John James Kenworthy Rhodes was born in 1903, the son
of Oliver Rhodes and of Leah nee Kenworthy in Blackpool. His mother was
American, though her family originally came from Delph, a small village near
Oldham on the border of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Her family was in the
textile machinery business, designing and manufacturing spinning and weaving
machines. During the American Civil War the family business provided army
uniforms, an enterprise which made it quite well off.
John’s father started in business with a man called
Young, but bought him out and moved the ironmongers’ shop to where the rest of
the family had shops in Blackpool. In Mr Rhodes’ tool shop John became
infected (like his father) with a love of tools, and how to use them
correctly. His father had a weak heart and took early retirement (having sold
his commitment to the shop) and moved the whole family to Bolton-le-Sands a
small village some three miles north of Lancaster. John had a brother and
three sisters and all his siblings enjoyed using their hands.
John went to the Lancaster Royal Grammar School and
took to academic work like a fish to water. His interests were incredibly
catholic stretching from botany to physics and from history to geology.
However John had an inbuilt dislike of sport, absenting himself from such
activities whenever possible to pursue some academic interests. John at quite
a young age received music lessons from the local organist. In 1922 he went
to Cambridge (Peterhouse) to read Physics under the instructions of Dr G.F.C.
Searle FRS, a tutor who had a profound effect on his student. During his
undergraduate studies John attended a number of concerts one of which, given
by members of the Dolmetsch family - on copies of baroque instruments - left
its imprint on John. In fact John did meet Arnold Dolmetsch and saw and heard
a number of clavichords and harpsichords made in Arnold Dolmetsch’s workshop.
In 1924, at one of the Musical Society’s meetings, John Rhodes met William
Thomas (also an undergraduate at the University). In fact John had been a
member of that Society for some time, and Thomas was the new boy. Their first
meeting occurred when William sitting on a table was holding forth on some
matter, and John joined in the discussion.
After leaving Cambridge, John joined the firm of
Taylor, Taylor and Hobson (in Leicester) who were optical instrument designers
and manufacturers. Also working in Leicester at that time was William Thomas’
older brother and he helped to reconnect John Rhodes with William Thomas.
John, whilst working in Leicester, equipped a workshop to make musical
instruments and gramophone records. From 1928 onwards he made several
‘acoustic gramophone records’. His first keyboard instrument - a clavichord -
was completed in 1930. William Thomas joined him at the workshop for short
periods and during his holidays, and their first combined instrument was a
spinet completed in 1932.
From that time onwards they built a number of keyboard
instruments together. John actually designed a new jack for plucking the
strings on harpsichords, and had this invention patented in 1934. Instruments
designed and made by Rhodes and Thomas were exhibited at the Arts and Crafts
Exhibition Society Shows between 1937 and 1962.
John first became a temporary, later a permanent Civil
Servant and was employed on research and development for the Ministry of
Aircraft Production. He became particularly interested in paints,
adhesive and protective qualities. In his final years, as a Government
Scientist, he was working on covering materials to protect the Spacecraft
Ariel III from solar absorption, radiation loss and particularly on inhibiting
the degradation effects of ultra violet light on the rocket.
From 1946 until his retirement in 1969 John would spend
all available time helping his friend William to build by hand, Easterheughs
in Fife, a facsimile of a seventeenth-century Scottish Tower House. Much of
the material used in the building was salvaged locally, quite a lot of it from
the demolished Rossend Castle. (Quite a good article on Easterheughs appeared
in the magazine The World of Interiors, (October, 1985) p.170). John would
come up from London by train on many a Friday and return on Sunday nights by
sleeper, having put in a week-end’s hard physical work on Easterheughs. In
1969 John moved up from London to Fife to devote more time to instrument
making, restoring and writing about antique instruments, continuing the
never-ending work on the Tower House, attending concerts and looking lovingly
after their wonderful, south-facing garden overlooking the Firth of Forth.
Their architectural knowledge and first-hand experience
in building and the use of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century materials, on
top of their intimate knowledge of early keyboard instruments made them
invaluable advisers to the University of Edinburgh when the restoration work
was undertaken on St Cecilia’s Hall to house the Russell Collection of Early
Keyboard Instruments. They gave their services unstintingly. Not only were
Rhodes and Thomas advisers, they played a major practical part in restoring
quite a number of instruments. Particularly John undertook the considerable
task in restoring the Faulkner harpsichord to the wonderful condition it is in
now, both acoustically and visually.
John was an incredible man, his knowledge was
encyclopaedic was it on history, art, literature, chemistry, metallurgy,
plastics, geography or natural history. He never, despite this erudition,
made any person feel inferior when talking with him. However, he had little
time for the pretentious! He was a very articulate, gracious, gentle, yet
powerful giant of a man and sadly missed by all who knew him.