5-String Double Bass by William Forster (Royal Forster) circa 1795 – Review

What a majestic looking instrument this is.

Yes - majestic really is the right word to start a review of this beautiful instrument.

Please explain.

William Forster was honoured with the patronage of His Majesty King George 111 (b-1738, d-1820), his younger brother HRH Henry Frederick (b-1745, d-1790) the Duke of Cumberland & Strathearn and King George's first son HRH George Augustus Frederick (b-1762, d-1830) the Prince of Wales - who in 1820 - on the death of his father ascended the throne as King George IV.

Is that why William Forster is often referred to as "Royal Forster"?

Yes indeed. The Duke of Cumberland played the violin and was a great patron of musical art. The Prince of Wales was an enthusiastic cellist and had Forster make several cellos specifically for him. The most celebrated of these being the "Royal George" of 1782 which was painted on the upper table with the royal coat of arms, on the lower table with the Prince of Wales feathers and around the ribs with the legend "Liberty and Loyalty".

I am correct in thinking that Royal Forster is also regularly referred to as "Old Forster"?

Yes - correct.

Is it logical then to assume that there was a "Young Forster" or "Forster Junior"?

Yes. Royal or Old Forster (b-1739, d-1808) as he is sometimes termed was the second of four in the family with the name of William that were involved in violin making. Old Forster's son - William 111 (b-1764, d-1824) is known as Young Forster or Forster Junior. Both old and young Forster are the most celebrated makers of the family.

So four generations of violin makers in the family. If I was interested in doing my own biographical research which reference work would you suggest would be a good starting point?

The Forster family is well researched and documented in the impressively produced volume "The British Violin" - published by the British Violin Making Association in 2000 (ISBN 0 953471 27). If you like studying pictures the publication features no less than eleven full colour pages of Forster instruments that are reproduced to the most incredibly high standard.

Are there any other publications of notable interest?

Yes. The Forster family is recounted almost at first hand by Simon Andrew Forster (b-1801, d-1870) - the youngest son of William 111 (Young Forster) in the book entitled "The History Of The Violin And Other Instruments Played On With The Bow From The Remotest Times To The Present". The work was co-written by William Sandys and published in 1864. Reprints of the work are still available today.

Phew - that's a seriously long book title. Besides the family history what other useful sort of information does "The History" contain?

The book contains information taken directly from the "Old Forster" account books and the partial reproduction of the more important letters and orders. In addition to what became the premiere violin making and dealing business of the period Forster began to publish and sell music. In 1781 he entered into a contract with Franz Joseph Haydn (b-1732, d-1809) that resulted in him publishing a large proportion of Haydn's work. During Haydn's visits to England in 1791-92 and 1794-95 some of his best works were written and audiences flocked to his concerts.

How fabulous to have that sort of information available. Is there a listing of the musical instruments produced?

Yes. There are partial listings. Simon Andrew Forster writes "...it will be proper to mention that it can only approximate to correctness from the deficiency in the account books before referred to." On page 299 he adds "At what time he first was honoured by working for royalty we are unable to state, as the account-books before 14th November 1773, have either been destroyed or lost; and those books which still exist were kept imperfectly."

On your home page I noticed that there are two beautiful images of the scroll from the 1805 double bass made by William Forster for King George 111. In the middle of the two images there is what I presume is a quote from The History. Can you remind me of the quote please?

Yes. "There were only four double basses made by William Forster (2), three of which were made by the command of his Majesty George 111...". The quote is taken directly from page 315 of The History.

What do other reference works said about Forster's production of double basses?

The monumental Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers by William Henley (Amati Publishing Ltd 1973) agrees precisely with this production number. Musicologist Duane Rosengard in his article "The 1789 King George 111 Double Bass by William Forster 11" published in the International Society Of Bassists magazine Vol X14 No.1, Fall 1987 writes "We learn from Sandys and Forster that William 11 completed 4 double basses, and a fifth was finished long after his death (presumable (sic) by his son, William 111). Of these four, three were made for the Royal Band of King George 111. These are dated 1787, 1789 and 1805 respectively".

If three double basses were made for King George 111 is this the fourth instrument?

Well lets start by saying that this Forster bass is indeed exceedingly rare however it is not quite as rare the quote implies.

Please explain.

If one reads chapter XXII of The History it can be seen that the three instruments made for King George III were indeed all itemized in the ledger and the fourth and the incomplete fifth instrument are document within the text. What seems to have been overlooked or omitted both by Henley and Rosengard is a number or rather the number of additional double basses recorded in the ledger.

How many other double basses are recorded?

The following are recorded;

1778. Double Bass - The Revd. Mr. Hodgson.
1787. Mr. Gordon, N°. 3 Bass.
1787. Mr. Hunter, Kings Arm Yard, N°. 4 Bass.
1788. Mr. Buckley, Manchester, N°. 5 Bass.
1789. Mr. Cervetto, a new Steiner copied Bass, N°. 1.

How did the numbering system work?

Simon Andrew Forster proffers explanation; "The numbers on the instruments do not assist to arrive at satisfactory conclusions, as they are occasionally marked for those made in each year, at other times altogether omitted and sometimes marked in succession from year to year."

So if we take into account the fact that - and as mentioned previously - there were some "deficiencies" in the account books and that some years were lost or destroyed, then it is highly probable that more double basses were made?

Yes indeed.

Can you say how rare you think that this double bass is?

We think that you be very lucky to see another example as fine as this one in a lifetime of playing or dealing in instruments.

I'm so glad that you cleared the quote and numbers conundrum up for me. What else does Simon Andrew Forster say about his grandfather's production?

Simon Andrew Forster writes that William Forster made three distinct classes of work; "The commonest instruments were not purfled, and they had oil varnish of an inferior quality.....The next class was much better finished; they were all purfled, and a superior varnish used; therefore formed an intermediate instrument to the next or highest style of workmanship, in which everything was embodied to conduce to excellence, to beautiful appearance, and to the finest tone."

Would you say that this double bass is commensurate with the highest style of workmanship category?

Yes indeed.

Did William Forster advertise his Royal appointment in any way?

Yes. Many of his instruments bear his signed, printed and numbered label as follows; William Forster, Violin, Violoncello, Tenor & Bow-maker to their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales & Duke of Cumberland, London, No 5, 1790. He also produced an elaborately engraved trade card that advertised the royal warrant and the shop address as 348, near Exeter Change (sic), Strand.

I once read that in 1795 - the exact same year that you estimate this double bass was made - William Forster issued a copper token. Do you know anything about that?

Yes. Both copper and silver "halfpenny" tokens were issued. In diameter they measure an average of 30.39mm. On the obverse face the tokens feature a crown and the 1795 date encircled by a stave with the melody to God Save the King. On the reverse face the feathers of the Prince of Wales are depicted surrounded by Forster's trade and address details within linear circles.

What do the inscriptions read?

The outer circle reads; Wm FORSTER. VIOLIN, TENOR & VIOLINCELLO MAKER. The inner circle reads; No 348 STRAND LONDON.

Do you know why the tokens were issued?

In the late 18th century a shortage of coins produced by the British Royal Mint prompted business and merchants of all types to produce coin like objects that could be used for the payment of goods instead of coins. Most tokens would indicate the issuer and the denomination. If a denomination was not shown - it was implied by its metal type, size, colour or shape.

So these trade tokens really were the equivalent of today's store gift-cards?

Yes indeed. They could be redeemed for goods or services to the equivalent value at the merchant's outlet. They were also a useful form of advertising.

Are there any other reasons why Forster might have issued the tokens in this particular year?

Forster had attained an enviable reputation and he was at the height of his career. If a token was going to be issued in order to emphasize his royal warrant it really was the most opportune time to choose for it coincided with the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Caroline of Brunswick (b-1768, d-1821) on the 8th April 1795.

Lets get on to talking more about this double bass. Is it labelled?

No unfortunately not.

Did you find any inscriptions?

Part of a faint pencil inscription was found on the middle back located near to the bass side central seam. The other part of the inscription lay beneath a large mid-back repair in the form of a cross-brace. By carefully shaving the brace away to nothing the whole of the inscription became visible. Unfortunately we haven't been able to recognise or decipher what it says!

Did you find any brands?

Beneath the old fingerboard - the flat face of the neck was branded "L.P. Balmforth" in no less than four places along its length.

Who was L.P. Balmforth?

Leonard Percy Balmforth (b-1881, d-1936) was born in Leeds. His labels show that he was a pupil of Paul Bailey (b-1844, d-1907). Karl Jalovec in his double volume Encyclopedia of Violin-Makers (First published in Great Britain 1968. Prepared by Artia for Paul Hamlyn Ltd.) writes "Specialized in restoring and selling old instruments, but also made some handsome violins on the model of Stradivari." In 1905 L.P.Balmforth established a shop which is still trading today (Dec 2012) under the name L.P. Balmforth and Son Ltd at 6 Leeds Road, Harrogate HG2 8AA. In The Strad of January 1917 there is half page advert which reads "L.P.Balmforth, Violin Expert, Maker & Restorer" and gives the shop address as 5, Park Lane, Leeds. The advert also advertises an impressive list of violins, cellos, strings and accessories for sale. Of interest to bass players is the entry "Morel's Double Bass Rosin, 6d. each."

What does the presence of the L.P. Balmforth brands establish?

The brands provide sure proof that L.P. Balmforth worked on the instrument. Due to their location we can safely assume that at the very least this work involved the fitment of a new neck and fingerboard.

Can the brands be used to provide a rough estimate of when the work was carried out?

They certainly suggest that the work was done prior to L.P. Balmforth entering into a partnership with his son - Leonard Geoffrey Balmforth (b-1909, d-1967) and the consequential change of the business name to L.P. Balmforth & Son.

So how can you be so sure that this is a Royal Forster instrument?

Stylistic comparison to other Royal Forster instruments tell us that the work is by the same hand. If you read the captions beneath the sequence of photographs of the fully restored instrument - these point out some of those features.

Are there many good examples of Forster's work about?

Yes his instruments - particularly his cellos for which he is famed - appear regularly in London auctions.

Just for the record can you list a few of the auction catalogues that contain particularly good and characteristic examples of Forster's cellos?

Yes sure. Cellos: Brompton's 29/10/12 lot 173 dated 1788 (full colour scroll, front & back views). Brompton's 13/09/10 lot 20 dated 1789 No3 (full colour scroll, front & back views). Phillips 19/11/96 lot 250 dated 1790 (full colour front & back views). Phillips 24/03/94 lot 266 dated 1790 No5 (full colour front & back views). Christie's New York 02/12/94 lot 87 dated 1782 (full colour front & back views).

Has much restoration work has been done on the instrument?

Please click on the image of the back pre-restoration. A representative selection of the amount and type of work necessary is provided via a short series of pictures with captions below.

How representative is the selection of photos?

A total of 153 were taken to record what condition the instrument was in and what work was performed on the instrument. This means that the selection of 30 shown represents only 20% of the total taken.

The work sure does look well done.

Yes thank you - we will take that as a compliment. Providing the instrument is treated in the proper manner the work should see the instrument through at least another century of its life.

For the record who did the work?

The work was performed by self-employed luthier Jeroen Bruynooghe who currently (January 2013) lives in France.

Tell me - is the sound as good as the instrument looks?

As you know sound is a very subjective matter. Having said that we are confident that you will all agree that the sound is full and rounded with exquisitely rich and complex deep dark tonal qualities.

The sounds that you have just described are the ones that I dream about producing every night. Is there an evenness of sound across all the strings too?

Yes indeed. From the open B-string right up to the top B at the end of the fingerboard on the G-string the sound is indeed - remarkably even.

In 1973 the global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi came up with the slogan "Probably the best beer in the world" for UK Carlsberg beer. If I were to change the tagline to "Probably the best sounding five string bass in the world" - do you think that it would it be a fair assessment?

Yes, yes, yes and absolutely yes. The sound really is something very special indeed.

How about a final summary?

If you are thinking about investing a not inconsiderable sum of money in a top quality instrument and sought a good tip - a great recommendation - you would be incredibly fortunate to find anything remotely comparable to the prestige of a maker in the possession of a royal warrant. In the case of William Forster II he was not only honoured with the patronage of His Majesty King George 111 but also his first son the Prince of Wales - later King George 1V and the Duke of Cumberland & Strathern. Yes - "Royal Forster" - as he became know - certainly does conjure up a high level of kudos if you know what I mean. Perhaps the younger ones amongst the readership call it street-cred. Whatever - if you are a player, an orchestra or a collector looking to invest in what is without question a world class instrument - then this truly majestic looking, truly majestic sounding contrabass by William Forster II ticks all the right boxes for sure.

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