his bandmates enlisted in the army. On his return to the United Kingdom in 1923 Spencer stayed with his sister in Paignton, Devon, where he met a fellow musician, Gladys, who became his wife in 1931. The majority of Spencer’s collection of historic musical instruments was formed in the 1930s when the couple were living in Croydon. In 1940 their Croydon home was bombed and they moved to Worthing where Spencer remained until his death in February 1969.

The Collection:

In 1956 some items from the Spencer Collection of Musical Instruments were displayed at Worthing Museum & Art Gallery. The collection was formally purchased by Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in 1960, when Mr. Spencer stated in a letter, ‘There is no other museum where I should like them to be more than the Brighton Museum’.

The collection contains over 140 brass, reed, and string instruments, originating from Europe (mainly the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Austria). The collection includes not only beautiful traditional instruments such as the violin, harp, piano, clarinet, flute and recorder but also fascinating, unusual instruments such as the serpent, the hurdy-gurdy and the bumbass (also known as the bladder fiddle) which is a folk instrument made out of the bladder of a pig.

Serpent from the Spencer Collection
Serpent from the Spencer Collection

The Serpent:

There are six different serpents in Spencer’s collection. The serpent, which looks much like the reptile after which it is named, is said to have been invented in late 14th century France and was used until the 19th century. It is a bass wind instrument with a mouthpiece characteristic of a brass instrument but with side holes like a woodwind.

The Hurdy-Gurdy (also known as a wheel-fiddle):

The Hurdy-Gurdy is believed to have been invented in the Middle East, originating from the fiddle. Like the fiddle, it is a stringed musical instrument but instead of using a bow, the Hurdy-Gurdy produces sound by a wheel rubbing against the strings. Spencer’s Hurdy-Gurdy was made by Tixier of Jenzat (near Vichy in France) and dates to the 19th century.

This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website.

3 Responses

  1. I remember reading that Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog Synthesizer in the 1960s, had to be on the defensive when people first said his analog synthesizers were not “real instruments”, as these short-sighted people believed that for an instrument to be considered “real” it had to be made of wood and metal by a craftsman (like pianos, violins, etc.). His answer was that each of his synthesizers WAS painstakingly hand made and was every bit a “real instrument”. Today, we realize that Bob Moog’s instruments, though made from electronic circuits rather than wood and strings, started a revolution in new sounds that changed the music industry. Even with the amazing sounds that digital synthesizers produce today, analog synthesizers still hold a niche among many musicians, and are used in popular recordings.

  2. I have some evidence that a recorder by Mason (mid C18) is in the Brighton Collection. If this is so, I would appreciate details of the instrument.

    • Hello Douglas,

      Will pass your question on to our curatorial team.

      Best,

      Kevin

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