French Lyre thumbnail 1
French Lyre thumbnail 2
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Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Europe 1600-1815, Room 1

French Lyre

about 1780 (Made)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

Lyre-like instruments first became fashionable in France in the 1780s, where they were often referred to as Lyres Nouvelles. This eight-stringed version, known in England as the French Lyre or Lyre-Guitare [sic], has a guitar-like neck with holes in the fingerboard into which one could screw a capo' and play in different keys, much like an English guitar of that date. At the bottom is an ivory button which let one play it with a shoulder strap, like a guitar. The Lyre Guitar was popular in salons and conformed with Neo-Classical fashions. Instructions on how to play this instrument were often included in tutors for the Guitar and arrangements were made song accompaniments "for guitar or lyre" during the early 1800s.

This instrument was once owned by a certain Captain Westwood, who claimed that it had belonged to Queen Marie-Antoinettte of France (1755-1793). During the nineteenth century, Queen Marie-Antoinette was much romanticized, and collectors often claimed to possess items that had once belonged to her.

Object details

Category
Object type
Materials and techniques
Planed and joined sycamore back and sides, lined with canvas; planed pine belly edged with ebony stringing (and possibly also boxwood stringing); turned ivory hitch-pins; ebony fingerboard with ivory frets; turned ivory strap-pin; carved and partly gilt ebonised peg-head. Triangular section of ebony inlaid into the base.
Brief description
French lyre, sycamore back and sides, pine belly, French, about 1780.
Physical description
'Lyre-shaped with no central neck. Back of five pieces of sycamore. Sides of two pieces joined edge to edge and lined with canvas. Belly of pine, with two open soundholes, loose bridge, eight ivory hitch-pins at the rounded base and also an ivory slinging button [or strap button]. The shoulders of the body are raised in the form of two horns, to each of which a curved and gilt solid wooden arm is attached in the manner of a guitar neck. These arms support a flat head with carved and gilt scrollwork and eight pegs inserted from the rear. From the head, a slightly curved fingerboard with fifteen ivory frets and shaped end projects downwards towards the body, ending short of it. Eight strings, five of gut, three of overspun silk. Ten capotasto holes'.

Anthony Baines, Catalogue of Musical Instruments in the Victoria and Albert Museum - Part II: Non-Keyboard Instruments (London, 1978), pp. 64-65.
Dimensions
  • Total length: 85cm
  • Belly length: 26cm
  • Fingerboard length: 31cm
  • String length length: 51.2cm
  • Width: 48cm
  • Depth: 15cm
Measurements taken from Anthony Baines:Catalogue of Musical Instruments in the Victoria and Albert Museum - Part II: Non-keyboard instruments. (London, 1998), pp. 64-65.
Object history
Carl Engel (1818-1882) acquired this instrument from a certain Captain Westwood, who claimed that it had once belonged to Queen Marie-Antoinette of France. However, according to Engel, 'the documents in evidence that Marie Antoinette used to play upon it when she was imprisoned, were brought with the instrument from France by Captain Westbrook, but are now missing.' (See references, London, 1874.) The Museum bought this instrument in 1882 for £3-10-00 (£3.50).

Two of the pegs appear to be of a later date than the others.
Summary
Lyre-like instruments first became fashionable in France in the 1780s, where they were often referred to as Lyres Nouvelles. This eight-stringed version, known in England as the French Lyre or Lyre-Guitare [sic], has a guitar-like neck with holes in the fingerboard into which one could screw a capo' and play in different keys, much like an English guitar of that date. At the bottom is an ivory button which let one play it with a shoulder strap, like a guitar. The Lyre Guitar was popular in salons and conformed with Neo-Classical fashions. Instructions on how to play this instrument were often included in tutors for the Guitar and arrangements were made song accompaniments "for guitar or lyre" during the early 1800s.

This instrument was once owned by a certain Captain Westwood, who claimed that it had belonged to Queen Marie-Antoinettte of France (1755-1793). During the nineteenth century, Queen Marie-Antoinette was much romanticized, and collectors often claimed to possess items that had once belonged to her.
Bibliographic references
  • Anthony Baines:Catalogue of Musical Instruments in the Victoria and Albert Museum - Part II: Non-keyboard instruments. (London, 1998), pp. 64-65.
  • Carl Engel: Descriptive Catalogue of the Musical Instruments in the South Kensington Museum, (London, 1874), p.326.
Collection
Accession number
253-1882

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Record createdMay 16, 2001
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