A Regency military serpent, by Key, 20 Charing Cross Road, London, leather-covered wooden body, brass keys, stays, end-pieces, 73cm wide, c.1810/20 The serpent is thought to have first appeared in France at the end of the 16th century, as a church instrument, accompanying plainchant. Subsequently they became very popular in military bands, though were gradually superseded by the tuba. An Irish serpent, very similar to the present five-keyed example, is in the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (see Ladislav Cselenyi, Musical Instruments in the Royal Ontario Museum, 1971, no. 51a, pp. 84-85). ***Thomas Key was born in London in 1784 and by 1807 had set up as a musical instrument maker, chiefly specialising in woodwind, at a variety of addresses, working until 1855 when he sold the business to a rival. For the longest part of his time he was at 20, Charing Cross Road, the address given on this instrument. In his first working decade he styled himself 'Musical Instrument Maker to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of York, Kent, Cumberland and Cambridge.' The serpent was first invented in 1590 and there are examples of Key's serpents in the Bate Collection at Oxford University and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, although the latter is not currently on display.
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