A microscope formerly the property of Sir Edward Elgar


The microscope featured here was reportedly the property of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. He was appointed Master of the King's Music in 1924. Regarded as a pure representative of the Victorian and Edwardian era, Elgar gained much popularity during the turn of the century. However, after World War I and with the changes in public taste and political atmosphere that occurred, Elgar’s works quickly lost their popularity, resulting in nearly complete neglect from ca. 1920 and onwards. After World War II and especially from the 1950’s and on, there is renewed interest in his music and some of his works are regularly performed nowadays in concerts and other public events.



Sir Edward William Elgar (1857 – 1934) 

Provenance for the microscope seen here and its accessories is the Elgar family (Tennants, 2016). It came together with the 1906 edition of Dr. Lancaster’s book Half-hours with the Microscope (Lancaster, 1863), being one of the popular textbooks for the Victorian dilettante microscopist. It was with the introduction of more affordable quality microscopes during the latter part of the 19th century, and an industry of superior specimen-mounted slides, that microscopy became a popular pastime of the middle classes. Elgar in his later years of life can serve as a type model for such an amateur. After moving to Hampstead in 1912, he developed a lively interest in microscopy and was interested in all things microscopic, including diatoms and even counting the heart-rate of Daphnia. After the death of his wife in 1920, Elgar absorbed himself deeper into his hobbies. With no significant public interest in his musical works and lacking his wife’s support, he detached himself from composition. His daughter later wrote that he inherited from his father a reluctance to "settle down to work on hand but could cheerfully spend hours over some perfectly unnecessary and entirely unremunerative undertaking (Moore, 1984, p. 17). 

The microscope seen here is apparently another one of Elgar’s enigma variations. It is unsigned, but the quality, style and workmanship suggest a major English maker and a relatively early production date. The threads of the objective and the turret are pre-RMS standard, namely, it predates the standards established by the Royal Microscopical Society for microscope objectives in 1858.[1] While the microscope features a Bar-Limb type, a design introduced by Andrew Ross ca. 1843 (Ross, 1843), the foot is a flat tripod unusual for this form. To the best of my knowledge, only John Browning is known to produce Bar-Limb microscopes having flat tripod bases (Wissner, 2012), but his bases have rounded ends while the ends on this specimen are angular. Together with the very massive mirror, this microscope should date roughly to 1850. Because Elgar was born only on 1857, this microscope is undoubtedly too early to be considered his purchase. However, it may very well be that he inherited it from his descendants, i.e., his father in law who was a noble military officer, or from his parents (especially his mother who was interested in arts and nature). Whatever the explanation may be, it was not uncommon for a Victorian microscope amateur to keep and use old models of instruments.

[1] In order that the microscope objectives of different makers might be interchangeable for use with the microscope stands of other makers, the Royal Microscopical Society of London drew up in 1858 a specification for the screw thread of objective and of nosepiece. This specification was revised in 1896, 1915 and 1924, and in its final form has been generally adopted by microscope makers in Britain and elsewhere.