by Anna Sikorzak-Olek

The harp has a long history. Thousands of years had passed before a bow with a few bowstrings became a musical instrument that could enchant human senses with the beauty of its sound. With the appearance of the harpsichord in the fifteenth century and the piano in the seventeenth, it might well have been forgotten because the chromatic potential of the harp was paltry at the time. The player could change the pitch of the sound produced by a string only by a semitone; to do this, she would operate a hook with her left hand.

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were decisive for the evolution of the harp. In 1697, Jakob Hochbrucker revolutionized its construction by building a pedal harp on which the player used feet to change the pitch by a semitone. This was enough to make the harp popular again.  Beautiful instruments were built, and they adorned royal and aristocratic salons. The mechanism kept getting better throughout the eighteenth century. The workshops of Jean Henri Naderman, Georges Cousineau, Pleyel, Antonie and Pierre Chaillot, Louvet and Sebastian Erard vied with each other to create even more innovative designs.

It was at this time that a Polish engraver, illustrator, painter, engineer and inventor by the name of Karol Groll (sometimes spelled Groell, Groll or Grell) made his mark on the history of the harp.

He came from a family well known for its contributions to Polish culture; its founder was Michał Groll, a German bookseller who moved from Dresden to Warsaw in 1759 and opened a bookshop in the Old Mariawil (where the Grand Theatre stands today). In 1778 he opened a printer's shop, which existed until 1806. Michał Groll held the title of “Court Commissioner and Bookseller to His Royal Majesty at the Castle.” His workshop printed parliamentary speeches, royal documents and some of the most outstanding Polish and foreign literary works. For eight years Michał Groll published, at his own expense, the literary journal “Entertaining and Practical Diversions by Sundry Authors”. He printed the works of Krasicki, Naruszewicz, Trembecki, Kniaźnin, Niemcewicz, as well as poetry and parliamentary speeches by Michał Kazimierz Ogiński (see below).

Michał Groll and his work deserve a separate study; here we shall confine our attention to his son, Karol, who was born in 1770 in Warsaw. His mother, Johanna Sophie Schüller, also gave birth to his three sisters. After Johanna’s death in 1776, Michał married Zofia Jacobson, who came from a well-known family of Warsaw jewellers. 

Seeing that his son had a talent for painting, and thinking of the needs of the printing business, Michał Groll made sure his son received the education of a painter, draughtsman and engraver: initially under the supervision of Bogumił Schiffer, a noted painter at the court of Count Alojzy Brüll, then in Dresden and, for four years, in Berlin, under the tutelage of Daniel Michał Chodowiecki, a world-famous engraver and director of the Academy of Fine Arts.

After returning to his native country in 1791, Karol worked for twelve years for his father, illustrating books with engravings. He designed the first Polish banknote, the Treasury Bill of 1794; it was printed by Groll's printing works. 

He also made a remarkable engraving after a drawing by Smuglewicz, depicting a woman on a barricade (1791); it became the symbol of the Great Sejm and the song “Welcome the Dawn of May”.


Three years later Karol Groll made a similar engraving, depicting Napoleon as General Bonaparte in a pose that Eugene Delacroix used in his famous painting “Liberty Leading the People” (1810).  

Thanks to his father's position as well as his own talent, Karol became well known at the royal court and the aristocratic salons of Warsaw. He was acquainted with many Polish writers and painters. It was probably in the palace of Princess Aleksandra Ogińska that he met the outstanding painter Aleksander Orłowski, who, shortly before his departure for St. Petersburg, painted a portrait of eight eminent Warsaw artists at his friend's request. Thus we know how Karol looked like in 1802, when he was thirty-two.

From the left: 1. Franciszek Gugenmus – watchmaker at the court of King Stanisław Poniatowski, 2.  KAROL GROLL, 3. Manarelli, professor of singing and guitar player, 4. Aleksander Orłowski – painter, 5. Włoch – lottery organizer 6. Bartłomiej Falino – engraver,  7. Kazimierz Woźniakowski – painter (author of the “Enactment of the Constitution of 3 May”), 8. Henryk Ittar – Sicilian – builder of Arcadia in Nieborów

Karol Groll also knew Prince Michał Kazimierz Ogiński. It is through this connection that the young artist and engineer began his adventure with the harp. In those days, Prince Ogiński was one of the richest men in Poland, a politician (candidate to the Polish throne), hetman [military commander], writer, poet, patron of the arts and builder of a canal linking two seas. He was also a composer and musician, who played the violin, clarinet and harp. At Diderot's request, he wrote an article on the latter instrument for the Great French Encyclopedia.

Being a virtuoso harp player, the prince worked hard to improve the outmoded single-action mechanism. We know that in the 1790s he collaborated with Karol Groll on the construction of a harp with double action  which was later patented in England (perhaps it was this instrument that was sold in Warsaw in the first decade of the 19th century, after the prince's death in 1800).  

Unfortunately, these halcyon days were about to end for Poland and for Karol. His beloved wife, Johanna Magdalena (sister of Gejsmer, manufacturer of carpets in Solec), died childless in 1798. His father died in the same year, and the bookshop and printing plant fell on hard times. Poland was partitioned by its three neighbours, Prussia, Austria and Russia, the king abdicated and fled to Russia.  

Groll left for England in 1804. To support himself in London, he began chemical experiments with pigments and invented a porcelain paint. He received 1,000 Polish ducats for this patent. What made him wealthy, though, was a patent for the double action pedal mechanism for the harp. In his 2009 article in Harp Spectrum, Mike Baldwin presented Groll’s discoveries, which allowed him to determine the real inventor of the two-step tuning system for the harp, operated with seven pedals. In 1807, Charles [anglicised version] Groll of Leicester Fields, the Parish of Saint Martin, City of Westminster, registered patent No. 3059 for a two-step mechanism to “tune” the strings of a harp. The patent application included drawings and technical details of the mechanism used essentially to this day in modern harps. Sebastian Erard immediately recognized this as a brilliant invention and paid Karol Groll 10,000 Polish ducats (30,000 Polish ducats according to some sources) for the patent. Erard's patent (due to which he came to be regarded as the inventor of this ingenious solution) dates back to 1808; it described the same mechanism to allow the strings to be shortened. Any trace of the Polish contribution to the evolution of the harp was erased and Sebastian Erard's harp and piano manufacturing plant outclassed the competition. During the 19th century alone, 6,000 Erard harps were made in Paris and London. The instrument was able to produce the full chromatic scale and to play in all the keys. This also gave the harp the ability to produce the beautiful glissandi unique to the instrument.  

The amount of 10,000 Polish ducats, let alone 30,000, was an enormous sum, sufficient in those days to buy three villages, a large farm or even a burgher's house in Warsaw's Old Town. Karol earned his fame as the inventor of “harp pedals”, and a good fortune. Here ends his adventure with the harp, but not our story. He became a wealthy person. Having returned to Poland, he occupied himself with painting, engraving and investing. He designed carpet patterns for his wife's brother, Gejsmer.  He visited the Czartoryskis in their palace in Puławy. In Wilanów, owned by the Lubomirskis, he met the French emigre Philippe de Girard, with whom he collaborated on improving spinning frames, later to be installed in Żyrardów.  

On 8 January 1815, Groll was accepted as a member of the Warsaw Society of Friends of Learning; over many years he published articles on economic issues, including banking in England. In 1818, he once again left Poland for France, England and the Netherlands. His numerous friends included Muzio Clementi, Wölfl and Angelica Catalani. His stay in London resulted in the construction of a tool factory; some improvements in the tools were made by Karol Gröll himself. The English called him “the Polish speculator” (the word had a different meaning then). For us it is important that he considered himself a Pole all his life and kept returning to Poland. In 1839, he was awarded a 15-year license to build and operate a machine of his own invention for the production of bricks, tiles and architectural ornaments by the Administrative Council of the Kingdom of Poland. The last patent awarded to Groll and Philippe de Girard covered Girard and Tremolorhon spinning frames.  

He finally returned to Warsaw in 1834 and spent the last 23 years of his life as a recluse and eccentric. We could guess the reasons for his behaviour, but this would be a topic for a separate chapter on the struggle for Polish independence. His credo became “… to complete one's journey in this vale of tears calmly and unobtrusively…” 

He moved to two rooms on the ground floor of the Michniewski house on 2409 Nowolipki street. The articles he continued to publish in Gazeta Warszawska were signed “X”. He died on 21 July 1857 of a heart attack.

Karol Groll was buried by his sister at the Lutheran cemetery on Młynarska street in Warsaw; his niece ordered a beautiful tombstone with the following inscription:



*This stone marks the burial place of Michael Groll (Karol's father), Karol Groll, and his sister, Henryka Groll Schoenermark. Her daughter, Wilhemina, set a beautiful memorial for her grandfather, uncle and mother. Originally there was a plaque with the inscription: ‘Wilhelmina Dutkowska née Schoenermark, a lawyer’s widow, died in 1884, lived 73 years’. That plaque does not exist any longer. The memorial has been damaged and should be renovated by the restorer. [Anna Olek]

The fact that the long obituary written by Hipolit Skimbowicz (from which much information for the present study has been drawn) appeared twice in Gazeta Warszawska in August 1857, and that there were proposals to commemorate his life with a statue, show how important and respected a figure in Warsaw society Karol Groll really was.

Regrettably, not even a street in Warsaw is named after him.

Under the aegis of the “Harfa Dzieciom” [Harps for Children] Association, Warsaw harpists, grateful for the invention that began a new era in the history of the harp, hereby take the grave of Karol Groll (2nd Alley, tomb in the wall, next to the gate) under their protection. They shall be the custodians of his memory and shall do everything in their power to make sure that he is never again forgotten by the world.


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