A group of cellos and a viol provide clues that point tantalisingly towards being made for Scottish Jacobite rebels in the early eighteenth century. Benjamin Hebbert explores the risks of provenance and tradition in an area of cultural history fuelled with deeply held romantic notions of the past. Sometimes something can really be what it seems and whilst a firm decision may be out of reach, a tentative attribution involving a large amount of history can be taken seriously.
There is a fascinating book edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger on The Invention of Tradition which details the different systems in which groups of people have built or rehabilitated their lost traditions. The Dress Act of 1746 made ‘highland dress’ and other symbols of clan membership illegal in as a way of suppressing the Jacobite uprisings and bring the nation to heel under Hanoverian rule. It was repealed in 1782 and in the decades that followed, the popularisation of Scottish culture across the whole of the British Isle led step by step to the embrace of Scottish history that we see today – essentially the recreation of a past that had been systematically destroyed and suppressed since the flight into exile of James II & VII in 1688.
Reconciliation was emerging in 1766 when Prince Henry, the second son of George II was created Duke of Cumberland in stark contrast to the infamous “Butcher Cumberland” who had defeated the Scottish at Culloden and terrorised the Highlands in the name of the Crown. “Scotch tunes” had been the fare of London music publishers since the 1720s, but from the 1770s English domestic musicians couldn’t get enough of them, becoming the main staple of London music publishers such as Charles and Samuel Thompson. With the rise of the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, by 1822, the visit of the British monarch to Scotland since 1688 there had been a turn around in the presentation of a once-clandestine Scottish history. Victory in the Napoleonic wars could not have been achieved without the help of the Highland Regiments and the Irish, whilst Scottish allegiance to the Union had prevented the threat of invasion from the North from the “Auld Alliance”. Government, and particularly the Duke of Wellington was particularly aware of the debt owed to these parts of the Union, and simultaneously the emergence of the sensationally popular Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott in 1814 set the stage for the romanticisation of Scottish history. In 1822, under the guidance of Walter Scott, George IV sealed the renewed love affair between Scotland and the British Crown. Crucially he had a blood line that was as much Stuart as it was Hanoverian, and so he could be hailed as the new Jacobite King. His reception as a king that united the union as surely as James I and VI had done in 1603 would see a renewed Scottish interest throughout the United Kingdom. Relics of the Scottish past would emerge from old families, and traditions surrounding them would be reaffirmed.
Anyone with an understanding of this Scottish Revival will eventually confront reality that the heavy pressure of reconstructing this clandestine past led inevitably to many artefacts being erroneously tied to a celebrated Scottish past as demand for such things deepened in the nineteenth century. The Romance of the golden ages of Mary Queen of Scots and the later Jacobite rebellions make a tangible history to the famous names highly desirable. Even the most passionate of museum curator in Scotland has to weigh scepticism into the equation, just as a violin dealer has to maintain a balance when someone phones up with a Strad from the attic.
As an example, a visitor to the early Royal College of Music would have feasted their eyes on the glorious inlayed guitar that belonged to David Rizzio, the lover and Latin Secretary of Mary Queen of Scots. It is no less of a glorious guitar, purchased by the Scottish collector Charles Reade from a Scottish family who had owned it for generations and supported this provenance. In turn, it was published in 1888 by Hipkins and Gibb in Edinburgh and purchased by the Scotsman, Sir George Donaldson who assembled the collection and bequeathed it to the RCM in 1894. Strong associations, for a French guitar by René Voboam, made in Paris around 1650, save of course for the inconvenience of being one hundred years too late to have had anything to do with the lover of the last Scottish Queen, murdered in 1656. It nevertheless fitted a narrative before we had enough specialist knowledge to query it.
The Royal Collection likewise owns a portrait of Rizzio holding a violin. It is a fascinating sixteenth or early seventeenth century British portrait of a violinist, and I have long agonised over it’s similarity to a (lost) preparatory sketch of the man that exists only in an 1814 lithograph, which in the absence of the original, and looking suspiciously as if it supposed to be a likeness from Hans Holbein’s “Great Book” may bear a similarity because it is a nineteenth century fantasy based upon this very painting (the sketch of Sir Henry Guildford from Holbein’s Great Book illustrated for comparison).. Holbein was dead in 1543, a decade before the purported date of the sketch and this style of archival work is particular to him.
The further problem is that a musician of his standing was very unlikely to be depicted with a violin in 1556 and he is known to have played the lute, but as a history portrait from after his downfall – something that was common in British painting – the substitution of his lute for a violin may serve as a political metaphor for a courtier rising above his station. For the same reasons, in 1578, Queen Elizabeth I of England gave her paramour Sir Robert Dudley an ornate violin fashioned from an ancient citole. There is a powerful message, all to obvious from their tempestuous love affair. In sum, the violin was the musical instrument of the servant of a court, as it was there to enhance the virtuous pursuit of dancing. As a musical instrument, the lute (or viol) was an end in itself, and thus the object of virtue. It is as if to make a firm statement about figures who had risen above their station. On the other hand, it may just be the painting of a violinist from a slightly later time.
As a last shot against the work, elsewhere I have done a lot of study on Ekphrasis and the Paragone in terms of the representation of music in art. In the painting of Rizzio, I am suspicious that he is playing a violin like a lute, which would be obvious to an onlooker, and that he is playing at all, hence challenging long-held conventions. Holbein follows a long list of painters including Giorgione and Titian who carefully curated instruments to appear in a setting where they are not giving sound: At an extreme, simply holding a lute as a prop. Nicholas Lanier’s 1613 [self-organised] portrait is able to depict the sitter in a moment of musical tacet, in recognition of the Stile Recitativo that he performed. I can well imagine the same intellectual ideas that applied to Lanier being inverted to further the propaganda against Rizzio as the portrait with a violin is broadly contemporaneous. However, subject to being proven wrong, I find the sketch of a formal portrait of a lutenist in the act of playing the lute out of step with the conventions of formal portraiture as they were in the 16th century.
The murder of Rizzio led to a thick and bloody period in Scottish history that saw Lord Darnley murdered and his son, the future King James IV of Scotland and I of England effectively orphaned. The Royal Collection identifies the costumes as those of the 1620s contradicting the 1565 (Dad Rizzo MDLXV) date painted in the top corner. Hence, as long as we accept it as a posthumous history painting, there are good arguments for and against this particular identification. It is on display at Holyrood House in Edinburgh amongst artefacts associated with Queen Mary. On balance I think it is the right place for it.
With these examples in mind, one has to be very careful in dealing with fabulous Scottish provenances. Over the last few generations it has been all too easy for scholars to dismiss artefacts because of a lack of supporting provenance. These ideas go further into our cultural history and broader than just Scotland, especially in an age where there seems to be more kudos and celebrity in exposing something as a fake against the traditions of experts, than simply allowing the something to remain as it is for centuries. One need only look at the hopeful revisionists looking to expose William Shakespeare as someone else, or challenge the identity of the Mona Lisa, and arrogant enough to expect their hypothesis to be better than the steady understanding of centuries worth of serious minds.
The problems of provenance that fuelled the arguments for the Stradivari Messiah in the 1990s were actually relying on a higher standard of legally admissible proof than we would allow for almost any other cultural object in the world, and unrealistic in terms of how provenance was transacted in the three centuries in which the violin had changed hands. If the violin was to be held to that methodology and standard of proof, we would have had to overturn almost every painting in the National Gallery produced before the advent of photography. Likewise, the Rizzio portrait, as with the Shroud of Turin, may well have been fabricated after the fact in the fourteenth century, but it does not mean that they didn’t play an active historical role in the shaping of our history, nor does it invalidate the faith that it has inspired in 700 years. The painting of Rizzio may have played a role in how the Stuart dynasty shaped their own story as Kings of Scotland and England in the seventeenth century, for we certainly know many ways in which the deadly falling out between James I’s mother and father critically influenced his own persona. Hence even with something as preposterous as the Donaldson guitar in the Royal College of Music, it may be interesting to interrogate how it got it’s legend, and how this played into the nineteenth century Scottish revival – a crucial point in the history of a nation.
With this considerable mess of thoughts in mind, it is all too easy to give something undue credit. Yet, at the other side, like the Rizzio portrait, it is just as easy to treat something with undue scepticism as well, and it is easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Consequently, as with all provenance, we run the continual risk that our scepticism may amount to a kind of post-modern iconoclasm that risks doing great damage to our perception of our cultural history moving forward.
A Jacobite Provenance: It was with this caution that I revisited the oddest viol I have ever seen, first shown to me in pictures by Michael Heale over twenty years ago from when he had worked on it on behalf of the present owner, Bill Hunt. The original head and neck were long gone, leaving only a body of the weirdest shape with elongated soundholes, narrow, and despite the reasonably high quality of making, formed from some really very unimpressive wood. The purfling, on the other hand, was gorgeous, rather overdone with outsized knots on the back, and on the front a familiar and absolutely perfectly formed Barak Norman tulip of a kind I had seen on several of his viols (his tulips evolve over his lifetime, from very simple to extremely florid types, but they literally grow out of each other).
At the time we had absolutely no idea of where it came from, and it was all the more unusual because someone who had taken enormous trouble to replicate Barak Norman’s motifs clearly didn’t have the faintest idea of what a London-made bass viol of the 1700s period looked like. Italian? Bohemian? German? Where to start…? There was just one other thing that deepened the mystery… a torn advertising card from the 1920s with a provenance scribbled over the back of it.
On the face of it there was nothing more to this ‘big fiddle’ than a card giving it this out-of-the-ordinary provenance. It sounded like just the thing from a Jacobite romantic novel complete with the heroic rebel and the sympathetic ladies. It could be true? From the material perspective of the viol, the purported 1716 date was an absolutely perfect concordance with the Barak Norman monograms. Hitherto, however it had baffled everyone involved since its purchase in 1979. Rather sensibly, the as the provenance seemed to be at the very edge of plausibility, it had been swept under the carpet. If we were to venture any kind of hypothesis about the instrument, we needed to see other examples by the same maker.
There the status-quo remained until around 2015 whenI got wind of a so-called Barak Norman cello that was coming to the market in Scotland. It had the caveat that it had to go to a Scottish player because it had Jacobite thistles scratched into it. On the basis of what I had heard of the instrument I was dismissive of the whole thing, erroneously assuming that the owner had mistaken inlaid tulips for scratched thistles. As photographs emerged it turned out that it had both, and after it entered the Musical Instrument Museum in Edinburgh I got to see it and photograph it myself. It too had its mysteries.
To my eye, the instruments had much in common, from a similarly inlaid tulip in the style of Barak Norman, through to the rather wayward soundholes and especially the choice of wood from which it was made. My initial caution over the Jacobite claim on the cello was disarmed by the scratch-work thistle below the bridge and associated floral designs towards the bottom of the belly, mostly worn off with age. The clues to the Jacobite associations lay not in other musical instruments but as a consistent theme in Jacobite glassware, in which there are hundreds if not thousands of examples to compare it by – all unique: By tradition as with the cello, scratched on with a ring by the owner, not the maker.
At this point we had two separate instruments, that had existed through 300 years with completely separate narratives, yet were made by the same maker, and had independent claims to a Jacobite past. Whilst I would have given almost no credence to any of these claims up to this point, logic dictates that it was infinitely more likely that there was truth to the matter than the instruments randomly turning up with fabricated narratives that mirrored one and other. We were now looking at instruments that were probably Scottish, and consistent with the date of 1716 implied by the viol’s provenance. It is significant too that except for a set of bagpipes played at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, there is little if any tradition of musical instruments with Jacobite associations. In short, it was time to begin to take these histories seriously.
With the Edinburgh Museum cello there was a dead end beyond the ancient graffiti applied after it had been made (except the head, which I shall come to presently), but despite Bill’s caution he had a key to investigating the past history of the instrument. Bill had got to know the instrument in the 1970s when it belonged to two elderly spinster sisters, Clara and Susan Lees who had come down from Scotland to Charmouth in Dorset, and had eventually bought the viol in 1979 from them. A letter from their nephew who enabled the sale put some credence to the mythology of the instrument.
My ancestor John Steuart, third son of Patrick Steuart of Ballechin, was taken prisoner in the 1715 rebellion and spent some time in gaol in Carlisle. While there he passed his time playing his viola de gamba, which I also inherited from my grandmother
From this start, Bill was able to contact the family and walk back the provenance connecting the instrument to the card, for the advertising card was to let the property of Craigatin in Pitlochry after the death of their grandfather William Stewart Irvine in 1893 when it was briefly rented until 1897 when it was sold, and must have been a consequence of the house clearance at the time, when his daughter Jessie took both the viol and a portrait of John Stewart. A biography, The Recollections of William Stewart Irvine, MD. FRCSE published in 1896, gave his view on the instrument and its past:
Dr. Irvine was also linked with the most romantic episode of Scottish history through his great-grandfather, Mr. Stewart of Kynachan, who followed Prince Charlie, and was imprisoned at Carlisle for his share in the uprising. I have heard Dr. Irvine relate how some friends managed to convey relief to the captive by sending a large snuff-box full of snuff, but so remarkably weighty that his great-grandfather, on investigation found at the bottom of it golden guineas with which he bribed his gaoler to loosen his chains so far as to allow of his lying down! He was subsequently released, and returned home with a new acquisition in a ‘viol de gamba,’ which he had learnt to play in prison.
From an interim generation a likely reference the viol in 1837 (then converted as a cello) from David Stewart Irvine in Glasgow, brother of the Rev Alexander. Despite the obvious problems of running to conclusions, the advice on it’s size is spot on for this particular instrument. He died of Typhus in 1839 – clearly an instrument of considerable value to the family even if it was regarded as unsuitable musically.
“PS: I quite forgot to beg what I have often thought to ask – your Bass. You can have the little one at Cluny, which I will have repaired for you. I would take it, but to learn on it would spoil my stepping on any other. I want recreation for my evening and one can’t always read. I hope you will send me the instrument. It will confer a real favour on me and I will take every care of it”
Thereupon there is a direct line of family descent to John Stewart (1665-1733), first Laird of Kynachan and Lt Colonel of the First Battalion of the Atholl Brigade, the imprisoned Jacobite in 1716, only broken by Bill’s purchase in 1989. Whilst it can be said that the advertising card represents the strongest possible provenance, the more-or-less unanswerable question is whether that provenance applies to that instrument. Despite all good faith there is neither a painting, drawing, let alone a photograph that links this particular instrument to that particular provenance.
Of John Stewart, he was a second-generation Jacobite, and his son David was later killed at the battle of Culloden, hence a heroic figure in Jacobite history explaining why a once eminent Jacobite family had kept the relics of the three generations of their past. However, there was a lingering issue of provenance, as a competing family legend told of him captured at Preston and being sent to the Tower of London and committed for Treason. In this version of events, he had acquired the viol in London, at odds with the written history on the card, as well as being at odds with the ideas I was forming about the instrument being made in Scotland or the North of England. At the very least, if this was a Northern instrument made when John Stewart was in the Tower of London, the provenance would be unreliable.
Eventually, we got to the heart of the contradictions. The battle of Sheriffmuir took place on 13 November 1715 whilst the siege of Preston lasted from 9-14 November with the officers captured and taken to London. As we began to look further we found no sign of the Atholl Brigade during the Siege of Preston, but Stewart was present on the March to Edinburgh having been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st Battalion of Lord Nairn’s regiment of the Atholl Brigade. Upon being called to surrender by the King’s forces his address is recorded in the Annals of King George: “That as to surrender they laughed at it; and as to bringing cannon and assaulting them, they were ready for him; that they would neither take nor give quarter with him; and if he thought he was able to force them he might try his hand.” So what about the lingering question of Preston and thence the Tower of London? At the battle of Sheriffmuir, Lord Nairn’s regiment crossed the Firth towards Edinburgh, so that whilst the majority of the Jacobite forces were halted on the wrong side of the River Tay, near Stirling, they momentarily had the advantage. Cut off by the river from the main force of rebels, Lord Nairn’s regiment dispersed as the rebellion collapsed. Thereupon they evaded the Hanoverian army, but were hunted as enemies of the state until they formally surrendered. The regiment marched on to Preston to declare an official surrender to General Willis who had command of the government troops during the uprising.. By the time they got there, all that was left of the regiment was 122 soldiers, the eight remaining officers including General Nairn, and “Lieutenant Colonel John Stuart, of Kynachan”. (See Sheriffmuir, 1715 by Stuart Reid, 162). The march was over 180 miles, and an army at full strength would only march 15 or 20 miles per day. Hence whatever circumstances betel them, they would have arrived long after the city capitulated and shared a different fate from fthe well-documented circumstances that surrounded the Jacobites fof the Siege of Preston. Moreover, unlike the English and Scottish Jacobites at Preston, they had committed an act of rebellion in Scotland, and crucially had not committed treason on English soil: The Indemnity Act, which pardoned many of the Jacobite rebels of Treason would not become law until 1717, Thus it is unlikely that John Stewart entered the Tower of London, and on the off-chance that he was nevertheless sent there it is just as likely that he completed his imprisonment back in Carlisle.
Hence, there is nothing to dispute the idea he was in Carlisle where the sympathetic ladies bought him a viol. The irons that he was bound in were said to have been preserved by the Edinburgh Historical Society, but lost after 1840.
Three cellos and a viol: We have established a line of provenance that seems to track this viol back to 1810, and that follows a blood line right the way back to John Stewart imprisoned in 1716-18, that doesn’t necessarily account for the instrument itself. as it is easy to substitute things along the way, and even the 1810 description is far from watertight. There were plenty of small cellos in circulation in provincial Scotland used by children in professional musical families before moving on to the smaller violin. Literally “big fiddles”. About 20 years ago I found such a specimen and secured it for the Edinburgh Musical Instrument Museum, made by John Boyd of Dundee in 1843. Supporting evidence was nevertheless present in identifying the graffiti-ridden cello as by the same hand, and thus demonstrating something of a Jacobite association too.
So what of the instruments, what could they tell us? With some further investigation I was able to come up with three other cellos with the same characteristics as the Stewart-family viol. One in Japan was too far away to be able to inspect it, but presently we were able to assemble three of the instruments (plus the one in the Edinburgh museum) for examination.
What was clear about the four cellos was that they had a good deal more in common with Barak Norman than the extraordinary-looking viol. The maker had evidently traced the motif from the front of one of them, and applied it to his own instruments. Equally, the ball and dart motif on the back of the viol is found in some of Barak Norman’s work from the early 1690s. He was clearly adequately satisfied with his own aesthetic of fiddle-making and happy to make only the most rudimentary of comparisons to this London maker. Moreover, his style was sufficiently free, that despite the similarities that lock them into the same maker’s workshop, the outlines and execution are totally different from one to another – the randomness being a coherent factor in his making process.
Dendrochronology would normally be a first port of call for instruments like this, but it proves problematic with these because the fronts are made of several pieces of pine. There are not enough rings to analyse, they are probably of a species that is outside of the Alpine chronologies available to dendrochronologists. However, whilst the very specific science of dendrochronology doesn’t aid identification, the older and more established science of visual wood identification proves to be particularly helpful in regard to this instrument. Largely, London makers as well as most of those on the continent relied on wood from Alpine sources, and from as early as the 1650s English sources talk of Cullen Cliff, brought down the Rhine from the Alps to the seasonal markets in Cologne for use by violin and viol makers. As a result, London wood is quite characteristic and falls into the same broader category that includes instruments from the other sophisticated Northern European makers. By comparison the wood is a basic sort of pine and the combination of very wide grain and diffuse transition indicates a climate without much differentiation between summer and winter growth, and rapid growth owing to the generally warm (by comparison to the Alps) overall annual climate.
Violins from Scotland and the North of England from the early eighteenth-century are incredibly rare, largely as we shall see because of the efficiency of the London trade which prevented regional schools of violin making from having much prominence in the eighteenth century. However as we reach the end of the century there are locally made North-of-England and Scottish instruments made out of locally-sourced materials that we can begin to look at. Examples by William Henderson (c.1815), Matthew Hardie (c.1820) and from Hull in Yorkshire, Robert Poulton (c.1800) all provide comparable samples of lowland local pine for comparison. By comparison, even the fast growing softwoods occasionally used by London makers at the same time are of quite a different type of wood, likely larch. Here the visual identification of the wood on the cellos conforms precisely with the kind of woods locally sourced in Scotland and the North of England. Likewise, the backs of the instruments are of particularly plain sycamore. I should note that there are some excellently flamed maples that grow in the United Kingdom, but again there is a tendency towards the use of plain sycamore in Scottish work, as per the Henderson of c.1815. Given that most continental schools of violin making, particularly in Germany were situated relative to the trade routes of alpine wood, it would be less likely to see this kind of wood within any established continental tradition of violin making.
The interior blocks are of further interest, as they are a combination of solid wooden blocks at the top and bottom of the rib, with linen reinforcement glued between them. The instrument is unconventional, but the same linen we would expect to see on many English viols of the period.
The situation for the scrolls began with the disappointment that there were no original examples on any of the instruments. We know that the wood of these instruments was fairly fresh because it contributes to the terrible condition of two of the surviving specimens where the wood was not properly seasoned beforehand. Part of the reason why most old viols and cellos don’t have their original necks is not for modernisation, but rather because of the proneness for the wood to twist and warp. Given what we see of the ribs and backs of these instruments, there may have been an almost immediate need to rectify the necks. To my surprise and pleasure, all three of the scrolls of these instruments are characteristic of Matthew Hardie’s workshop, the famous Edinburgh maker, and applied to the instruments at different times. I should be clear that the varnish of the scrolls is completely different to the varnish of the rest of the instrument, so it is clear that he did not make them, but restored them at a later date instead. Hence all three cellos passed through Edinburgh sometime from the 1790s to the 1820s.
Matthew Hardie scrolls of different periods on each of the four cellos (the fifth string added to the last one in recent times)
To my mind, although the viol made more sense compared to these cellos, there was still a fundamental difficulty to be addressed, because it made little sense to expect an experienced maker from this period to produce something so completely different from the prevailing fashions. The cellos aren’t that far off London work, and could even give a Pamphilon a run for its money in terms of quality. Why was the viol so irrevocably off-piste?
If, as one may expect from three instruments with Hardie scrolls, these cellos and viol had been made in Edinburgh, there was certainly a steady trade in English viols, in addition to whatever Barak Norman cello our as-yet-anonymous maker had seen. Amongst the enterprising London dealers was Ralph Agutter, working on the Strand where he was clearly in the upper echelons of the business was one example of a London dealer who came to Edinburgh to trade in the years prior to 1716. He was responsible for searching for a lost decorated Stradivari violin in 1683 with the Howard’s coat of Arms on it, and various lost-property advertisements in the newspapers where he served as an intermediary serve to illustrate his aristocratic customer base. In 1707 and 1712 and perhaps other times too he made trips North, to the ancestral seat of the Jennison family into whom he was married, at Walworth Castle near Newcastle, and to Edinburgh where he made his temporary shop with Widow Poole, a glove perfumer in Stonelaw’s Close.
Ralph Agutter of London, lately come to Edinburgh, Musical Instrument maker is to be found at Widow Pool’s, perfumer of gloves, at her house in Stonelaw’s close, a little below the steps; makes the violin, Bass violin, Tenor violin, the Viol de Gambo, the Lute Quiver, The Trumpet Marine, the Harp; and mendeth and putteth into order and stringeth all those instruments as fine as any man whatsoever in the three kingdoms, or elsewhere, and mendeth the Virginal, Spinnet, and harpsichord at reasonable prices’
The Edinburgh Courant, 13 May 1707.
In the 1720s a London maker named John Grice came to Edinburgh, making plain on his labels that he was from London. Finally I have seen a number of viols by Richard Meares, Barak Norman and other London work through the years that were converted in the 1790-1820s period into violas by Matthew Hardie, his son James and his assistant, David Stirrat. It may be presumed that these were instruments that had found their way to Edinburgh whilst the viol was still fashionable.
Hence, when we look at the viol and cellos together, it is as if the maker was familiar with Barak Norman’s cellos, but a good deal less familiar with London-made viols, a conclusion that would seem unlikely for a maker in Edinburgh who would have presumably gone to more effort to replicate what he saw. To me, this poses the question of whether this was a provincial maker. Given the narrative so far, could we look towards Carlisle, if the Jacobite ladies who sympathised with Henry Stewart were local?
A tentative attribution? The period through the seventeenth-century all the way to 1725 is peppered with instruments where no name can be reliably given to them. In London, there are more than a dozen names of makers with high reputations from literary sources for which no known instrument can be found. Makers like Rayman, Cuthbert, Meares, Wise number in less than a dozen each, and yet there are numerous instruments provably from this time and place that have no known maker. The story of Henry Stewart’s viol shows us someone working in the decade around 1715 in his own style with some acknowledgement of the fashions of London. He was someone who attracted Jacobite customers. Even that he was Jacobite suggests the he would have fared better outside of Edinburgh where fine London instruments were more plentiful, and where the population supported King “German” George I. Carlisle? If we presume to take the provenance of the viol at face value, then it would seem at least as likely as Edinburgh itself.
Perhaps, though, there is some clue, although without any certainty this stops short of any attribution, but are we looking at John Forster? Sandys and Forster’s history of the violin, published in 1864 made great efforts to trace the Forster genealogy back into ancient times, commissioning the violin maker Joseph Rook in Carlisle to trace the living relatives of the Forster clan and to obtain what information he could from church records and oral history, as the first William Forster (b.1713) had come to London from Brampton. We have surviving instruments by the first William Forster (there were four) from Brampton just nine miles east of Carlisle. He was the son of John who died in 1791 at the age of ninety three – born in 1688 and therefore 27, married and with William (I) already born in 1715. Of him, they elaborated from Rook’s letter of November 1850 the following:
“Only vague accounts could be learned of the vocation he followed, but it was generally asserted that, latterly he made spinning-wheels, or was a wheelwright, and at one period of his life he was a gun-maker, and considered by all of them to be “a very ingenious man, and occasionally made fiddles.” A violin was seen in 1850, said to be his make, and with some degree of truth could be traced back. The work was rude and unfinished, the model very high, resembling the Steiner, but the outline approached nearer to the pattern of the Amati. It was much decayed and worm-eaten, and if strings had been to the instrument it is doubtful it it would have borne tuning to try the tone. This violin was possessed by Joseph Rook, a violin maker and performer, who lived in Rickergate, Carlisle. He had been an intimate with Joseph Forster, grandson (if we are correct in with the identity) of the said John from the first year of the present century.” (p.292.)
I can’t help feeling how well they describe the characteristics of this cello, “very high” arched, rude and unfinished” in elaborating on Rook’s violin that had belonged to Joseph Forster. Although one cannot make an attribution on the mere idea that they both looked rude, there is a warm feeling to this description. Tantalisingly too, there is a nod back towards Jacobite history that “at one period of his life he was a gun-maker”, insignificant on its own if it wasn’t for the Disarming Act that came into effect on 1 November 1716 ineffectually “securing the peace” in Scotland, re-asserted in stronger terms in 1725, and followed by the Act of Proscription after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. To be clear, weapons for the British Army and government militias would have been made at the Royal Armouries at the time. To be a gun-maker as described would likely see the “ingenious” John Forster as a Jacobite armourer.
There is an economic point that seems worthy of mention, that William (I) Forster (1713-1801), like his father was a part time violin maker, filling his time with spinning wheel making and other goods that were in higher demand. In turn his son, William (2) (1739-1808) made more violins and fewer spinning wheels before moving to London in 1765. As an isolated example, there could be a number of speculations about the market for instruments, but with three generations following the same pattern, and no other makers known in the town until Rook, It would seem that the area surrounding Carlisle had enough of an economy to provide a demand for instrument making (and repairing) locally, but insufficient demand to support a full-time musical instrument maker. This would seem to narrow the field of possibilities that bit further, and so we have instruments likely made in the environs of Carlisle, purchased in one case by the sympathetic ladies of the town for it’s most celebrated Jacobite prisoner. We also have the name of an instrument maker active at the time. In which case, a family’s journey from Jacobite Rebels to Establishment London tells a story that repeats itself endlessly in British history, resulting in his grandson achieving the patronage of the Duke of Cumberland and Prince of Wales.
I would like very much to say that these instruments are John Forster’s work, and I think we are so very close to being able to make a decision in that regard that it is important to keep his name as the chief suspect. But, for all that my heart tempts me to seal the attribution, and much that the tale of these instruments remains an important view into a particular corner of musical history, an attribution is only possible with a firm, signed instrument. For the time being, we have to accept that knowing for certain may yet be beyond our grasp.
Postscript: I am incredibly grateful to Bill Hunt for his enthusiasm in this search, and also his constant ability to question as things took unexpectedly positive turns. In turn, I am grateful to the living descendants of John Stewart, 1st Laird of Kynachan who were generous in sharing what they know of the viol and it’s history. With some confidence about the origin of the viol and cellos, I hope that they have the necessary grounding to serve as exemplars of a Scottish tradition for which something is already known of the music and performance, but not hitherto the instruments.
Fascinating and thought-provoking, as always; thank you Ben.
A brief thought about the Rizzio portrait: as he hailed from northern Italy, it’s entirely possible that he might have played the violino, in addition to other instruments, by the time of his arrival in Scotland. I don’t think the early-seventeenth-century portrait painter need necessarily have substituted the violin for a lute or other instrument. Presumably it would have been known that Henry IV of France, speaking of James VI of Scotland ‘hoped he was not David the fiddler’s son’. As it was through his musical skills (initially the ability to sing in four-part polyphony) that Rizzio is reported to have ingratiated himself at court, to depict him with the violin in particular — an instrument primarily associated with professionals — would indeed have emphasised his status but might also have acknowledged his actual practice.
Lewis, thank you so much for your thoughts.
I think that this touches on two things. Certainly in 1550 at Bethune, Paul de la Haye, a jouer de violon performed in an “ancient drama” so the ideas that you are forming have their precedents in France, but I think we are still in an unexplained quagmire of history. Did Rizzio play the violin? I think thats a separate question from whether he would sit for a formal portrait as a violinist.
I have touched on some ideas that I would like to draw out at length in a separate blog or article, to challenge the old idea that the violin was a “professional” instrument, and the lute and viol were “noble”, because whilst I think this applies, I don’t think we understand it in quite the same way as musicians and courtiers pursuing a Renaissance ideal. Remember that Balthazar de Beaujoyleaux was a valet du chamber in 1581 in the French court, and Jacques Cordier dit Bocan provided an integral link in the match of Prince Charles to Henrietta Maria: Violinists – musicians generally – in the English court had the rank of gentlemen, an oddity when their function was more akin to a servant. Ultimately because the value of dance, or whatever accompanied art rests on the shoulders of the musicians, they have the ability to elevate it higher in Renaissance Humanist terms. Therefore, the violin as an aid to such arts is not the end point, but subservient. Nevertheless by appointing the finest musicians possible to play the violin one is assuring the elevation of the art of dance. (A lute or a viol is an end in itself).
Henry IV compares James I to King Solomon in that quote, on account of Solomon’s birth out of adultery, so I think we need to consider the full source and it’s mischievous context. Whilst I think you may very likely be right about him having the skills of a Northern Italian violino player of the 1550s, I still think that the depiction of him as a violinist has to do with propaganda. I am reminded, from the Royal Collection of the Richard III painting, where there is obvious contemporaneous overpainting on his shoulder and chain of office to give him a hunched back, and all history paintings that follow show this doctored image. There are few paintings where this kind of propaganda can be inferred, but fewer still of Tudor/Jacobean violinists.
The Richard III prototype, from a century before the Rizzio portrait is this one here: https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/the-art-of-monarchy/richard-iii-1452-85?language=fr
It’s an open door for much speculation. I am pleased the painting represents Rizzio.