As part of the Warburg Renaissance, we are reviewing some of our most treasured items to identify which are in most urgent need of repair. One such item is the Gombrich family’s Grotrian-Steinweg grand piano, which was kindly donated to the Institute by the family of Sir Ernst Gombrich.

This much beloved piano was brought to the UK from Vienna before the start of the Second World War by Ilse Gombrich, Sir Ernst’s wife, when Sir Ernst was first offered employment as a Research Fellow at the Warburg. In the years that followed, Ilse, who was a gifted pianist, taught piano lessons to support the family and any spare funds were used to help friends and family fleeing Europe. You can read more about Sir Ernst’s early involvement with the Warburg, below.

Ilse Gombrich playing piano, 1965
Ilse Gombrich playing piano, 1965

Leonie Gombrich, Ernst and Ilse’s granddaughter, believes that Ernst’s offer of work at the Warburg changed the course of her family members’ lives, and quite possibly saved them. As such, upon her grandmother’s passing the family felt it was fitting that the piano, which had played a part in saving the lives of others, was gifted to the Warburg.

You can read Leonie Gombrich’s full account of how the piano accompanied her grandmother throughout her life by clicking here

An initial assessment of the piano notes that it is in excellent original condition, but that there are many essential repairs required to allow this well-loved piano to be played once again. The original keytops are very worn, needing replacement, and the sharps should also be replaced with new ebony. The right-hand sustaining pedal is worn through, and, as it is of a rather special profile, will likely need to be repaired rather than replaced. The piano is also missing its lyre back-stay.

You can support the restoration of the Gombrich family piano and ensure this invaluable piece of our shared history remains a treasured part of our new spaces. To be part of this special project you can adopt one or more of the piano’s 88 keys with a donation per key of £168. To make this easier, you can set up an automated payment of £14 a month for one year through our donation form.

We are delighted to publicly recognise all those who generously support the adopt-a-key scheme in the Warburg Institute 2022-23 Annual Review, which donors receive a copy of, as well as in our Warburg Renaissance Project end of campaign publication. If you would rather stay anonymous, you can let us know on our donation form.

Thank you in advance to all those who feel able to make a gift in support of the Gombrich piano adopt-a-key scheme.

Ilse and Ernst Gombrich duet, 1985

How Sir Ernst Gombrich came to the Warburg Institute

Friedrich Saxl, who succeeded Aby Warburg as Director of the Warburg Institute, travelled to Vienna in 1935 and whilst there he met up with Ernst Kris, the art historian and psychoanalyst, in a coffeehouse. Saxl told him that the Warburg wanted to catalogue the Warburg papers and asked him whether he knew a graduate art historian who could be entrusted with this task. Kris pointed to the neighbouring table, where Gombrich was writing his Weltgeschichte für junge Leser (World History for young readers) and said that Gombrich should be asked. Saxl went over to the next table, asked Gombrich, and the rest is history.