The carillon, a tower instrument, and the largest musical instrument in the world, is for the first time brought to the general reading public. With England’s Child, Jill Johnston has written a book of compelling subject matter, extraordinary writing, at once scholarly and personal. A portrait of the author’s enterprising father, bellfounder Cyril Johnston, one of two Englishmen who introduced the carillon to North America in the early 20th century puts a personal gloss on the tantalizingly unknown instrument. The author has intertwined her birth circumstances and motivations in writing the book, leading inevitably to her investigations of the bells that were cast for worldwide markets by her father.
Anyone listening to classical music has probably heard his bells in the enduring Mercury recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture where, as one critic put it, “The Bells of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Carillon totally stealÊ the show . . .”
The carillon of 72 bells cast for John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Riverside Church in New York City, the biggest weighing 20 tons, the smallest ten pounds, was one of Cyril Johnston’s triumphs. During his tenure as owner and managing director of Gillett & Johnston Bellfoundry in Croyden, England, he cast over 11,000 bells, and 50 carillon instruments for installations in towers worldwide, 30 of them in North America.
Jill Johnston has worked on England’s Child for nearly three decades, researching archives and towers in America and abroad, interviewing specialists in the field, listening to concerts, and tracking down her father’s biography; then writing a work of masterful prose.
Since the 1960s Jill Johnston has been an important cultural critic and author, having written columns and criticism for The Village Voice, articles for Art News and Art in America, book reviews for The New York Times Book Review. She is the author of several books including Marmalade Me, Gullibles Travel, Mother Bound, Paper Daughter, Secret Lives in Art, Jasper Johns: Priveleged Information, and At Sea on Land: Extreme Politics. Since 2005, the author has been a syndicated web columnist. She lives and works in New York City.
by Jill Johnston
Hardbound with dust jacket
65 black & white photos
310 pages, 5½" x 8½"
About the Book
This is a remarkable book; in over sixty years of reading about bells and ringing and its many strands I have not encountered anything like it. It is unclassifiable, an autobiography encompassing a biography, the research and detail is as immense as it is absorbing. It has the intrigue of Conan Doyle, the ruthlessness of a John Grisham novel and the writing craft of Dickens. A real page-turner and the photographs alone, over one hundred of them, make it a ‘must buy.’
Sometimes a review tells us too much; one almost feels it is unnecessary to purchase the book. I am resisting this because like a Russian doll the fun and absorption here is the peeling off (forgive the pun) of layer upon layer. Who exactly is Jill Johnston? Why has she written this book which, since its embryo state, has taken twenty-five years to complete? And who WAS Cyril Johnston, the handsome man behind the tail coat, spats, immaculate bearing and gravitas? And what was this man, in looks a cross between Clark Gable and Neville Chamberlain really like and what is his place in ringing history? This book reveals all, no holds barred.
The dust wrapper gives a clue to the content; a close-up of the 18-ton Bourdon for the 72-bell Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial carillon at Riverside Church, New York, being lowered into the ship’s hold, Gillett’s 38th carillon cast in 1931. On the back of the jacket Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary with Cyril and Nora Johnston in the Croydon Foundry. The textual photos cover foundry scenes, family installations, docks and ships and a gallery of famous people. A precious archive.
A feature of G & J bells apart from their sound has always been the quality of casting.
Jill Johnston takes us on a sea and land voyage, from Cyril her father’s early days, back and forth across the Atlantic, some of it in rough water, excursions and installations in Europe the early home of course of the carillon—how DID he penetrate that market? There are details of the 55 Carillons (nearly 2000 bells involved), Consistory Court cases, installations in breathaking locations like Florida, Jerusalem, Chicago. We rub shoulders with the world’s great carilloneurs—Cyril and his talented sister Nora knew them all; Anton Brees, Kamiel Lefevere, Percival Price, Clifford Ball and many more. C.F.J. himself was no mean performer. . . There is the fascination too of Cyril’s cultivating, quite audaciously, a coterie of big names in Industry and Commerce (sometimes inadvisedly called the great and the good though some no doubt were!) philanthropists, oilmen, politicans, ambassadors. Royalty too.
The author pulls no punches about her progeny or father’s business methods. He was arguably the first man to ‘market’ bells as distinct from selling or waiting for orders and repeat business. He would no doubt have been influenced by the North American ways of doing things. One has to be frank here; dear old England has always been good at innovation, design, quality and manufacture; our weak suit has often been marketing the product. Was Cyril any different to the Hearsts, Rockefellers, Selfridges or Lord Grimthorpe in style or the Tiny Rowlands and Philip Greens in more recent times? This is not defending C.F.J.’s methods, merely seeking to understand his persona. And like him or not, he cut a pretty impressive figure. Yes, he could be ruthless and sometimes bucked the system as in the Clerkenwell saga, almost relishing the challenge to see that only the highest quality rings were installed by his firm.
The voyage continues; we read the background to the great YMCA Tower and carillon in Jerusalem at which Nora Johnston, Cyril’s unmarried sister performed on April 9th, 1933, the Mercersburg Pennsylvania, the Wellington New Zealand war memorial and other great works. Many of these stunning towers were illustrated in the Croydon calendars, hopefully someone has a collection of these! Often called Cyril Johnston’s Westminster Clock Tower in Canada (as a project) we read the fascinating account of the mighty Peace Tower carillon in the Ottawa Houses of Parliament. I have heard this as well as Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Croydon’s 50th carillon instrument of 44 bells. No ‘vanishing sounds’ there, despite the fact that Grace’s carillon is played only from a ‘piano’ keyboard.
Into this kaleidoscope Jill Johnston weaves her own colourful, somewhat mysterious life.
She pulls no punches and her story will raise eyebrows. Fascinating as it is to read of her (late) relationship with Arthur and Rosemary, Cyril’s other children, the latter becoming Lady Price, wife of Sir David, the distinguished politician. It is rare that a technical book on a very specialist subject, unknown to 99% of the populace can be read like a thriller and a novel. I found it to be unputdownable.
I applaud Jill for researching and writing this ‘warts and all’ book. However history may judge him, Cyril Johnston was one of the most dramatic men in the history of bells and ringing and his impact on the Art and in the field of the carillon cannot be underestimated. This fully rounded story needed telling, it serves as a reminder of Croydon's fine work, spanning not only C.F.J.’s years but earlier under his father Arthur and earlier than that in Clocks and Shipping. Cyril was something of an enigma, a centre stage performer, visionary, ruthless professional. And yet for all this success and the plaudits on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a certain pathos about his life. I think the nearest parallel left a legacy of some of the finest bell work and finest cricket of all time I can draw is that of my own cricketing hero, Walter Hammond, the amazing Gloucestershire and England player. Hammond achieved everything, one of the four greatest all-rounders the game has known but a complex man given to sadness and melancholia. Did Cyril, like Edith Piaf, sing “Je ne regrette rien” or was there a void in his life that perhaps affected his driven success and reputation? We shall never know. Both men left a legacy of some of the finest bell work and finest cricket of all time.
— George W. Pipe
THE RINGING WORLD, No 5063, May 9, 2008
I love this book not because its subject—bells, their manufacturing process, their transformation into the musical instrument, carillon—is something I have ever even thought much about. I love it because I have never, in my 50-plus years of being an avid book reader, encountered comparable sublime writing. There is a rhythm, an almost transcendental pulse running through the pages—you cannot put the book down. The story—both the elegantly interwoven author’s and her father ’s personal and professional one—is so tantalizingly well written, orchestrated like a grand symphony. Before you realize it, even the somewhat esoteric subject grabs you and you end up knowing and understanding an entire area of facts and figures, a whole landscape of intricate elements that were heretofore secrets. For anyone interested in creative writing at its absolute pinnacle, this book is a MUST READ.
the AVID READER, Perth, Australia. From Amazon.com