Posted By admin on December 4, 2013

This blog is simply a link to an advert of mine that will appear in the Galpin Society Journal next year. It’s self-explanatory.

Please click here.

A Surprising Cello

Posted By admin on October 27, 2013

In the spring, I and a friend purchased, at auction, a cello catalogued as by Thomas Dodd. It looked awful, being filthy and having a thick coating of varnish that had become very crazed with age. Before the auction it was downgraded to school of Dodd.

John Lott cello c.1805

But I just loved it. Under the grime was a really classy cello in remarkably pure condition. We paid over double the top estimate. After the sale, when it had been paid for, I asked the auctioneers to put me in touch with the previous owner: after all, there’s no point in maintaining secrecy about these matters when the deal has been done. I thought that such a fine cello simply must have a story behind it. Sure enough, in due course, the original owner gave me the 1923 Hill certificate that they hadn’t considered important.

Hill certificate for John Lott cello c.1805

Now, the certificate is fine as far as it goes, for nobody could doubt that the cello is by Thomas Dodd. There again, Dodd had people working for him, and it should be possible to do a bit better than that. After all, a bow stamped W.E. Hill & Sons is sold as just that: a Hill bow. However the cognoscenti search for the telltale codes which tell us which workman – Yeoman or Barnes or whoever – actually made it.

So, Thomas Dodd, we know, had two people making for him: Fendt and Lott. They were apparently friends. Fendt was born in Germany in 1769. Lott was born in London seven years later, but his father had been a recent immigrant from Germany, and he might have spoken German. Fendt worked at Thomas Dodd’s place in 1798, and may have helped Lott get a job there at the same time.

John Lott cello c.1805

I’m familiar with Fendt cellos, having sold the very perfect one mentioned in an earlier blog. That had its original neck, which was Germanic in section, and had a table that was no less than 11mm thick in places. (I also have another Fendt cello for sale at the time of writing.) This is very different. It’s by John Lott, of course – not the famous violin maker and elephant trainer, but his father. John Frererick Lott senior is today best known for his cellos and basses.

John Lott cello c.1805

How should I describe the varnish? It’s that thick red-brown oil stuff that is very typical of English instruments of the period. It goes like this if it is stored rather too warmly – this commonly means in an attic. Some cellist friends referred to it as “leopard-skin”; the conventional description is the arch and evasive “advanced craquelure”, and the Hill’s just ducked the issue, writing that it was “of a somewhat thick texture.” Nonetheless the cello is one of the least interfered-with cellos of the London school and period that you will find anywhere. It sounds really wonderful, having that strong and very clear tenor sound very typical of the best English cellos. Call it blobby if you like. It’s beautiful.

John Lott cello c.1805

A French Lyre-Guitar

Posted By admin on August 29, 2013

Sometimes violin-dealers find different instruments, and sometimes they find them irresistible. I bought this at a general auction where it was miscatalogued (a guitar in the mediaeval manner) and underestimated – but in very good condition.

French Lyre Guitar

In the past, luthiers, that is, instrument makers, used to be far less specialised than is the case today. By the late 19th century most violin-makers made only instruments of the violin family, but Stradivari made lutes, guitars and harps too. Because his violins have become so very valuable, they have survived in some numbers, but there aren’t many of the other things left.

Here’s an instrument by somebody better-known as a violin maker: Blaise Mast. It has its original manuscript label inside, Blaise Mast Jeun. Mast claimed to work in Paris, but it may have come from Mirecourt, and been sold in Paris – it’s not clear. The label is undated, but it was made around 1800. It’s a lyre-guitar, and (to quote the wonderful Anthony Baines) dates from a period when ladies’ fashions extended to small musical instruments.

French Lyre Guitar

This fashion thing . . . it’s an extension of the craze for classicism than ran through Europe rather earlier. “Classical” (the term neoclassical wasn’t invented until later) buildings sprang up all over the place during the 18th century. Classical motifs were common in paintings by 1750. Furniture (and musical instruments) were a little behind the times, but pianos and, as in this case, stringed instruments, followed the trend. It’s basically a conventional guitar, having the same number of strings and roughly the same string length. It is, however, thinly disguised as the kind of thing used by most Greek goddesses.

French Lyre Guitar

French Lyre Guitar

It’s not a serious musical instrument. It has a flat base, so that it can stand upright on a table.
The soundbox is a silly shape, in that it doesn’t work acoustically and in that it is most awkward to play. But no matter – it’s designed to look good, either by itself in an interior, or in the arms of a woman. The two wings are hollow, and continue the soundbox space, but are really just decorative. But look how decorative. The back is of contrasting strips of figured maple and darker mahogany, each strip being separated by a thin line of purfling. The same materials are used for the sides, each strip being carefully tapered towards the tip. Brass acorn finials adorn the ends. The two quatrefoil soundholes are absolutely characteristic of the period, being found also on a another lyre-guitar by Thielemann, in the Berlin Staatliches Institut collection.

Irish Heritage

Posted By admin on July 2, 2013

Sometimes life throws up weird coincidences. Having only ever seen one instrument by James Perry of Kilkenny before (a viola, back in 1986), two turn up at the same time.

James Perry was probably the younger brother of the better-known Thomas Perry in Dublin. Thomas died in 1818. I don’t think it’s known when James died, but he is recorded as working in Kilkenny, about 65 miles southwest of Dublin, between 1786 and 1799. It’s very obvious that the two worked together at some stage: the models are very similar and the soundholes of both makers share the appearance of somehow having the bottoms too large for the tops. The scrolls, though, are different: James’ are noticably narrow when viewed from the front. Also James’ brand is rather unsophisticated, being large and sans serif.

Irish Cello by James Perry

The first is a cello. It is both branded at the top of the back and has a manuscript label inside: Made by James Perry, Kilkenny, No. 509, 1791. Apart from the soundholes it’s very like an English cello of the period, being a touch small and having painted purfling.

Irish Cello by James Perry

Irish Cello by James Perry

Irish Cello by James Perry

The body length is only fractionally less than normal at 29 1/16 in. (788mm), but it’s a rather narrow model, and the string length also is on the small side. It sounds like an English cello too – which is to say, it’s very good. The scroll is finely carved and very narrow – the ears do not protrude much.

Irish Cello by James Perry

The second is a violin, but this time in largely unaltered, baroque state.

Irish Violin by James Perry

Irish Violin by James Perry

It still has its original wedge-shaped fingerboard – not a replacement – and ivory top nut.

Irish Violin by James Perry

It has the same large brand at the top of the back as the cello, and also has a label in the same handwriting: Made by James Perry, Back Lane, Kilkenny, No. 137, 1783. It is nicely made, and the dimensions are normal. The back is highly arched, of course, and in one piece of good wood with a very narrow figure. The purfling is neat. An individual feature is the rather large button at the top. The ribs are all original, and match the back. The bottom rib is still in one piece. The front shows chin-wear on both sides of the tailpiece – which sadly, is a modern replacement, as are the pegs. The originals were too short and worn to be useable.

Surprising Wood

Posted By admin on April 2, 2013

Here’s a really beautiful violin. I bought it from an antique dealer. He told me it had come from a house clearance. It was in an old case together with a really nice tortoiseshell-mounted bow. The label looks completely original – somebody famous, and it’s dated 1905.

1905 Italian violin by Bisiach

So it has all the ingredients of a fake. However, we have to check.

The fingerboard was very worn – actually furrowed – which means that somebody played on it a great deal before it was put away. That’s a good sign. It has glamorous wood in the back with a very wide figure, and matching wood in the ribs. The varnish is red-gold and it has rather short corners. Also it’s very neatly made, with widely chamfered, almost flat internal linings, typical of Italian workmanship. The age: well, yes, that’s about right. Patina is hard to copy, and the varnish wear on this violin is just that: genuine wear, not artificially aged. There are no fake scratches or rubbed areas. The button, so often overlooked by copiers, is carefully finished too . . . so far so good.

1905 Italian violin by Bisiach

A significant clue is the purfling. The black lines are really thin, the filling of the sandwich being very much thicker. Now, that’s characteristic of the maker named on the label. So is the scroll, and so are the careful edges. Now then, what next?

1905 Italian violin by Bisiach

Dendrochronology. If that shows the wood in the table dates from after the date on the label, why then of course this must be a fake. I suppose I was hoping for a date of around 1895, something like that . . . so the result astonished me. Peter Ratcliff’s unambiguous result is that the wood of the treble side dates from 1646 to 1723, and the bass side from 1651 to 1727. The wood is absolutely indistinguishable from that used by, for example, Carlo Bergonzi and Guarneri del Gesu. Had this front been on a classical violin, dendrochronology would not have been able to tell the difference.

1905 Italian violin by Bisiach

OK, now here’s what the label says: Leandro Bisiach, Milanese fece in Milano, anno 1905. I should add that the label is contemporary with the instrument – nobody’s stuck it in later.

Well, did Bisiach have old violin-making wood? Yes. He was probably the only “modern Italian” maker so equipped.

Leandro Bisiach was a pupil of Riccardo Antoniazzi, who was himself a pupil of Enrico Ceruti, the last of the line of the great Cremonese makers. Bisiach was an excellent businessman, as well as a meticulous researcher and maker. Bisiach’s workshop later employed Antoniazzi, as well as his four sons, and Sgarabotto, Ornati, Garimberti and Sderci, among others. It’s widely recorded that Bisiach was the sole successor to the great Cremonese tradition of violin making. The real clincher, though, is that Leandro Bisiach had acquired workshop contents that had belonged to various old Cremonese masters (see Pardo Fornaciari, Arte Liuteria). To quote from the dendrochronological report:

“The overwhelming nature and type of wood that correlated with the front of the Bisiach, i.e. wood used almost exclusively by classical Italian makers of the early to mid 18th century, strongly suggest that Leandro Bisiach had been fortunate in acquiring old stock of tonewoods from predecessors, possibly via the Antoniazzi line. As a result, the piece he used on this violin displays a typical growth ring pattern found on spruce bellies of many Italian classical instruments. This situation is by no means the norm as most so called Modern Italian violins, or Italian violins of the very early part of the 20th century tend to have been made within 15 to 25 years of their dendrochronlogical date.”

Transitional English Cellos

Posted By admin on January 3, 2013

Here’s a rather bad photograph of two astonishing cellos. I think I might make an advertisement based on these instruments, and I’m experimenting with camera angles and so on: I’d like the final image to be good and striking. But until then this’ll have to do.

Transitional cellos

One of these has had only one owner: Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood (1767-1841). The other, also the property of the 2nd Earl, must have been secondhand when he owned it. These instruments have been in store at Harewood House from some time before 1841. They have survived, untouched, and one of them might as well be new, for it has no significant wear at all. Both cellos are in their original cases (one has the Earl’s initials on a silver plaque) and both retain their original necks, fingerboards, bassbars and pegs. Neither cello has ever been fitted with a spike. I have not yet cleaned them and they are pictured in a grubby state, but I wanted to show them exactly as they were found.

The one on the left, the upside-down one, dates from some time around 1755. It’s by John Johnson. It’s interesting that it was not new when the Earl first had it, but secondhand at the time. After all, even aristocrats can be cautious about spending too much on a first purchase. Its back length is 747mm, which is quite modern, but the neck is around 18mm shorter than is normal today, giving a string length of 672mm. The neck is detached from the body, but one can see that the neck angle is a little shallow, and the fingerboad is slightly wedge-shaped. It has been made in the old English way, and the neck dowel protrudes through the top block. There is a locating peg at the top and bottom of the table, but not of the back. The neck is of beech, but the head is plain maple: there is a rather odd graft, but not because the neck is later: see how it exactly fits the case. It was made that way, as many cellos were then. It has had some impact damage, and there are two cracks in the table, which were repaired in the 18th century. It might be that Henry Lascelles had an accident.

It’s tempting to imagine that the Earl liked the instrument enough to purchase a new one, for the second instrument, the one with a bridge and strings, is the real find. That’s the original bridge and original strings. It has its proper label – Thomas Dodd, at the Covent Garden address, which dates it to between 1798 and 1809. It was certainly made by Bernhard Simon Fendt, who worked for Dodd at that time. It’s much the same size, with a back length of 744mm, but the neck is the same length as that in use today, and the string stop is 399mm. The fingerboard is still noticeably wedge-shaped, though. It has had very little use and is in perfect condition: it is, after all, only secondhand. The varnish is almost unworn. That’s not a crack in the lower bouts – it seems to be a run of coffee, or maybe chocolate.

Now, I’m in a state of shock about these. I’ve never seen such perfect cellos dating from this period. Of course I’d prefer to keep them in their present state, with their flush necks and so on – they’re real museum exhibits. But I’m a dealer and I can’t afford to keep them myself. Therefore I’m going to try my best to sell them with their small bassbars, just as they are: I don’t want to be accused of cultural vandalism. But if they remain unsold I’ll have no option except to make them ready for modern usage – because then they’ll certainly find buyers very quickly.

Small-sized-but-full-sized cellos

Posted By admin on August 4, 2012

It seems to me that there are a great many people who are passionate about playing the cello, but who struggle with the physical size of the instrument . . . more commonly, with the left-hand stretches needed. Some, in their fifties, having played a normal-sized instrument all their lives, suddenly throw in the towel and purchase a seven-eighths size, and presumably live happily ever after.

I’ve had increasing numbers of requests for a “lady’s cello”. I dislike the expression; it reeks of sexism and is somehow patronising, as though the players of such instruments are not to be taken too seriously. But that’s ridiculous: there are many very fine players who simply do not have huge hands, and others who are just small. They shouldn’t have the handicap of feeling uncomfortable with their cellos. And yet it is astonishing how few players realise that instruments can, to quite a large extent, be tailored to their needs. A recent client found her ideal instrument, it was perfect in every way except that she found that the string stop – hence the stretches – a little too long for her, and the neck rather too thick. She was amazed to learn that both these things can easily be modified.

There are two ways to shorten the (playing) string length: the first is to move the bridge up, with the soundpost en suite. That’ll certainly do the trick, but it’s a rather brutal method. I don’t like to have the bridge moved more than, say, three millimetres on a cello. It looks wrong if the bridge is too high up the table, and anyway the acoustics of a cello are furiously complicated: compromise the bridge position at your peril.

Much better is to work on the other end of the string – the tuning-peg end. This does not need an expensive new neck: an extended nut at the top of the fingerboard is all that’s necessary: it’s cheap and effective. A centimetre extra is generally quite enough. It shortens the strings without altering the sounding body of the cello at all. It’s practically invisible yet makes a vast difference to the comfort – and therefore ability – of the player. Of course it’s true that it slightly alters the places where the player expects to find, for example, fourth position, but in practice players very quickly adapt.

Such things need to be done thoughtfully. If the string length is much shorter than standard then different tension strings may be necessary, for example.

And I know someone who found it painful to play in the high positions, because simply pressing the strings down upon the fingerboard was physically tough for her. Well, fingerboards can be raised, or bridges lowered, just a little, to make things easier. Overdo it, of course, and the strings will rattle against the fingerboard. But a combination of slightly thinning the neck, slightly moving and lowering the bridge, and having an extended nut can transform an uncomfortable brute into something that’s a pleasure to play.

Now, for those who just want a physically smaller – yet still full sized – cello, here are some examples in stock at the time of writing.

The first is an English cello by Thomas Smith of London, bearing its original label dated 1789. The body is 737 mm, which is a little less than normal, and the string stop, when it has been set up, will be 655 mm: comfy or what? It’s still in the workshop, so I can’t show images just yet. But here are two more.

small French cello

small French cello

small French cello

This glamorous instrument is French, 19th Century, and has a body length of 732 mm (about an inch less than standard, using old measurements) and a string length of 678 mm (about half an inch shorter than standard.)

church bass

church bass

Here’s a fascinating old English cello, circa 1810. It was made rather crudely, and may have been a “church bass”, for such things were common two hundred years ago. It has been thoroughly re-worked now, however, and is perfectly suitable for modern playing. Its body is only 729 mm long (again, about an inch less than standard) but the widths are narrow too. The string length , however, is almost normal at 692 mm. At present it would therefore suit sombody small but with normal-sized hands – but this, as explained above, can so easily be altered.


Posted By admin on January 23, 2012

Around 1980 Cyril Jacklin told me he used to take the boat-train to Paris, before the war, to visit Sartory and buy bows directly from him. Eugène Sartory died in 1946, aged seventy-five. He’d worked for Charles Peccatte and Lamy before making on his own account. Cyril was, of course, amazed at the ludicrous prices that Sartory bows were fetching at auction – good ones were then going for over a thousand pounds, whereas only five years earlier they’d been less than £500.

During my fourteen years at Sotheby’s I witnessed the inexorable rise in price of Sartory bows, culminating in my very last sale there, which was in June 1991. That was the sale which included five brand new violin bows by Sartory, and another new gold-and-tortoiseshell bow by Émile Français. How so? Well, I don’t think I’m betraying any secrets now if I state that the owners of these bows also possessed a pretty-much unknown, and very fresh, violin by Stradivari, and these bows were just part of their investment. They had never been used and, when I first saw them, were still in the maker’s original box. Astonishing.

The Stradivari, incidentally, was unquestionably genuine and had a certificate from the aforementioned Émile Français. Despite quoting an eye-wateringly high, world-record price for the violin, the owners were wise and kept it as an investment. But they were pleased with my estimates for the bows, which by now was over £4,000 each, and they duly arrived in London. There is a superb photograph of five new Sartory bows in the catalogue. One of them, a gold-mounted “Exhibition” violin bow, sold for £15,950. This is over twenty years ago, remember.

Sartory viola bow stamp

Why do I mention it now? Because I’ve just got an excellent viola bow by Sartory for sale. Viola bows are pretty rare. Because I keep records of this sort of thing I know that, between 1977 and 1991, Sotheby’s had 125 violin bows, 41 cello bows and only 11 viola bows by Sartory. This is a nice straightforward example, stamped in the right place and under the lapping as well, and with a completely un-interfered-with head. It weighs 72 grams.

Sartory bow head

Carlo Antonio Taneggia

Posted By admin on November 22, 2011

I went to a performance at the English National Opera last weekend. Above the safety curtain, and part of the permanent structure of the place, is a large sign which says COLISEVM. And it set me to thinking about the use of V instead of U.

Stradivari, famously, did it the opposite way round: the vast majority of his labels say Stradiuarius; only after 1730 do they use a “v” instead of a “u”. And the Hills noted that there are some genuine labels which spell the Christian name Antonins instead of Antonius. This is a further complication, the use of the letter “n” instead of “u”. The Hills explained this by suggesting that, with old-fashioned moveable type, the type-setter had simply got the letter upside-down.

The reason I mention it now is because I have a violin in stock made by Carlo Taneggia, for so he is recorded by Carlo Chiesa, and Chiesa is a very considerable scholar. However I know of a Milanese violin made in 1731 in absolutely original state, still with its original stained fruitwood fingerboard, tailpiece and three of its pegs. I found it for Sotheby’s in 1990, and it was Lot 197 of their sale that year. The label inside is unquestionably genuine, and reads Carolus Antonius Tauegia fecit in Via Lata Mediolani Anno 1731. That’s TAUEGIA. I’m not fussed about whether he uses the letter “g” once or twice, by the way – Shakespeare spelt his name several different ways, and Francesco Rugeri also used different spellings. But the u/v thing is interesting. I had thought that the very clear “u” in the label mentioned was actually a “v”, and I catalogued the violin as by Tavegia. I suppose Chiesa, who has more information than I, reckons it’s an “n”.

Tavegia/Taneggia was a primarily a bucket maker, resident in Contrada Larga (the violin-maker’s street) in Milan. According to Chiesa he lived there all his life, so Via Lata in 1731 really is new information.

It shouldn’t really matter, for Taneggia was definitely not a gifted maker. Neither were any of the Testore family, though. The snag is that they sound good, and, being Italian and of a certain age, are today very expensive. My violin has been dendrochronologically tested, and the wood dates from around 1710. That fits nicely with Tavegia’s dates of 1681 – c1745. It is undergoing restoration as I write this, so I don’t know how it will turn out or how much I’m going to ask for it at this stage.

Viola sizes, in fact sizes in general

Posted By admin on October 18, 2011

Somebody recently asked me for a 5/8 size violin – which I don’t possess – and it set me to thinking about the sizeist bullying that many players are subject to. There really shouldn’t be any hard and fast rules about sizes. Play what’s comfortable and you’ll play better. I know of a professional violinist in a major orchestra who uses a viola bow – he says he gets a more powerful tone as a result. And I know of the opposite, a viola player who uses a violin bow – she says she finds it less tiring. Who am I to disagree? Nobody notices unless it’s pointed out to them.

So this 5/8 size violin . . . no, a ½ size or a ¾ size wouldn’t do: it had to be exactly right for the child. And yet young piano players don’t get half-size or whatever pianos to learn on; they just have to get on with it. If they can’t reach, well, they play something that doesn’t demand such big hands. It used to be the same for violinists, too, for most of the 18th and 19th century virtuosi learnt their craft on full-sized violins. Child’s violins are largely an invention of the early 20th Century – this is quite different from the small-sized violin called the violino piccolo used by Bach, for example in the first Brandenberg concerto.

With violas the problem continues into adulthood. There’s a school of thought which says you can’t be serious about playing the viola unless you have an instrument of at least 16 in. (or 40cm.) body length. And yet I’ve sold three excellent small English violas, by Forster, Banks and Kennedy, to satisfied but surprised clients. All of them shared the common difficulty of finding some of the left-hand stretches uncomfortable, and all wanted a small instrument that sounded good. Their surprise stemmed from the fact that the instruments sounded so good.

Violas are, by their very nature, compromise instruments. In the seventeenth century there were two types of different sizes; altos (about 15 in.) and tenors (perhaps 17in.): today’s 16in instrument lies somewhere between the two.

Here are a few commonsense facts about small violas.

1) They are normally more powerful than larger instruments. Think. Small violins, like those by Guarneri, tend to be even more powerful than normal-sized ones by Stradivari. Violins are just as loud as cellos, and louder than double basses. Acoustic volume is not dependent upon physical volume. A tiny shepherd’s shawm, with a similar reed to that of an oboe or a bassoon, is far louder than either of these.

2) This is still true for the lowest string, the C string. All else being equal, the C string of a small viola is, actually, louder than that of a large viola. That’s the big surprise.

3) Of course a smaller viola will sound less like a cello than a bigger one. That’s the inevitable consequence. But it’ll still sound different from a violin, and be able to play the viola repertoire.

Viola by Fendt

Now I’ve got a yet another small English viola. It’s by Bernhard Simon Fendt, made between 1798 and 1809. Its body is 15 3/16 in. (385mm.) long, with a string length of 13 7/8 in. (351mm.). It has, in common with most instruments made by Fendt, a one-piece table with wide, not particularly straight grain on the bass side. It’s in excellent condition, and still retains a one-piece bottom rib. It’s going to sound wonderful.

It was made while he was working for Thomas Dodd, and has a huge original label inside:

Actually the label’s not like this: it’s impossible to photograph and this is the best I could do. The real label has a large image of a bass with its bow in the middle.

Purely coincidentally, just now I have a violin and a cello by B.S. Fendt for sale as well.