Charles Darwent visits a thriving company where craftsmanship is almost all and godlessness is more to be feared, maybe, than recession.
In 1905, Messrs Harrison and Harrison Limited, organ makers of Durham, dispatched one of their fine pipe organs to Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria. The imperial sun was at its zenith. One-quarter of the atlas was coloured Britannic pink, and all over it Anglican voices raised themselves in wobbly renderings of Gladly My Cross I'd Bear and O, God, Our Help In Ages Past to the accompaniment of Messrs Harrisons' organs. Unfortunately for these particular voices, the ship that took Lagos's faithful its pipe organ was not unlike the imperial sun itself. It sank. "All they were left with was a blowing handle," says Mark Venning, Harrisons' current MD, sadly. "However, we started all over again and made them another organ, so by 1907 they could all sing to their hearts' content." Now prepare yourself for a dose of deja vu. In 1975, Messrs Harrison and Harrison, organ makers of Durham, dispatched one of their fine pipe organs to Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, Nigeria, where Anglican voices, notwithstanding the setting of the imperial sun, still raised themselves in et cetera et cetera. This time I did not sink, but the instrument did suffer a particular organic indignity. "The gold paint began to peel off its pipes," says Venning, with a wince. "Of course, we sent someone out to deal with it, so everything was all right. But you can imagine that it caused us, well, a certain amount of pain."
The pain of which Venning speaks had two causes. The first sprang from a craftsman's wounded pride; the second from an MD's wounded wallet. Harrison and Harrison may be the largest of Britain's 100 or so surviving pipe organ manufacturers, but pipe organ manufacturing is not, in these godless and empireless days, big business. To a firm whose annual turnover remains resolutely in six figures, even an Apex to Lagos is an undesirable expense. But Harrisons behaved with that impeccable corporate gentlemanliness one might have imagined to have gone the way of pink maps. "There are," admits Venning carefully, "certain uncommercial pressures attendant on pipe organ-making as an industry."
There is a curious species of business in which a lack of overt profitability is, almost, a form of profit. Harrison and Harrison is one of that species. This is not to say that the firm is unprofitable: simply that it measures its profitability in different terms from, say, Ford or ICI. Despite its primacy in the world of British pipe organ building, Harrison's output remains small. There are, perhaps, 20-25 projects in any given year, and a single large commission - a large new church organ, for example, - can, says Venning, "dominate our production for up to 18 months". As such an organ will probably cost its commissioners £250,000, auditors are unlikely to need recourse to differential calculus in working out the company's bottom line.
Harrison and Harrison's directors - Mark and Katherine Venning, a remaining Miss Harrison and an ex-company secretary - are happy that it should be so. "We are all, in one way or another, committed to pipe organ building," says Mark Venning. "They are, if you like, works of art: each has its individual personality, reflecting the skills of the various craftsmen who made it. They are most certainly not comparable to electronic organs. It's like the difference between going to a concert and hearing a symphony orchestra and going to a concert and listening to a hi-fi on the stage. I don't see how anyone with any integrity can work on something he knows to be second-rate." The cynical might suggest that a comparison between the balance-sheets of, say, Yamaha Organs and Harrison and Harrison would go some way to answering Venning's question, but one man's profit is another man's poison.
Certainly, the firm's picturesque mid-Victorian factory in the equally picturesquely named Hawthorn Terrace looks like an advertisement for Luddism. Walking around, Venning is fond of describing the various mechanisms of his products - tracker-action, say, that links keys to pipe-valves via a complex system of wooden lathes - as "innovative", adding, after a ludic pause, "in the 18th century". Apart from components for some of their organs' electro-pneumatic actions, every bit of a Harrison instrument is made on site and by hand. Pipe manufacture is typical of the firm's production process. Twice a year, two of Harrison's specialist pipe men melt an alloy of tin and lead in a small crucible, and pour the molten metal into a channelling beaker. This they hold over a molding table, and walk in tandem. "If they walk quickly, they make thin plate," says Venning, reasonably. "The slower the walk, the thicker it becomes." Harrisons' pipes have been made in this way since Thomas Harrison moved to Durham from Rochdale in 1861. It is scarcely plasma physics.
Such primordial processes are driven by more than mere industrial nostalgia, Venning maintains. Pipe organ making is a small and rarified business, and its tiny output has never justified the invention of machines that might, conceivably, replace pipe-pouring by hand with a mechanical alternative. "I can't really say that we're revolutionists here," says Harrisons' MD, "but at the same time we're quite aware of the dangers of standing still. Pipe-making is a sweaty and unpleasant job, but there's no other way of doing it. But we do believe in gentle mechanisation to liberate the craftsman rather than to replace him." As a token of this, the firm recently purchased an Autocad computer system, so that the design office now, improbably, produces drawings via microchip of slider chests, pioneered in the 16th century and still made by hand in the carpentry shop. The effect seems slightly irreverent, like electric candles in Italian churches.
The Vennings defy their apparent status as flat-earthers in other ways. Katherine Venning (pianist-cum-office-administrator) notes, "the organ is the only musical instrument not built by a single craftsman" - something of an understatement. An average-sized, £80,000 pipe organ may have 1,200 pipes, varying in size from a penny-whistle affair little larger than a knitting needle to basso profundo monsters thicker than an organist's thigh. Add to this a vast range of romantically-named stops - rohrflute and diapason, nazard and tierce - and their attendant mechanisms, bellows, trackers, slider chests and all, and you have an idea of the enormity of the managerial task. Like the instruments on which they work, Harrisons' 40-odd craftsmen have to work in harmony. "These are extremely highly skilled men, each of whom wants to build the entire instrument," says Mark Venning. "I have to make sure that they use their initiative, but at the same time get them to realise that they have to work as a team." His answer, characteristically, has been to leave the traditional craft-structure intact while introducing a holistic (a word at which he quite rightly, wrinkles his nose) element into working procedure. The final stage in a pipe-organ's manufacture is known as "voicing", literally the fine-tuning of its sound according to the acoustic of the building for which it is intended. Voicers may clearly have opinions worth hearing about earlier stages of organ manufacture, and Venning ensures that these are now discussed at the outset of each project.
The Vennings have also introduced more direct, if not precisely belligerent, commercial practices into their business. 'People kept saying to us, "Are you still building organs?",' recalls Katherine Venning. "The firm had never really advertised in its 130-year history, but we felt that we would have to start, especially as other builders were beginning to." Even in this gentle realm of the vox angelica, the voxhumana was heard. Harrison and Harrison now advertise selectively, albeit in such sweet-tempered media as The Organist and Church Music Quarterly. Mark Venning has also expanded the range of services offered by his firm: some 75% of turnover now comes from the repair, tuning and maintenance of other people's pipe organs and Harrisons will soon lease small instruments to orchestras such as the Northern Symphonia.
Nonetheless, a move away from splendour in the average parish church matched by a fall in church revenue attributable to the new godlessness means that Harrisons' market is not what it was, a fact underlined by the present recession. Last year saw only one commission for a newly-built church organ, and that a modest number for a side chapel at Ely Cathedral. The days when the firm built massive instruments for Westminster Abbey and York Minster seem far away: tellingly, the two cathedral organs built over the last decade were for Lagos and Seoul. Such exports, bolstered by better communications, help: hopes for next year are, for example, pinned on an instrument for a church in Baltimore. Against this glum picture, Venning sanguinely notes that raising the money for a Harrison organ is such a long process that churches do not cancel, making the product curiously recession-proof. "We're also helped by the growth in vandalism," says Venning, a little shamefaced, a fact that must give rise to the occasional unholy thought in Hawthorn Terrace.
In the end, Harrison and Harrisons' measure of its own success is not necessarily found on its bottom line. Katherine Venning laughingly describes herself and her husband as "careers advisers to the organ-building industry", while Mark notes, wryly, that he joined the firm on April Fool's Day. Even so, the couple's satisfaction with their business is obvious. Adversity, reasons Venning, breeds invention: when he looks at what seems to be the firm's greatest period (1910-40), the sound produced by its product was, he says "a little glib, we were in danger of doing things a little too well". Harrisons' greatest contribution to British music, he says, was the organ it built in 1951 for the Royal Festival Hall, which brought a more Continental sound to the country. It was the product not of reaction, but of experiment. "I do think," says Venning, with a quick grin, "that organic development is a good thing."