Replicating the 18th Century Bunworth Harp

Replicating the 18th Century Bunworth Harp

by David Kortier
(with an introduction by Joyce Rice)

In 1734 John Kelly made a harp in Co. Cork in Ireland for the Rev. Charles Bunworth, who was a noted harper himself as well as a patron of harpers and poets. After the Reverend’s death in 1772, his harp passed from his granddaughter to various antiquarians and collectors, and was eventually donated in 1916 to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. We’re lucky that it survived at all, though, because upon Bunworth’s death a caretaker apparently burned for firewood 15 other harps that had been bequeathed to Bunworth by their owners who had been grateful for his support and friendship!

That was not an unusual fate for harps. As Mary Louise O’Donnell writes in Ireland’s Harp, The Shaping of Irish Identity, “From the fifteenth century onwards, some English monarchs viewed the music of the harpers and their esteemed status in Gaelic society as a threat to the successful completion of colonization. Consequently, various decrees were issued to execute harpers and destroy their instruments. The damage to the Irish harp tradition was irreparable and marked the demise of the Irish harper as court musician.”

Luckily, we still have some Irish harps from as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries, but either they’re missing some parts or it would be too risky to string them up. How can we know what they probably sounded like and how they were played?

Sometimes we’re able to restore them to a somewhat playable condition; more often replicas are made.

Harpmaker David Kortier says, “In the instance of early Irish harps, we have virtually no written music to look at, and not much written commentary about how music was done then, so playing on a period instrument helps fill in the gaps. There are fewer than 20 early (from before 1750 or so) Irish harps in existence and maybe half of them have been copied. Based on that body of experience we are beginning to gain insight into how these harps were built, and what music they were suited for,” how they were strung and how they sounded. “This is what people like Ann Heymann [who has resurrected the method of the old harpers] do: they compare the literary record with the practical experience of playing, and by conferring with others, a narrative is pieced together.”

Here, then, is David's story.


The Bunworth harp, the only early Irish wire strung harp that resides outside the British Isles, is in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The BMFA is very proactive in making their collection come alive for visitors, in some cases literally. The commission to make a playing copy of the Bunworth is an example of this direction, under the curatorship of Darcy Kuronen. I am very grateful to him for trusting me to take on this task, and for the support he provided during the process.

I initially visited the harp in February 2009, accompanied by Ann Heymann, a master in the performance and traditions of the Gaelic harp, and Nancy Hurrell, a harp consultant at the Museum of Fine Arts. Together, we gathered all the data necessary to draw an accurate likeness of the harp. We also took MANY photos, from every conceivable angle.


Measuring a harp is not exactly easy - there are few straight lines, and harps are often deformed with age. I have concluded that there are three points common to all harps, and I have developed my procedure for data collection based on this.

  • The point where the neck meets the top of the soundbox I call point A.

  • The point where the neck meets the front pillar, I call point B.

  • In like manner, the point where the front pillar meets the bottom of the soundbox is point C.

All other points on the harp can be described by measuring to two of these fixed locations.

To be more accurate, I have added more points- I fix a telescoping wooden stick between points B and C. I then strike a line from this stick to the 15th string hole in the belly of the harp, at a right angle. This becomes point D. Additionally, I call the 15th string hole E, and the 15th tuning peg point G. This gives me many triangulation possibilities, to eliminate as much error as possible.

Once the data are entered in neat columns on paper, they need to be converted to the likeness of a harp. I do this back in the shop on a large sheet of paper, first laying out my triangle ABC. I then add all the other points, and by constantly referring to my photos, I develop a drawing of the harp. By pasting this paper drawing onto sheet aluminum, I can cut out templates that not only give me the shapes to cut the wood, but also indicate very accurately where to drill holes and so forth.

Then, it is time to start cutting wood. The Museum had samples taken of the wood of the soundbox, the front pillar, and the neck of the harp. We expected the soundbox to be willow, but were surprised to find that the neck and pillar are also willow. As it turns out, English white willow has naturalized in the upper Midwest of the US, and I was able to locate some wonderful large logs to work with.

After much labor with a very large chainsaw, I had the blocks of willow needed. From past experience, I knew that it is best to rough out the interior of the soundbox immediately. It dries much more quickly and with less cracking because the water leaves the wood evenly from all the exposed surfaces.

Carving the details is time consuming, but a very satisfying part of the job.

The parts must be fitted together very carefully, as they are held together in the finished harp only by the string tension, no screws or Super Glue! In this photo, the neck and pillar are made of walnut. I built a prototype instrument first, to test my design, and before getting the information that the neck and pillar of the original are willow. Ann Heymann purchased this prototype harp (with the walnut neck and pillar) and has incorporated it into her study of the early Irish harp.

In an effort to do a thorough reconstruction of the harp, samples were taken by the Museum of the pigments present on the original instrument. By careful analysis of this information, Assistant Furniture Curator Christine Schaette developed a working procedure for the application of the various layers. She also carefully traced all of the decorations on Mylar film and sent them to me. Fortunately, the Mylar tracings coincided with the wooden parts that I had fashioned!

The first layer is a sizing of red lead in hide glue. Don't try this at home as the lead is toxic - notice my gloves.

After the sizing was smoothed out, the lines of the decorations were transferred onto the harp, and all lines were lightly incised. This made it easier to add each pigment in turn, and to stay inside the lines. The pigments are naturally occurring substances in a linseed oil varnish. The red is vermillion, the black is furnace black, the white is white lead, the blue is azurite, and the green is malachite.

Finally, the metal parts were installed, and the stringing could be done. The harp in this photo is the prototype again, it was painted before the true pigments arrived from the Museum. (The prototype's red is Rustoleum from the hardware store, not as elegant as the vermillion used on the final version.)

Here is the finished Bunworth on display in the BMFA next to the original. An inaugural concert was given at the Museum on June 12, 2011 by Ann Heymann assisted by husband Charlie. She did great research to put together an appropriate program, and has since returned to the Museum to do recordings of much of this music. 


More information on David’s replica harps can be found at

More on the Bunworth harp at

Ireland’s Harp, The Shaping of Irish Identity c. 1770-1880, by Mary Louise O’Donnell. University College Dublin Press, 2014

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