More on decorated instruments

Posted By on December 31, 2009

The Royal George cello

Photo courtesy Sotheby’s, (thanks Tim)

A friend read my last entry and mentioned another painted instrument, the famous “Royal George” cello by William Forster. The cello is certainly magnificent, and it maddens me that it is not in the V & A museum.

I first saw this wonderful instrument in the summer of 1986, when it was loaned for an exhibition by the excellent Galpin Society. The exhibition was held in one of the galleries at Sotheby’s, and, as I worked in the musical instrument department there, I was a little involved. At the time it was known that William Forster had made two cellos for the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) in 1782, but as there was no proof that this was one of those the date was put cautiously as circa 1790. It would have been a beautiful cello with no decoration, but this had the royal coat of arms (with a lot of gold and blue) painted in the upper bouts of the front, and the Prince of Wales feathers in the lower bouts. Around the ribs, in lettering that can only be described as heraldic, ran the legend Liberty and Loyalty. A former employee of W.E. Hill & Sons told me who had restored it: Harold Hearne in 1951.

One wonders why Forster bothered. It probably had something to do with the fact that he had the royal warrant – he was proud of being ” . . . Violoncello . . . maker to their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cumberland . . . ” (The Duke of Cumberland, incidentally, was not the butcher of Culloden, but a younger brother of the Prince. He later became King of Hanover.) I do not know if the Prince of Wales played the cello (as our present-day Prince Charles did, as a child) but there is not much wear on the instrument. As always, decorated instruments tend not to be taken seriously for playing, and this was no exception. However it is difficult to underestimate the national importance of the cello: the flamboyant and spendthrift Prince of Wales, he of the Brighton Pavilion, was hugely influential: his father was periodically mad, and he became regent before the old king died.

I became reacquainted with the Royal George in November 1990, when it came up for sale at Sotheby’s. Apparently it had been sold at Christies in 1903 for 52 guineas (£54.60p) and later for £120 at Puttick & Simpson, although I don’t know the date. Aware of its importance, and with about eight weeks to go before the sale, I wrote to the keeper of furniture and metalwork at the Victoria & Albert Museum (who, bizarrely, was in charge of their musical instruments) pointing out that their magnificent collection consisted mostly of decorated instruments, and that this was likely to be affordable. And unique. And of national importance, and of no relevance in any other museum. But this is England, and of course there wasn’t enough money; of course they needed far more time; of course there was no room for it; of course, of course, of course.

It didn’t sell at the auction, which was not surprising, as cello buyers were put off by the decoration. I suppose what maddened me at the time was that one of my duties, after an auction, was to help with the inevitable paperwork concerning export licences. Because a good, but comparatively common, Ferdinand Gagliano violin had sold for over the government’s limit, it required a Department of Trade export licence. Why? There are hundreds of Gagliano violins, of no importance to Great Britain at all. It’s just that it was expensive, and expensive art attracts the attention of the authorities. Nationally important, rare, yet inexpensive art does not. website tech info If the Royal George had sold, it could have left the country with nobody in authority raising an eyebrow.

The third time I met the cello was at the splendid BVMA exhibition in 1998. There it was, now catalogued, correctly in my view, as made in 1782. Perhaps its fate is to be exhibited endlessly, but not permanently – for it is not yet in a museum, as far as I am aware.

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