Transitional English Cellos

Posted By 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.

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