reproduced from The Guardian obituary 29 x 2007
Author of a history of English organs who also designed, built and restored them
In 1996 Stephen Bicknell, who has died unexpectedly aged 49, published his 400-page History of the English Organ. It was unlikely, noted the Church Times at the time, that a finer volume on the subject could be written in the 20th century. In 1999 the history won him the Nicholas Bessaraboff prize of the American Musical Instrument Society. The book, spanning more than 1,100 years, is now the standard work on the subject - and it was one of many triumphs for Stephen, historian, designer, consultant, organ purist, and a very English eccentric.
In 1986, with his architect brother Julian, he worked on the casework of the Magdalen College, Oxford, organ. Three years later it was a horrified Stephen who reported on the decrepit state of Buckingham Palace's ballroom organ. In 2002, restoration was finally completed. He designed the two organs installed at Chelmsford cathedral in 1994, and managed the team building the 1993 Gray's Inn chapel organ. It was Stephen, as a contributor to Choir & Organ magazine and to the British Institute of Organ Studies journal who courted controversy. "The craft still desperately needs inspiration and new ideas," he proclaimed, "and, in England at least, is still not leading the world either in quality or artistic integrity." He also lectured in organ history at the Royal Academy of Music.
Stephen was born in Chelsea. His mother was a pianist and his stepfather the BBC Washington correspondent and assistant controller Leonard Miall (obituary, February 25 2005). He was educated at Westminster school, Winchester college and St Chad's College, Durham University. His academic ability was noted in early school reports, but was not matched by sporting prowess - even if he was to be an accomplished cricket scorer. At Durham his eccentricity was expressed in his organisation of tiddlywinks competitions across the city's bridges.
At the age of 22, his first job in organ building was with Noel Mander in London. He then worked (1987-90) with Walker's in Brandon, Suffolk, before returning to Mander's as head designer. In 1992 he was diagnosed with the then untreatable HIV virus, which led him to leave Mander's and go freelance. He was passionate about designing and disappointed to leave that field. In the ensuing years he worked on his book, lectured and wrote. Among his other work was A Concertgoer's Guide to the Organ for London's South Bank centre.
In 2003 came the disappointment of the failure of a project to build a new organ at Abergavenny Priory. That year, too, he was offered work on an organ project at the Episcopal church's national cathedral in Washington DC. He declined; he felt it morally wrong to work in the capital of the country that had instigated the Iraq war.
In this electronic age, the maintenance of traditional pipe organs has become an expense which few communities can afford. So in 2005 Stephen decided to take a mainstream job with the Association of Accounting Technicians. He settled in well, crediting his partner Jon Vanner's help in adjusting to work in a multicultural organisation far from the traditional world of organ building. He greatly enjoyed the experience.
Stephen was a man of high intellectual and moral standards; he did not suffer fools gladly. His personal life was troubled: like many gay men of his generation, he had watched, helpless as friends died of Aids. He coped with this by withdrawing into himself, and could be found distant at times. He could not cope with the further loss of people close to him; therefore it was rare that he would allow people to get near to him. This, perhaps, more than anything led to the reclusive, depressive side of his nature that came out later in his life.
For many years Stephen drove an elderly CitroŽn Traction Avant, frightening me, among others, with his enthusiastic demonstrations of the car's handling capabilities. As he grew older he devoted a lot of time to the garden of his home, in Hackney, London, describing it as "a fireworks show in slow motion".
He and Jon held Sunday afternoon teas to allow other people to enjoy the garden. They had been together for 11 years and formalised their relationship with a civil partnership some 18 months ago. Also very much a part of their life together were Otto and Abraham - stuffed toys taken everywhere with them, who would "join in" conversations in a make-believe world created for them by Stephen and Jon.
Stephen was found dead by Jon. He is survived by him, his mother Sally, stepmother Beth, his three elder brothers Julian, Marcus and Alex, his nephew Titus - and by Otto and Abraham.
∑ Stephen Bicknell, historian and organ designer, born December 20 1957; died August 18 2007
THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH ORGAN