A Surprising Cello

Posted By 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

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