In 18th century Britain, glasses tuned by varying the quantity of water they contained were all the rage on the musical scene.
One exponent was Ann Ford (1737-1824), who went on to publish the only known Instructions for Playing the Musical Glasses, so that Any Person Who has the Least Knowledge of Music, or a Good Ear, May be Able to Perform in a Few Days if not in a Few Hours.
Musical glasses are not to be confused with Benjamin Franklin’s later invention of the glass armonica. In 1757, Franklin was in London to lobby for Pennsylvania’s right to self-government. At a concert he heard the scientist Edward Delaval perform on musical glasses. Franklin saw a way to improve the idea and, in particular, to produce more consistent sounds. By 1762 Franklin’s “glass armonica” was being offered for sale at a cost of 40 guineas. It consisted of different sized glass bowls rotating on a common shaft and played by touching the spinning glass with wet fingers.
Mozart played the instrument at a garden concert in Vienna when he was 17 and later wrote an Adagio and Rondo for glass armonica with flute, oboe, viola and cello (K536). Gaetano Donizetti originally specified the instrument as an evocative accompaniment to the mad scenes in Lucia di Lammermoor, although before the first performance he was persuaded to rewrite the part for two flutes.
Back to Ann Ford who led an extraordinary life. She knew five languages and was a talented player of the English guitar (known as the cittern) and the viola da gamba. As the niece of Dr James Ford, Queen Charlotte’s physician, and of Gilbert Ford, Attorney-General to Jamaica, she was received in fashionable society and praised for her beauty and musical talent.
While her father encouraged her to sing, he forbade her to perform in public. They quarrelled so violently that Ann moved into the house of a friend, announcing that she would support herself by her music. Her furious father had her arrested and hauled back home. Undeterred, she arranged a series of subscription concerts which her father hired ruffians to disrupt. Eventually Ann prevailed and was permitted to tour in concerts with her sister, performing in Dublin and London and on the continent.
Ann Ford married Captain Philip Thicknesse (British author, eccentric, and friend of the artist Thomas Gainsborough – who had painted Ann in 1760). They were en route to Italy in 1792 when Thicknesse died suddenly at Boulogne. Bizarrely, in his will he stipulated that his right hand be cut off and delivered to his son from an earlier marriage in order “to remind him of his duty to God after having so long abandoned the duty he owed to a father, who once so affectionately loved him.”
Since in France “it was the best of times, it was worst of times”, Ann Ford was taken prisoner and confined in a convent during the Reign of Terror. But after the execution of Robespierre in July 1794, she was released under a general pardon for prisoners who could prove that they could earn their own living. Her musical skills stood her in good stead.
Ann Ford published Sketches of the Lives and Writings of Ladies of France in three volumes (1778-81) and a novel, The School for Fashion, in which well-known public figures appeared under fictitious names. For many years before her death, she lived with her friend Sarah Cooper in London’s Edgware Road, dying at the age of eighty-six on 20 January 1824.
The Gainsborough painting of Ann Ford hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum and a pencil and watercolour study for the portrait is owned by the British Library.