Carl Friederich Abel, Ann Ford and Thomas Gainsborough…. “that” viol revealed.

Every few years viol players in England return with the same question, asking what the viol is in the famous painting of Carl Friederich Abel painted by Thomas Gainsborough. A surprise observation likely provides the answer once and for all. Benjamin Hebbert writes. 

In June 2019 I travelled to Innsbruck to attend a conference marking the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jacob Stainer. There were three rooms of Stainer violins and violas, and in another gallery, a variety of German instruments by other makers of the seventeenth century. Often in exhibitions, whether it’s one of violins, or a blockbuster at the National Gallery of famous paintings, the room at the end tends to be an afterthought, almost apologetic. I like to go here first. It sets the mind on understanding the diversity, the level, and the averages that apply to making (or painting) at the time, then you can really appreciate why a masterpiece is a as great as it is, and sometimes with fresh eyes you can see how highly some of the lesser-known contemporaries worked too…. Well, there I was, without any expectation of doing anything other than scratching my head over fiddles when an old friend came into view.

Amongst the English artists in the period from Gainsborough to Turner, there seems to have been a particular affection for stringed instruments. George Romney, the son of a cabinet maker, made violins and often played one of his own making whilst composing portraits in his studio. There is an often repeated anecdote that in response to an argument between John Constable and William Turner over the use of the colour green, which Turner thought abhorrent, in which Constable responded by laying a Cremona violin on the lawn of Sir George Beaumont’s house having pronounced that a painting should be the colour of a Cremona violin. Gainsborough was a collector as well as a player of the viola da gamba. He wrote to his friend William Jackson in the early 1770s noting the three Henry Jayes and two Barak Normans already in his possession. I don’t intend to write about Gainsborough’s collection in this blog, but I think it’s worth copying his letter to show just how attentive he was to the viol, and to understand the connoisseurly eye that he applied to his choices of instruments, something that we may assume followed through into his painting.

I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease. But these fine ladies and their tea drinkings, dancings, husband-huntings, &c. &c. &c., will fob me out of the last ten years, and I fear miss getting husbands too. But we can say nothing to these things you know, Jackson, we must jogg on and be content with the jingling of the bells, only that I hate a dust, the kicking up a dust, and being confined in harness to follow the track whilst others ride in the waggon, under cover, stretching their legs in the straw at ease, and gazing at green trees and blue skies without half my taste. That’s hard. My comfort is I have five viols-da-gamba, three Jayes and two Barak Normans.


With this in mind the two portraits of Carl Frederick Abel painted by Gainsborough and containing instruments are of great interest. It follows that his interest in viols might lead to particularly accurate depictions of them within his portraits.. Perhaps the first portrait to deal with is that of Abel in 1777 with what looks for all the world like a straightforward and ordinary bass viol. If it were a photograph of a real one, I would think it was a little deep in the ribs – more in keeping with a cello – with the added height in the upper half creating a longer neck heel. I’d also be quite curious about the shape of the sound holes – like a violin the lower half extends quite far towards the corner, in a way that is out of keeping with the near symmetrical orthodox soundholes of viols in general and English ones particularly. The ‘wings’ – the tongue of wood between the circles and the corpus are square, rather that forming a point, which is also quite unfamiliar to English instruments. The instrument has six strings and a head which is a scroll like a violin.


To my mind, these characteristics are very much in keeping with a viol by Jacob Stainer. The three bass viols that I know of by him have striped ribs and back, and I don’t know of any that has plain ribs like this, however that is not to doubt for a moment that he would have made such. Those from 1672 and 1679 have f-holes like a violin, and just one from 1658 has c-holes, just like those on the painting.

This is the best I could do, through the glass of the exhibition. It shows the point. Jacob Stainer, 1658.

I would not like to make an attribution of an instrument on a painting and there are other makers around Stainer’s time who closely modelled their own instruments on those by Stainer, in fact it is an absolute nightmare trying to figure out what is right and which fine German/Austrian viols have received ambitious labels and attributions in the years that follow: In fact, before seeing these two viols together in a lineup with the Winterthur Stainer cello, I don’t think I have ever had absolutely definitive confidence in acknowledging Stainer’s work making viols. Together they provide a perfect self-reinforcing solidity of fact. I am prepared however to say that Abel’s instrument in the painting of 1777 is not an English viol, but one closely resembling (and very probably by) Jacob Stainer.

This is important because, regardless of other instruments he played, he seems to have been invested in using instruments from the German speaking lands, and those are the ones that Gainsborough – the avid collector and connoisseur of viols – chose to depict him with when painting.

It’s odd to write about the viol with Stainer traits first, because in reality that’s the afterthought after I had decided to write this blog. It was another instrument that caught my eye and had me properly excited.

Gainsborough’s 1765 portrait of Abel, (National Portrait Gallery, London NPG 5947)

As I wrote above, I am frequently asked about the viol in the National Gallery portrait. It has anomalies, for the seven strings and perfectly weird scroll, through to the strange shape of the sound-holes with the added circles to them. I really haven’t seen anything like it. We know, however, that the instrument wasn’t fantasy, because the same characteristics appear again in Gainsborough’s portrait of Ann Ford.


Although the similarities outweigh the differences, there are subtle differences between the way the viol is painted in the two pictures, and although I think that the portrait of Abel is very well observed, the outline of the instrument seems to be a little more like a normal English viol. This may simply be a matter of perspective (more on that later). Ann Ford’s instrument by comparison has that slightly wilder look, the consequence of corners that are over 100 degrees, giving the c-bouts an impression of enormous space. It’s rather as if the instrument is an antecedent of the type of design Ventura Linarol was producing in Venice in the 1580s. Likewise, the very shallow meander of the upper bouts towards the neck. I am not suggesting for a second that the instrument is one of these, but it’s interesting to look at the genesis of the instrument’s design. The direct face-on depiction of the viol is almost as if Gainsborough wanted to make it’s exotic lines stand out. It’s precisely the way we would photograph it to study it’s form.

Bass viol by Ventura Linarol, Venice, 1582 (National Music Museum, South Dakota)

Hence when I looked at the instrument in the belonging to the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdiandeum (M/I 248), there was a double take on two accounts. For one I seemed to be looking at the Gainsborough/Abel Ford viol, but I also seemed to be looking at a distinctively Venetian outline.

Hopefully, you can see what I mean in this dreadful photoshopping below… the outlines are different, but the two main characteristics are common to each. I’ve included the Giovanni Maria of Brescia (working in Venice) on the left, because one could argue that the genesis of the soundholes may also come from a Venetian prototype.


There are differences between the details and the paintings as well as similarities. The obvious one is that the wings of the c-holes are slightly squared, whereas they come up to points in the Gainsborough studies, and the orientation is a little sloped, whists there are three nicks in the soundholes, rather like a moustache under a nose, whereas there is only on on this viol. It is also very clear that the top of the rosette is more-or-less in line with the top corners of the painted viol, and about central between the top corners and the top of the body on the museum sample. However, the most striking similarity to me is the shape of the c-bouts and corners, following the Linarol-type outline.


The 1765 portrait seems to have a more normal outline, closer to that of say a Barak Norman viol, but at some length holding my phone in one hand with the Gainsborough portrait on the screen and my camera in other, I tried to take a photograph of the instrument at the same angle and perspective that Gainsborough painted it (the museum guard must have thought I was very odd). The more extreme aspects of the outline become lost, and result in the following comparison. I quite like it, but let the eye be the judge.


The scroll of in Gainsborough’s portrait, is – to mercilessly pun – “ungainly”, and is a prime candidate for the old trope of the inaccuracy of paintings, indeed the way that the excavated pegbox upturns into the scroll goes against most ideas of how a pegbox is but, and would likely cause problems of the top string being higher than the others. Here is a typical scroll  – note that the alignment of the pegs follows a consistent line.


And below, the pegs follow an ‘s’ shaped line, the seventh peg higher than the fifth or sixth… but it turns out yet again to be a feature in common with the head of our viol, even if the carving is a little different. See how high the pegbox excavation extends. In fact, this has led to the assumption that the viol was originally for six strings, which is why it may have remained off the radar as a seven stringer, something I will get on to presently.


I would be wary of seeing too much accuracy in the rosette because of the difficulties of painting it, and the strings over the belly can play some funny tricks with the eyes but as a captured sensation of the rosette there are some curious similarities, there is tracing of gilding on both, and the rather disordered pattern falls into quarters. Many rosettes including the sort that Gainsborough presumably may have known from his three Jaye viols (not all Jayes have rosettes) comprise of orderly segments. The rosette on the left is from a 1624 Jaye.

rosettes copy.jpg

To my mind, there are obvious stylistic differences, and when comparing the two paintings against the viol, it is interesting to see how consistently these are painted, giving credibility to Gainsborough as an artist. We know that Abel gave Gainsborough a viol, so perhaps this was that one, incorporated into the paintings to memorialise the gift, and explaining why it is also in a portrait of a different sitter, but whichever way it was also an important viol to Abel, for he chose to be seated with it. Like the Stainer, which has very deep ribs and a Stainer-violin-like belly, to judge from surviving examples, this viol too is sufficiently removed from the English tradition that it would have given a very different sound. Abel is likewise associated with a Tielke viol (more on that when I update my notes) so these suggest more than just an identity but a particular kind of timbre to his playing that can perhaps be explored through these instruments.

The viol, is by Christoph Klingler, working in Rattenburg (a third of the way between Innsbruck and Salzburg in the Austrian Tyrol) and is dated 1683. Violin dictionaries cite violins with Stainer traits, but none have appeared in modern times, and this is regarded as the unique surviving example of his work. (The body measures 69.4cm/ 32.7cm/23.0cm/39.7cm, with ribs 12.5cm). I think Abel’s viol was smaller, perhaps 62 cm. This would account for the rosette being placed lower down the body, since fingerboards don’t necessarily end up scaled down in proportion with the instrument since width and string spacing remains more-or-less a constant, and just as Stainer used the same size soundholes on violins and violas regardless of scale, this would account for the slightly larger soundholes in the paintings.

The seven string pegbox is original, and as we have seen, and so too, must the pegbox of the Gainsborough / Abel viol. That is made in precisely the same year as the Michel Collichon seven stringed viol in the Musée de la Musique, the earliest known French seven-string viol. We have been so trusting of French literary sources that we have never looked outside the box to see what’s there. This overlooked rarity certainly throws the cat amongst the pigeons where that is concerned. That may be why the carving has such a smirk on his face.  For that reason alone, I think this is a landmark in the history of the viol, and the fact it is well suited for Abel means someone really needs to measure it and start to build copies, and even perhaps understanding how to mould the design with the Gainsborough painting to produce an informed recreation of the Abel viol. With some sense that would be a worthy exploration.

The viol is on permanent display in the Ferdinandeum Museum, Innsbruck. The website can be seen here.




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