MICHAEL JOHN GILLINGHAM CBE 1933 - 1999
The death of Michael Gillingham at the comparatively early age of sixty-six has deprived BIOS of its first Chairman - one of the small band of founding members -and a most generous patron and benefactor.
The earliest meetings of the BIOS Council were held in Michael's modest house in Rosoman Place, Clerkenwell (behind Exmouth Market). Later, they transferred to altogether grander and more spacious surroundings when he and Donald Findlay jointly acquired 4 Fournier Street, Spitalfields - an exceptional Georgian town house of the 1730s. Here they maintained what has been described felicitously as 'an old-fashioned bachelor household' for almost twenty years until Donald's untimely death from cancer in 1998. Council meetings in those days were convivial occasions punctuated by the serving of various kinds of refreshment by an always attentive host, and frequently concluding with a jolly supper party in Islington or Clerkenwell, or (in Spitalfields days) in a Brick Lane curry house. Michael was in his element dispensing hospitality, a bottle in his hand, his eyes popping with feigned disbelief as he retailed some startling anecdote, and he delighted in exhibiting his latest acquisition - a drawing or painting, some piece of organ-building memorabilia, or an organ-related manuscript that a fellow-art dealer had 'brought in' and Michael had purchased for 'the collection'. In this way we all became acquainted with the painting of the pre-1829 York Minster organ, the print of Renatus Harris's Salisbury organ, the Gray & Davison partners' desk, the Temple Church depositions, the Bodley / Hill drawing for St German's, Cardiff, and many other treasures in Michael's ever-expanding collection.
As Chairman of BIOS (1976-83) Michael made a considerable and possibly decisive contribution to the society's survival in the early years. His diplomatic skills preserved us from various gaffes, and his presence at the helm was a reassurance to some in the organ-building establishment who were suspicious of what this new society might get up to. In the chair, he could occasionally be tetchy, and (only very rarely) explosive, but it was invariably in response to what he perceived as discourtesy or self-serving pedantry, and good humour was soon restored. He was not an administrator, and routine paperwork bored him, but, if something really mattered (for example, drafting a report or letter which might make the difference between the saving and the destruction of an historic organ case) he would take infinite trouble and respond with uncharacteristic alacrity. Those who were recipients of his letters, penned in a flowing hand and liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks, or who have rescued, after a convivial meal, sketches for Puginesque organ cases scribbled on the back of envelopes or paper napkins, will need no encouragement to preserve them.
Michael's generosity at BIOS conferences is well-known to their organisers. Believing it was important that people should enjoy themselves on these occasions, he invariably provided a 'sub' from what he liked to call the 'steeple fund', and the liquid refreshment flowed more freely as a result. On a more serious level, his decision to deposit the Gray & Davison papers in the Archive benefited the collection in its early days by encouraging others to entrust their business records to BIOS's care.
As an organ adviser Michael was personally responsible for a number of significant projects but had an indirect influence on many more through his readiness to give generously of his knowledge and advice, not least as a member for many years of the Organs Advisory Committee and the London D.A.C. His enthusiasm for what he called 'the Hopkins & Rimbault type of organ' went back to his adolescence in the West Country (his father was a postmaster at Yeovil) where he became acquainted with surviving instruments by Willis and Hill in Taunton, and the 1856 Gray & Davison organ in Sherborne Abbey - concerning the drastic reconstruction of which, at the hands of an 'ignorant' organist, he would wax indignant. When, after Cambridge, he moved to London, he began to explore the capital's stock of H&R organs - instruments like St Ann, Limehouse (1851), St Mary-at-Hill (1848) and Christ Church, Spitalfields, all of which helped to form his notion of what an English organ should be. His knowledge of furniture and architectural woodwork, and his professional interest in historical artefacts (he specialised in oriental ceramics) stood him in good stead when advising on organ restorations. Framlingham was his first important project (1969). Working with John Budgen (who needed no persuading) he insisted on a scrupulous approach to the old materials, and took particular delight when the pipes of the former cornet turned up in the parson's attic - to Michael, it was the most natural thing in the world that this should happen in a country rectory). He appreciated better than anyone else at the time the value of the Thamar case (1675), and ensured that Anna Plowright was retained to undertake the conservation of its painted decoration. They worked together again in 1971 on the Gloucester Cathedral cases where Michael had a tussle with the consultant, Ralph Downes, over alterations to the cut-up of the Harris front pipes (Michael distrusted Downes's restlessness in handling old material).
Other projects included his old college, Corpus Christi, Cambridge (1968) where he collaborated with the two Dykes Bowers, St James, Clerkenwell, of which he was Parish Clerk (1978), Peterborough Cathedral (1981) and - a particular favourite - Chichester Cathedral (1986) where the attraction was not only Dr Hill's magnificent case but the opportunity to restore mechanical action to an English cathedral organ. There was also St Andrew, Holborn (1989) in which Michael's abiding enthusiasm for 'H&R' achieved its apotheosis in the apocalyptic Bombarde (inspired by Limehouse) and the Undulant - the name with which (in a flight of fancy worthy of Dr Gauntlett) he christened the device curtailing the flow of wind to the Swell open diapason, thus creating a celeste effect. Both were heard at his funeral in St Andrew's on 29 October.
It is a matter for regret that Michael never succeeded in writing his promised work on English organ cases. When I first knew him in the early seventies, he talked regularly of this, but nothing ever came of it. The truth is that he was something of a maverick, delighting to flit from one thing to another, and although his scholarly credentials were impeccable, he relied on instinct rather than time-consuming (and often tedious) investigations in dusty archives. With an intuition schooled by prolonged acquaintance with English furniture of all periods, informed by an encyclopaedic knowledge of English churches, and refined by a natural discrimination and taste, this is no criticism. His judgement on aesthetic matters was invariably sound, and one neglected his hunches at one's peril.
Although he produced no sustained work of scholarship, Michael contributed a number of sharp, perceptive articles to journals (among them, the BIOS Journal) over the years, so the outlines of his history of the English organ case are clear. Many began as talks given at conferences or meetings. BIOS enjoyed more than its fair share of these, and the stimulus and entertainment they provided will be remembered by all who heard them, as Michael drew persuasive comparisons between organ cases and other furnishings, often illustrated from pattern books, and lightened the potentially dry history of aesthetics with anecdotes and personal reminiscences.
He was on notably good form when he delivered the after-dinner speech at the BIOS/CCC/IBO Conference at Liverpool in August of this year. Quoting extensively from a letter sent to John Dykes Bower (an old friend of Michael's from London DAC days) on the latter's appointment to Truro Cathedral in 1926, he went on to regale the company with hilarious tales of his own doings at Gloucester and his experiences of the Church of England's occasional absurdities. (It was all done with genuine affection: having, as a young man, moved away from the Plymouth Brethren, Michael became a devoted son of the Church of England in its old-fashioned, High-Church mode.) He received an ovation from the assembled organists, organ-builders and organ scholars. This must have been virtually the last time that many saw him, and it is surely good that it is how his many friends in BIOS and the organ-building world will remember him - humorous yet sharply perceptive, self-deprecating, enjoying the companionship that shared interests yields, always informative, and above all, never dull.