Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

Henry & The Giant Harp, part two

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Last week, I wrote my Observer column about Henry Dagg’s giant pin-barrel harp. The gist, if you didn’t read the column, was that a chap called Henry Dagg had been given £27,000 of Lottery money to spend six months making four outdoor sound sculptures for the garden of the English Folk Dance And Song Society; four years later, he has finished one of them and it’s too vulnerable to be outside. Voices in the press were roaring angrily about “our money” being given to someone who couldn’t deliver on time or to purpose. I was arguing that this is exactly what arts subsidies are for: not to pay off those who are on top of the time/profit ratio, but to sustain those who need a bit of support because they might (when the creative spirit takes hold) accidentally spend four years on something that doesn’t fulfil its brief. This is the great dream of art for art’s sake, surely a joyful component of civilized society.
  As it happens, the piece that Henry Dagg finished (ie. the giant harp) also looked really beautiful in the paper, surely worth building for aesthetic reasons alone.

  To my great excitement, I got an email a couple of days later from Henry Dagg himself. He invited me to come and see the finished sculpture (“so much better in the steel”) at his workshop in Kent. I accepted that invitation today, and it’s one of the best adventures I’ve had for a long time.

  Henry’s workshop is a magical wonderland. It’s full of machines - machines that he’s built, machines that he uses for building, machines that turn out to be instruments.

  “What’s that?”, I asked as we wandered past a strange tall thing with wheels on it.

  “The Voicycle?” said Henry, hopping aboard and cycling up and down, playing Summertime on a pedal-powered siren at the top.

  I barely had time to hum along before Henry was off the Voicycle and onto the Hootie-Scooter, whizzing round his workshop to the tune of O Come All Ye Faithful which he played through its handle. A combined scooter and hurdy-gurdy! I never realized how badly the world needed one, until I saw what Henry had built.

  “And that?” I asked.

  “The Catastrophony?” Henry whipped off the wooden case to reveal a keyboard made of toy cats. He ran along it, pressing squeakers in their backs to make his workshop reverberate to Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

  And then, of course, there was the main attraction. The picture at the top is me and Henry, standing in front of the giant pin-barrel harp. The Sharpsichord. (So-called in tribute to Cecil Sharp, the hero of English folk music). To appreciate its true beauty, you need us to get out of the way.

  It is an absolutely incredible thing. Being, now, too valuable to stand outside, it can’t operate by solar power as it’s supposed to. But Henry can set its pins to any tune he likes (sort of like writing sheet music, but in 3D) and turn the handle to play the tune. It makes a beautiful noise, unlike anything else. He has actually invented a new musical instrument - completely new, yet nodding its stainless steel head to folk tradition and Victorian design - which sounds beautiful and looks beautiful, and the idea of him being in trouble with either the English Folk Dance society or the Lottery people makes my blood boil. I promise you, unless you are somehow against the idea, in principle, of subsidizing the creative arts with Lottery money, this is EXACTLY how you want it spent.

  Henry is now hoping that an appropriate location can be found for the Sharpsichord to be stored inside, but somewhere the public can interact with it - like the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, for example. I really hope it finds a home. Ideally it would be in a garden or a park, operating by magical solar power, but I can see that it would need a constant guard to prevent some chancer stripping it for valuable scrap. But this needs to be seen and played with. It’s wonderful, and Henry Dagg is an amazing fellow, living like Caractacus Potts surrounded by bizarre and brilliant inventions. Everything does something. The railings round his house are a giant vertical xylophone. He doesn’t even use an ordinary teapot.

It was a great afternoon, and I hope you all get the chance to see that harp one day. In the meantime, here it is being played by Chris Wood, accompanied by Henry Dagg himself. On the saw.

The Long And Winding Road.

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Chrissie at 10:29 pm on February 6th, 2010

That is awesome, and yes it’s EXACTLY what I want lottery money to be spent on. That’s real art, done well interestingly and originally.

More please :-)

Pete Knight at 10:34 pm on February 6th, 2010

Not being one for the arts, I’m normally unimpressed with art, especially the Emin/Hirst variety, but speaking as an engineer i love the concept of functional art. So Ms Coren, you’ve sold me on this one, and proved once again that the mainstream press write out of their collective arses.


Phil at 10:43 pm on February 6th, 2010

Stunning stuff; I’m blown away by the size of it. Henry seems to encompass all that is magical about English passion and eccentricity. Like a Victorian throwback Willy Wonka style character who invented a time machine back then, just to come forward to visit and bring a litttle wonder into our jaded post-modern lives.

MarkP at 10:59 pm on February 6th, 2010

You are so right. The instrument is a thing of beauty which makes the world seem a gentler place whilst you listen to it. I would happily buy a lottery ticket if I thought the money was going to projects like this.

KlooRhee at 11:04 pm on February 6th, 2010

Amazing! The man’s a genius. Now I am by far no art expert but this must be worth more than £27g. Don’t tell me it isn’t.

Pure steampunk!

Andrew at 11:15 pm on February 6th, 2010

Well said Victoria

Britain’s greatness was accompanied by folk with the means to do their own thing.  For every Darwin you got a pack of genial eccentrics that just made life interesting.  Given the Lottery’s love of giving huge sums to projects that then can’t afford to open their doors or keep the lights on, what would they pick on this guy for!

Anne at 12:29 am on February 7th, 2010

It’s a shame the piece will never get to Cecil Sharp House, but I hope it will get a good home somewhere people can appreciate it. A Good use of Lottery money.

David R at 1:17 am on February 7th, 2010

Excellent pictures Vicky. It’s extraordinary, but it’s also very friendly looking.

I’m a big fan of the “as long as it takes” school of doing things. I think we should trust people and give them more free rein like this in general. It pays off in the long run.

Dave G at 1:41 am on February 7th, 2010

It looks like a time machine that’s been made by a mad professor!

Good luck to the guy, we need more of these sort of people in the world.

paul dettman at 3:46 am on February 7th, 2010

This is way cool! As I am reading in Sydney, can I suggest the headline: Dagg But Not Daggy?

C Scott at 11:12 am on February 7th, 2010

What is this ‘civilized society’ of which you speak? Oh, wait a minute, I remember something from the early ‘70s - something to do with public bandstands, drinking fountains and public support of arts. But that was all before the great ‘rollback’. Now the hopeless pay a regressive tax to support the cultural pursuits of the wealthy while ... Ideological shifts aside, the media help ensure nobody has an appreciation of anything.
@Pete “I’m normally unimpressed with art” - stunning

MJB at 11:56 am on February 7th, 2010

Re location: Oxford Town Hall perhaps.
They have the Oxford Folk Festival there - this year it’s April 16th-18th.

Charles Dence at 12:07 pm on February 7th, 2010

I agree - A wonderful story of the true artist. But can see why the folky dancers were a bit miffed. 4 years is a long time. Messiaen’s ‘Turangalila’ symphony was written in 2, and I’m sure you (and the rest of the world) will agree, that it’s the greatest piece of art the world has ever known.
You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of the exact details of Mr Dagg’s previous 4 years, would you? Blueprints, expenses, favourite shampoo? Then I could come to a more definite answer.
The main fuel for this webcam is jealousy - I would love to get a commission, so I can indulge in my power poetry. But I doubt I ever will, because I’m insane.
And I ask you Ms Coren, is that not the inevitable fate, of any TRUE artist? The answer is no.

Henry Dagg at 10:47 pm on February 7th, 2010

I very much enjoyed your visit too, Victoria;  your column in the Observer really cheered me up after a week of unexpected and increasingly negative publicity; it hits so many nails on the head, and still makes me laugh every time I read it. Your blog is another exquisitely written piece, and a real bonus to add to the original. The penurious job of being my agent is yours, if you want it!

  My thanks also go to all the other contributors who have been so positive about my work; I hope we can find an appropriate venue where you will be able to experience it personally.
  Its design reflects my belief that once the more musically adventurous members of the public understand that with some time and patience they can leave a piece of their own music behind by inserting the pins where required, it should prove something of a hands-on tourist attraction to draw popular interest towards the English Folk Dance & Song Society.
  Victoria is quite right about its ideal setting being a garden, although an indoor site has the potential advantages of better security, acoustics and lower noise levels. (& all-weather use!) And although solar power is an advantage when it’s performing unattended, it’s much better to wind it manually when performing with other musicians and singers.

  I feel very privileged to have had my work championed by such a witty, intelligent writer who has also shown considerable integrity and generosity. Thanks again, Victoria!  Your name will be added to the roll of honour of the many friends and admirers who supported the project through a very tough time.

marty lawrance at 12:45 am on February 8th, 2010

That is what subsidies are for. Not things like the olympic games, which are supposed to be business driven.

Anne at 8:38 am on February 8th, 2010

so Henry,  as well as being a brilliant artist, you are a very eloquent writer. I enjoyed reading your post, and I hope one day I shall get to see your creation.

The Benj at 1:25 pm on February 8th, 2010

I work for a company who are dependent on grants from the Arts Council and UK Film Council.  When I see the millions of pounds wasted on somewhere like The Public in West Bromwich, it makes my blood boil.  So you might think that I am against the use of public money for things like this.

On the contrary, it’s refreshing to see arts money being used for exactly that… art.  OK, so it’s not practical, doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.  But that’s what makes it art.

To Henry Dagg, I say… good work, fella

Pauline at 3:25 pm on February 8th, 2010

I love the Sharpsichord. It is indeed a thing of beauty. Thank you, Henry Dagg, for creating it. And thank you, Victoria Coren, for once again bucking the trend and questioning accepted media wisdom (sorry, ‘wisdom’ is entirely the wrong word).

I hope Henry won’t be offended, but your brief reference to Caractacus Potts was perfect. Could the Sharpsichord play ‘Me Ole Bamboo’?

HoorayForHenry! at 8:46 pm on February 8th, 2010

Is there a ‘Greatest Living Englishman’ award? If so, I’d like to nominate The Daggster. This whole story is just wonderful, and Henry’s beautiful performance of The Long and Winding Road is, er, a definite sight for saw eyes…

Wolfram Alksne at 2:42 am on February 11th, 2010

...the question or hope for a worthy place to be - how about the transformed Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, England, reopened on 7 November 2009.
Its first building was built in 1678–1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities Elias Ashmole gave Oxford University in 1677.
  Beaumont Street
  Oxford, United Kingdom, OX1 2PH
  01865 278 000
Tues - Sun:
  10:00 - 18:00
This link gives you some idea how it might look ‘at home’ here :

Francesca Ronai Agoro at 1:24 pm on November 3rd, 2010

I really wanted to share this video that we shot recently of Dagg and his stunning Sharpsichord. Sadly the instrument is still homeless but hopefully we have managed to capture some of it’s beauty:

Victoria Coren

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