By Rachel Beckles Willson
England’s first oud arrived in 1867 thanks to some obscure international diplomacy involving Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. The French state mounted its second Exposition Universelle in Paris that year, and it involved not only massive displays of French industry, but also exhibits from other nations. Many of these presented musical instruments, and the Egyptian display included an oud. Following the Exposition, Ismail Pasha donated at least 25 instruments to the South Kensington Museum in London. The musician, writer and instrument collector Carl Engel probably negotiated this gift, as he was doing some shopping at the Exposition and was developing an instrument collection for the museum.
When the instruments arrived in London they were entered into the South Kensington museum’s records, and one instrument was initially categorised as a ‘mandoline’, an identification that was later adjusted to ‘Oud’. Seven years later Carl Engel published a catalogue of the collection from which we learn that ten of the Khedive’s gifts were types of percussion (tabl, darbouka, nakrazan), eight were wind instruments (arghool, whistle, ‘negro trumpet’), and five were lyres (kissar and ‘negro harp’). There was a rebab; and there was also an oud. Engel provided information about what ouds were ‘usually’ and ‘generally’ like by drawing from Edward Lane’s An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. But the South Kensington museum’s oud was, for anyone looking closely, at odds with Lane’s description. Engel observed that it had four double courses of strings, and was 3 feet long and 1 foot wide. It was an instrument that we now know is associated with North African traditions of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. How it came to be included in the Pasha’s gift is a matter of speculation.
This oud was displayed for some years in the South Kensington Museum, which later became the Victoria and Albert Museum, but we have little idea of the exact context. The museum was shaped by a state concern with industry and education: it was essentially a design school whose collections that were open to the public, and used by learned societies. When the oud arrived it was logged within the ‘woodwork’ department, so instruments of different materials may have served particular educational schools. They would thus have been distributed widely as samples of and models for a range of artistic work. In 1873, just as he became responsible for all art and science education, Major-General John Donnelly stated that the collections were ‘essentially the apparatus for teaching’.
Today this oud can be seen at London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens.
The beautiful photographs of this instrument were taken by David San Millán.