5-String Double Bass by Thomas Davies, Birmingham anno 1874 No 3. – Review

What info do you have on T. Davies?

Relatively little is known about the instrument maker T. Davies. In his "Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers" (ISBN No. 0 9523081 0 X) Dennis.G. Plowright writes 'He was an amateur maker circa 1880. His violins and violas are quite well made, the wood faintly figured and the varnish red/brown. His instruments are labelled (No. 9 dated 1880) and branded T.DAVIES/BIRMINGHAM below the button.'

Maybe Davies was an amateur - but if this instrument is representative of his work - it certainly isn't amateurish.

Yes that's correct. The quality of making that this instrument displays is that of a good, competent maker who had an excellent eye for detail and made efficient use of his tools.

Could Davies have been a bass specialist then?

Yes - the quality of the work does suggest that he was a bass specialist. Indeed - this theory is well supported by the fact that during his earlier years as a violin dealer Shoppe M.D - Anthony Houska sold two other instruments by Davies and currently knows of the whereabouts of at least three or four other instruments that are being used by professional players in London.

Is there an original label?

Yes Davies's original label is located on the central back brace. In hand written black ink it reads 'T. Davies Maker Birmingham 1874 No3'. The question we must ask ourselves is - is this instrument Davies's third double bass or is it the third instrument that he made in that particular year? If it is only the third double bass that he ever made then it is a sure thing that he took a lot of care and pride over its making. Indeed, this is not the work of somebody who is learning from his mistakes as he goes along. The model is big and bold, there is a certain flamboyancy to the style and then there is the arching to the table that makes one gasp with admiration at its sheer perfection.

Is there a makers brand on this instrument?

Yes. As will all the other Davies double basses that we know - this one bears his brand 'T. Davies' just below the back button.

Are there any other brands and inscriptions?

Yes. Another brand can be found on the root of the bass side neck. It is not the Davies brand but that of the well know English maker, repairer and collector- William Calow of Nottingham. Carlow's obviously had high thoughts with regard to his own repair work for the inside of this instrument is absolutely littered with his pencil inscriptions as follows:

    • On the upper table on treble side - 'This Bass is Made By T Davies, Birmingham 1874 No3 - Should label be Missing'.
    • On the lower table treble-side - 'REPAIRED BY Fk W. Calow. 24 Burton St Nottm 1937'
    • On the upper back angle-break on bass side - 'Repaired By and Re-necked July 1937 Fk W. Calow. Violin maker 24 Burton St, Nottingham'
    • On the lower back on treble side - 'Repaired By and Re-necked July 1937
    • Fk W. Calow. Violin maker 24 Burton St, Nottingham'

Is the anything else that Calow admits being responsible for?

Yes Calow fitted (now removed and replaced) a bass bar of unconventional dimensions and shape which in hand written capital letters he inscribed along the bass side as follows; 'REPAIRED AND FITTED BY F.W.CALOW. 24 BURTON ST, NOTTm. JULY 1937 FOR MR THISTLWOOD'. 
For those of you who like curiosities the Calow bar has been removed intact and is now offered with the instrument as part of its history.

Surely there aren't any more inscriptions?

Yes. Finally another so-called bass repairer, a Mr J. Jones from a slightly earlier date to that of Calow has left his repair label on the central back above the central brace. It reads 'Mr J. Jones, 5 Leopold Street, Birmingham. For Mr Kirkby, Reginold Terrace, Leeds. 23rd November 1917.'

When the instrument is in such exceptional structural condition why-on-earth do you think that all these repairer inscriptions are present?

We know for sure that it is only in more recent years that standards of restoration work to double basses have risen to levels approaching that normally associated with other instruments of the violin family. Prior to this it is evident that a large proportion of bass restoration work was undertaken by the amateur enthusiast and by those with absolutely no knowledge of violin restoration at all.

The attempts by different hands - often working around previously badly executed work have - as was found in this instrument - created an inconsistent mish-mash of studs, velum and poorly aligned cracks. One can only assume that at the time these "restorers" were proud of what they had done and felt compelled to leave their "calling-card" in this way.

What did you have to do to sort the Davies out?

The majority of the time was spent in removing the old poorly executed work, followed by the washing out the old cracks, realigning and regluing of the cracks followed by the restudding of the same. Some slight regraduation work was necessary before fitting a correctly shaped bass bar in the correct position. As always - the work has been executed without compromise and at an expenditure in excess of 4K.

Do the inscriptions establish anything else?

Yes - they document some of the instrument's former keepers from the first half of the 20th century. It appears that the instrument was in the possession of a Mr Kirkby from Leeds in 1917 and twenty years later in the possession of a Mr Thistlewood from Nottingham. If one had the time - it would be interesting to try and find out from festival archives, concert programmes of the period etc. if these players were amateurs or members of the profession.

Can you embellish on the condition of this instrument?

For an instrument that dates from 1874 - that's 134 years of age (at 2008) it is truly amazing. Just take a look at the crack free back and then at the magnificently arched table. Even the incredibly vulnerable F-hole wings on the table - are crack free. How fabulous is that! If you have another moment - just look and marvel at the wonderful transparent golden brown varnish the covers the entire instrument. How fabulous is that!

Could you safely use the term "in near-mint condition"?

This is a term seldom awarded to describe the condition of a double bass - but yes indeed.

What about the sound?

Both E and B strings possess power and clarity - the A string is immensely rich and tonal while the D and G strings simply radiate with warmth. In terms of sound this 5-string instrument is a real Goliath.

Is it easy to play?

Yes it is. The dimensions of the neck are spot on. Although this is a five string instrument it plays just as easily as any four.

Final summary.

A truly magnificent instrument with a truly magnificent sound. As estate agents say here in the UK "An early viewing is recommended".

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