Instrument that once belonged to Eliza Ridgely, the 'Lady with a Harp,' turns 200

Eliza Ridgely, once the mistress of the Hampton estate in Towson, is best known as the "Lady with a Harp." The original painting of that name, which is now in the National Gallery of Art, depicts a 15-year-old Ridgely plucking the strings of the instrument.

But according to historians, the harp in the painting is not the one Ridgely loved to play. It's a prop, a mere fill-in.

The real thing — a double-action pedal harp gifted to Ridgely from her father in June of 1817 — lives on in the Towson national historic site, and this month it turns 200.

Saturday afternoon, guests were invited to a celebration of the harp's 200th birthday in the site's orangery, which included a harp-themed birthday cake and a harp recital by Elaine Bryant and her pupil, Vivian Stewart, 16. The harp, which has lived in the mansion since 1828, is one of a kind, according to the site's curator, Gregory Weidman.

"When it was made, it was a new and very innovative type of harp. It only had been invented seven years before by Sebastien Erard in London, so it's a very innovative harp that is used today for people who play harp in symphony orchestras," Weidman said, adding that it's one of the oldest harps in the United States.

"How often do you have something that you know exactly when it was made and ordered, that you can celebrate its 200th [birthday]?" she said.

Marilyn Newman, 70, and her husband Michael, 71, traveled around three hours from Port Royal, Va., to celebrate beginning of the harp's third century.

Around three years ago, the couple donated a manuscript with more than 220 pages of sheet music that Ridgely composed. They bought it on eBay not long after Marilyn Newman's genealogical research revealed that she is related to Ridgely. They're distant cousins, she said.

"It was really exciting," said Marilyn. "I had already taken eight years of harp when this happened."

Vivian Stewart has also developed a connection with the 19th-century musician and heiress. More than 400 pieces of Ridgely's sheet music for piano, voice and harp are at the mansion, and she has been studying them, she said. And playing Ridgely's music has been even more exciting for Vivian, she said, since she is around the same age as Ridgely when Ridgely first got her harp.

"It's really cool," said Vivian, who played two of Ridgely's songs at the event. "It's nice to learn all kinds of things."

But while guests flooded the orangery for cake and to hear the dreamlike sounds of the harp, Ridgely's instrument — which hasn't been tuned in over 25 years, on the recommendation of conservators — sat untouched and on display in the mansion.

"It would fall to pieces if anyone played it," said Bryant, who has been playing the harp all of her life.

"The strings would completely disintegrate the wood."

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