Robert Lucas Pearsall – Life

Early Life

Robert Lucas Pearsall was born at Clifton on 14 March 1795; his father, Richard, was born into a Quaker family at Willsbridge, but married an Anglican, Philippa Still, and was ‘written out’ by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).  Richard was a cavalry officer at the time of Robert’s birth, and the family lived in Kingsdown, Bristol, until Richard’s early death in 1813.

Robert began training for the Bar in 1816, the year that he and his mother moved to Willsbridge House. In 1817 he married Harriet Hobday, daughter of the portrait artist, William Armfield Hobday; Pearsall was called to the Bar in 1821, and began practice in his own right as a barrister in Bristol.

The Pearsalls had four children at Willsbridge: John, who died soon after birth in 1819; Robert in 1820; Elizabeth in 1822; and Philippa in 1824. Bristol journals note Pearsall’s presence at charitable concerts in the city, but any other hint of an interest in music during this period is nowhere to be found.

Move Abroad

The profound change occurred in 1825, when Pearsall made the decision to quit both England and his career at the Bar for ever. Although no confirmation was ever recorded of it by Pearsall himself, all of his biographers repeat the story told by Philippa Pearsall that it was an attack of apoplexy that caused the choice to seek a new life abroad. In fact it seesm to have been more serious and seems likely to have bene a minor stroke.

Pearsall moved with his wife and children to Germany, first to Mainz, where they stayed for nearly five years, then to Karlsruhe in 1830.

The move in 1825 was the apparent launch of Pearsall’s creativity. By the time the family arrived in Karlsruhe in October 1830, an orchestral overture composed by Pearsall had been performed in public in Mainz in 1828, a scholarly annotated translation in English of Schiller’s William Tell had been published in London in 1829, and published in 1830 were three small Latin motets ‘Misere Mei’, ‘Tantum Ergo’ and a Gradual by Schott of Mainz, and a partsong for 5 voices, ‘Take O Take Those Lips Away’, by the London publisher Goulding and Dalmaine. The partsong was dedicated to the Austrian violinist, Joseph Panny, from whom Pearsall had evidently received instruction in composition.

The Young Pearsall

A colourised version of a reproduction of a picture photographed by Pearsall’s biographer Hubert Hunt.  The original of the picture is lost having been destroyed during the Second World War,

The 1830s

The correspondence between Pearsall and  the vicar at Bitton, the Reverend Henry T Ellacombe chronicled his industry during those years in which Pearsall set about uncovering manuscript musical sources in the great religious libraries of northern Europe. It is evident that he travelled alone.  Leaving his wife and children in Karlsruhe,  Pearsall spent months on end travelling across Europe, from east to west, noting, copying and transcribing not only music, but also historical documents.

Ultimately, his antiquarian research brought him to the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who elected him a Knight of Justice in July 1837. Membership of the Order entitled him to bear the cross of St John on his own coat of arms, which he applied for and was granted in October 1837.

The 1830s were undoubtedly Pearsall’s most productive period of music and research.

  • Between 1830 and 1842, he published twenty-two pieces of music, including a string quartet (1834), and an orchestral overture to Macbeth (1839), as well as some twenty compositions for choir.
  • He regularly published his historical findings in the Society of Antiquaries’s Archaeologia, and was a regular contributor on musical matters to Bristol’s newspapers.

Pearsall in his twenties

(Reproduced from Hunt’s biography)

Family Life

As his family grew into adulthood, Pearsall’s relationship with them appears to have deteriorated.

His son, Robert, aged 14, joined the Austrian Imperial Army as a cadet in 1834. Although young Robert enjoyed success as an officer, it was an expensive career to pursue, and his father often complained that his son was ruining him financially. He may have had good reason to have concerns for his son.  When he left the army in 1845 he refused to work and moved in with his mother expecting to live the life of a gentleman.

This may have been the cause of a more profound family disagreement that led to a separation between Pearsall and his wife. Harriet converted to Roman Catholicism around 1842, and spent the following ten years in quasi-religious observance, living apart from her husband.

In 1839, Pearsall’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, eloped to Paris with Charles Stanhope, nephew of the Earl of Harrington. They were married at the British Embassy; she was only 17. It did not at the outset appear to be a wise decision. However, over time, Charles himself inherited the earldom and Elizabeth become the Countess Harrington.

Schloss Wartensee & St Gallen

By late 1842, Pearsall made the decision on financial grounds to give up his life in Karlsruhe, and negotiated to buy a ruined castle, the Schloss Wartensee, which sat high above the town of Rorschach on the southern shore of the Bodensee, the vast lake separating the north of Switzerland from Bavaria.

The negotiation for Wartensee was slow, and Pearsall did not take possession of the castle until the autumn of 1843. He moved there with just his daughter, Philippa, who had become apprenticed as an artist/painter.

Evidently the move to Wartensee did not begin well for him. The years 1843 to 1845 produced almost no correspondence from Pearsall, and no musical composition or other writing.

It was not until early in 1846, when he befriended a music-loving Roman Catholic priest in the nearby city of St Gallen, that any motivation to compose returned to him. The priest, Johann Oehler, was Chancellor of the Diocese of St Gallen, and he had approached Pearsall to compose music for the installation of a new bishop at the cathedral. Pearsall rose to the occasion, and thus began a friendship that lasted for the rest of his life.

The connection with St Gallen provided the stimulus for an outpouring of musical composition for use in the Catholic church, from hymn tunes to large-scale ceremonial music. St Gallen also boasted one of the most important European libraries of illuminated manuscripts, amongst which were psalters and other musical treasures. Pearsall immersed himself in his work at St Gallen, taking a house there in March 1854, whilst leaving the Schloss Wartensee in the hands of his son and wife, who had been seeking a new home.

Pearsall in later life

(Reproduced from Hunt biography)

Final Years

Only three months later, in June 1854, ill health forced Pearsall to return to Wartensee, where his wife and daughter, Philippa, nursed him.

His health continued to decline for the next two years, and on 2 August 1856 he was received into the Roman Catholic church; he died three days later on 5 August.