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The master pianist from Smethwick

By john.butterworth  |  Posted: August 18, 2013

Leonard Norman Rayner

Leonard Norman Rayner

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I have no intention of being rude or offering insults to the town of Smethwick or indeed its inhabitants (I, too, was born in the town).

However, it is not a place one would ordinarily associate with quality décor and aficionados of the pianoforte.

Typically, the Black Country always delivers the surprising, the imaginative and the talented and while the craftsmen and women of our region are more than often linked historically with the harsher aspects of industry, forever tied to the blast furnace, the engineering firm, coal pits and so on, not all masters of their trade depended on manufacturing or at least not directly.

Leonard Norman Rayner was one such man.

Born in Birmingham in 1885, Leonard was the son of Nuneaton-born Charles Rayner and his wife Elizabeth Annie Clamp who hailed from Aston.

The Rayners had three other children, Ruby, Ethel and Charles junior, but it is Leonard who was destined to establish both his name and unique talent.

By 1901, the records list Charles Senior as the manager of a retail furniture shop on Smethwick’s Bearwood Road (although further records ascribe the address as the High Street) and perhaps this emporium’s impressive façade was a clue to the young Leonard’s future glittering career.

Across the apex of this grand Smethwick edifice are emblazoned Welch & Rayner Ltd, below which are four grand arched glass windows echoing the company name. Each window also indicates what specific items are on view to purchase within this late Victorian, early Edwardian treasure house.

They were up front, showy and proud to boast both their service and products, among which were dining and bedroom furniture, bedsteads, carpets, rugs and mats.

If this was not enough, directly below the window were the almost beckoning words, Cabinet Makers, Upholsterers  and Carpet Factors.

The Smethwick shopper at the turn of the 20th century would have now perhaps believed themselves safe from further advertising coercion but then you discover that Welch & Rayner had three further domineering glass windows at street level, separated by the store’s two main entrances upon which were the unashamedly immodest, ‘Artistic, Reliable Furniture’.

Shoppers proceeded into this inviting bazaar of quality décor, but only once they had passed a sartorially attired attendant clad in an Ottoman type, Slavic uniform, trousers neatly tucked into polished boots. He would be their temporary host, conveying and guiding them into the treasures awaiting their appreciation and perhaps even their pounds and shillings and pence. Once inside there was a cornucopia of plush and luxury furnishings in between the myriad of studded leather back chairs, cabinets, trays, gilt edged mirrors and even a tea service set out to further tempt the senses.

The ceiling was not immune, with lamps and wicker baskets adorning themselves downwards , as the potential client walked on the store’s exclusive carpets and rugs. This was a corner of an industrial and scarred landscape, suddenly and unexpectedly offering itself as a temporary period of light relief from the rigours of daily existence.

In retrospect, how many could afford these morsels of delight is difficult to ascertain, although 120 years ago and more it is more than probable that the good men and women of Smethwick would be more concerned with clothing their backs and ensuring a hot meal was always available. Nonetheless, this impressive establishment was highly esteemed and undoubtedly frequented by many potential and determined buyers.

There was still more to this grand enterprise than met the eye and the Rayner family and proprietors of this little oasis had not yet exposed all their family secrets and Leonard Rayner was to be their star pupil.

Holly Lodge Boys’ Grammar School had been young Leonard’s early seat of learning, duly expressing particular expertise in music, languages and mathematics.

It was, however, his remarkable proficiency and unique talent as a musician and pianist that was noted at an early age. Further studies took Leonard to the Birmingham School of Music, then to the esteemed and celebrated Royal Academy of Music in London. While there Leonard was fortuitous enough to become the pupil of Benno Schonberger who himself had been instructed by the Hungarian master of the piano, Franz Liszt.

On Leonard’s eventual return to Birmingham in 1913, he found himself on the first steps of the ladder which were to take him to the world of concert and piano recitals, his first performance that year taking place at the city’s aptly classically designed Town Hall. Future tours of the country and its major towns and cities were evidently a triumph. The London Observer wrote of him in 1922 as: “One of the most gifted of our English pianists.”

Others commented he was “in the company of the master musicians of the ages”.

While many people could easily reel off a plethora of classical musicians spanning the decades and centuries, it would be unlikely the list would include the name of Leonard Rayner, this enigmatic son of a Smethwick furniture retailer.

History hadn’t simply decided to ignore or show contempt for him, it was that Leonard, despite all the highly lavished expressions of commendation, refused, and pointedly so, to entertain any notion of fame or public veneration. Indeed, he went so far as to never accept the many offers, the BBC included, to record any of his recitals or concerts.

He was a man of such principal and commitment to his art that he was insistent that live performances and the interaction between player and audience were the only true expressions of the artiste and his music.

By 1934, he had established the Leonard Rayner School of Music, where a succession of pupils would often remark on his professional, courteous and insightful manner; they may also have reflected on another aspect of this increasingly ‘quirky’ man of music.

His independent mind and perhaps slightly reclusive character was mirrored by his somewhat individual if not eccentric sense of dress. His oft striking appearance was characterised by a black beret, long flowing cloak and silk neck tie, a mode of attire he would employ right up to the 1960s. Leonard’s choice of tailoring, however, had little if any effect on his success, opening further schools in London, Coventry, Wolverhampton and Walsall.

His concert tours came to an end in 1939 and the focus was now on teaching the many who passed through his musical hands at his school at Queen’s College in Birmingham’s Paradise Street, ironically positioned opposite the town hall where his first professional concert was held. 

The days of this fiercely independent and erudite man came to an abrupt end at the age of 76 in 1963; he was at home in Edgbaston awaiting a pupil when his heart yielded to the ravages of increasing old age.

The school continued to be run by Leonard’s assistant for many years, Ruth Cooke, but she eventually moved it to Leonard’s home in Selwyn Road, Edgbaston, a house ornately decorated in the Arts & Crafts manner which he had built in the 1920s.

Ruth died in 1995, the house unfortunately being sold before Michael Winwood, Leonard’s great-nephew,  who took over the School in 1990, could buy it back.?

Leonard’s legacy lives on in the careers and lives of the many who benefited from his expertise which itself perhaps originated those years and decades earlier when Leonard too, may have wandered through his father’s grand store, resting amid the tasteful chairs, tables and other exquisite furnishings that adorned this exclusive corner of a Black Country town. 

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