Chamber Double Bass by Thomas Kennedy, London anno 1819 – Review

Why have I never seen a Chamber bass by Kennedy before?

Thomas Kennedy was born in London in 1784 - so in terms of age he would have been 35 when he made this instrument. Kennedy died in 1870 at the age of 86 (a phenomenal age for the era) - so this instrument most certainly represents some of his earliest work. It is estimated that Kennedy made around 50 instruments in total. As to how many of these were of the chamber model it is unclear. The Contrabass Shoppe has previously sold a flat back example - also and most interestingly produced in the year 1819 and there is another example on page 171 in the pioneering double bass referance book - Looking at The Double Bass by Raymond Elgar. Seemingly only a handful may have survived through nearly 190 years of existence.

Did this instrument always look like a scaled down version of what we term "Classic" Kennedy?

Absolutely all the features that we know and love about the large Brescian-inspired orchestral instruments that we refer to as "Classic" Kennedy can be seen in this early example of Kennedy's work. To be honest - we have made some slight alterations to the upper ribs to change the form of the instrument from that of a cello shape into one of a violin-form. In effect this has transformed - rather like an ugly duckling into a magnificent swan - an incredibly awkward, virtually unusable instrument into an elegant and highly desirable orchestral instrument.

How did you manage to do that?

In brief the two upper ribs were re-bent into the desired shape and a small piece of matching wood was grafted onto the top of the rib. A new upper block provides support. On the front and back - matching wood was grafted below the origional purfilling line. As the grafts were effected below the purfilling line they appear invisible to the eye. Although this all sound relatively simple - an immense amount of forethought, preparation and skill was applied to this work.

Has this sort of work been done on other instruments?

Yes, it is a technique - if done properly - that can make a virtually unplayable instrument into one that is a joy to play. With a rib depth of 23cm - that's the same as Kennedy used on his large orchestral instruments this chamber bass - as it was - was an absolute non-starter for 99.9% of all of today's players. Another important and well known example is the 1780 Cremonese instrument by Nicolo Bergonzi that was formally the property of Thomas Martin and which was sold at Sotheby's in June 1997. The form of this instrument is said to have been modified during the early 19th Century by - J.B. Vuillaume - the renowned violinmaker, inventor and entrepreneur.

Are there any other benefits from doing this?

By creating a longer length to the body of the instrument we have been able to put in a new neck and create a more standard string length. In fact it works out at 105.3cm. That's absolutely perfect for somebody with smaller hands.

Are you sure that this is Kennedy?

Yes - absolutely without a shadow of a doubt. The instrument bears its origional label - in the normal place - THO's KENNEDY, MAKER, 364 OXFORD STREET - and - MADE 1819 - is written at the bottom of the label in black ink. In addition the instrument is signed in black ink on the upper treble side table - THO KENNEDY, MAKER, OXFORD STREET, LONDON 1819.

Bass Label – Chamber Double Bass by Thomas Kennedy, London 1819

Even without the label and signature - the whole instrument just shouts out Kennedy.

That's right - it does. Even though we are not sure in what year Kennedy made his first full size orchestral instrument - this early instrument clearly displays all the same making characteristics, mannerisms and suggestions that are apparent and which typify Kennedy's later instruments.

Can you tell me a few of those making and stylistic traits?

Yes here are a few:
i) The back and rib wood; The use of English sycamore is typical of Kennedy's output. Slightly more unusual is the way in which it has been cut. There are quarter sawn grain and branch markings towards the edges of the back yet the central back shows a light horizontal flaming as is produced when cut by the through and through method. The ribs show sycamore with a good - slightly ascending flaming from back to front.
ii) The elongated corners; Are a typical feature of Kennedy instruments. It is thought that these were the result of a somewhat back-to-front method whereby the rib corners were formed first and then the corner blocks fitted afterwards. On this chamber bass we see that these corners are strengthened by outside linings or blocks - similar in appearance to those incorporated into a rib design by Thomas Dodd [1754/64 (?) - 1834]. Restorer comments, ‘The corners are always vulnerable to damage on Kennedy basses. These supporting blocks are definitely origional to the instrument because underneath them the points of the corners are incredibly poor and besides - toothing plane marks are visible. More importantly the points have never been varnished'. All this would suggest that Kennedy had problems forming his corners from a very early age.
iii) Model and table arching; Even at this early date these features indicate in which direction Kennedy was heading with his instrument making. The model is broad across the upper bouts and the ribs are full-depth. The arching is typical Brecian.
iv) Table-F's; Although these early F's are not quite as precise and flowing as can be seen in Kennedy's later instruments the hand of the master can clearly be seen. Placement of the F's is also incredibly typical.
v) Table and flanks; The front is of spruce of a fine grain. Kennedy often fitted flanks to the fronts and backs of his instruments. On this chamber instrument Kennedy fitted flanks to the lower table. In the process of restoration these two flanks were replaced. Our restorer explains, ‘They weren't the origional ones anyway and they were of very poor quality - so I replaced them'.
vi) Scroll and peg-box; Although some of the sharpness may have been lost due to a previous person - we won't call him a restorer - who removed the origional varnish on the scroll - the smallish slightly pulled-forward scroll - already - even at this early date - is clearly Kennedy's work. The peg box is quite short and reveals that the instrument was made as a three string.
vii) Varnish; A chestnut brown spirit varnish over a golden-yellow ground certainly suggests of even greater things to come.

Will I be interested in this instrument?

We would certainly like to think so. For the player of smaller stature or hand size we think that this highly attractive and playable chamber bass presents a very real option for a great number of players.

Can I afford a Kennedy?

With "Classic" Kennedy basses in fabulous condition nudging rapidly on upwards towards the 60K mark - we think that this chamber instrument with a sub-40K price tag is a most attractive investment opportunity. To give you an idea as to just how the prices of Kennedy basses have climbed over the past twenty year - in Sotheby's April 1985 auction a bass-bar damaged instrument fetched £13 200-00. It could be - if you are trying to get a coveted job in an orchestra - more a question of can you afford not to buy this Kennedy?


Kennedy attained a level of excellence as a maker of double basses that very few other makers surpassed. His instruments are highly sought after by players because they know full well that they are some of the best sounding instruments in the world. What more can you say?

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