Double Bass by William Fendt London circa 1850 – Review

What are the dates of William Fendt?

William Fendt was the second son of Bernard Simon Fendt (1801 - 1852). He was born in London in 1832 and died in 1852.

That would make him only twenty when he died. How tragic.

Yes it is.

So both father and son died in the same year.

Yes correct.

What did they die from?

According to the beautifully produced and authoritative book The British Violin published by the British Violin Making Association in 2000 (ISBN 0 953471 27) - they both died at 7 Smith Street, Chelsea of consumption. Today we call this deadly disease tuberculosis or TB.

Would you say that our heritage of fine English double basses has been robbed by William Fendt's short life?

Yes unfortunately it has - and in a big way too. If William Fendt had lived to a much greater age there is little doubt that his name would be as familiar to us as that of his father. Some violin connoisseurs even put what still exists of his output on the same level as John Lott Junior.

What do the violin dictionaries say about William Fendt?

The Universal Dictionary Of Violin And Bow Makers by William Henley (Amati Publishing Ltd 1973 Edition) writes 'Son of Bernard Simon. Born in London, 1833. Died in 19th year. Pupil of and co-worker with father. Unquestionably a youth of very remarkable talent. His violins catalogued at £40, give every evidence that the art was "the passion of his life", and if his life had been prolonged his name would doubtless have been enrolled on the most conspicuous line of any monument of fame we may erect in our mind in honour of genius. His violas and double-basses must not be regarded as merely "the tuning of his lyre" but rather as one who has accomplished a perfect technique.'

Wow - you can't get a much better write up than that.


Before we move on. Can you clear up William Fendt's year of birth please?

Endnote Nr 117 on page 112 of The British Violin records "William was baptised at St. Matthew's, Bethnal Green, on 27.5.1832".

Would you go as far to say that this instrument is incredibly rare?

Yes indeed. In forty years of playing the double bass and dealing in violins this is the only double bass by William Fendt that we have ever seen.

How would you describe this double bass?

Everything about this instrument is beautifully understated.

Tell me what you love about this instrument?

The model has measurement that are pretty well perfect, the arching of the table is pretty well perfect, the proportions and carving of the scroll are pretty well perfect, the positioning and cut of the F's are pretty well perfect and the quality and texture of the beautifully preserved dark orange-brown varnish is absolutely sublime.

If this William Fendt double bass was a super-car what would you compare it to?

I would compare it to a Masserati GranTurismo.


Because both have an excellent heritage, an understated grace, and a seductive beauty.

How does our double bass compare to the power and sound of the 4.2 litre V8 engine of the Masserati?

Once again it is an excellent comparison. The William Fendt has unprecedented levels of both power and tone.

What are we talking about here?

We are talking about huge well-rounded sounds with rich, deep-dark-colours that are still able to offer projection. We are talking about a perfect evenness in the levels of sound and tone right from the low notes of the E-string to the very top notes on thefingerboard of the G-string. We are talking about a responsiveness that will flatter every bowing stroke that you make. In fact we are talking about sounds, feelings and sensations that are so pleasurable - you may well experience the hairs on your arms lifting because they've gone all goose-bumpy. Now that is a great feeling.

Can you tell me anything about the instruments recent history?

Yes. We can trace the instrument back to the musical instrument auction held at Sotheby's on the 11th June 1996 in which lot 102 was described as 'A DOUBLE BASS - Early 19th Century'. The lot was purchased by Shoppe director Anthony Houska for Instruments & Bows - his former trading name.

What happened to the instrument after that?

The instrument was sold on the 25th September 1996 to a player in the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In March 2008 the instrument was sold via a UK South-coast dealer in association with a Dutch dealer to a classical player in Holland. Around June 2009 - and only due to an unfortunate change in circumstances - the instrument was placed back on the market. It was acquired by a well known Dutch dealer from whom The Contrabass Shoppe purchased it in May 2011.

Does the instrument have a label or inscription on the inside?

After purchase - the player from Covent Garden wanted a new neck and a new bass bar fitted. The instrument was taken to the highly experienced bass restorer Roger Dawson based in Greenwich, London. On opening the instrument a faint maker's inscription in pencil was found on the upper treble side table with part of the inscription obscured by old stud work. At the time of writing this review both player and restorer were kind enough to reconfirm the presence of the inscription and that it read "William Fendt Lon....".

I notice that you said "read". Is the inscription still inside.

Unfortunately no.

Can you say why it is not still inside?

Unfortunately not. What we do know is that it is a great shame that a photographic record was not kept and supplied with the instrument.

Why the importance of a photographic record?

The Dutch player had been informed "by specialists" that the instrument had been made by Bernard Simon Fendt around 1820. A photographic record would have preserved the true identity of the instrument. Fortunately for both our knowledge of the double bass and our heritage The Contrabass Shoppe has now been able to set the record straight. 

The scroll and peg-box are so distinctive. How would you describe them?

The front and top of the scroll is characterised by the lack of a central ridge. The smooth scalloped profile at the front of the scroll flows right over the top of the head and into the back of the peg-box where if flattens and eventually terminates in a rounded heel and rounded back button. Stylistically we can say that the head and indeed the whole instrument are in the "Brescian" style.

What do you mean - the Brescian style?

Our bass heritage is blessed with the fact that many of the great London makers of the 19th century based their work on the designs and characteristics of Gasparo da Salò (1540-1609) and his apprentice Giovanni Paolo Maggini (1580-1630/31). Both da Salò and Maggini lived and worked in the area of Northern Italy known as Brescia. Their contribution to the development, construction and advancement of the present day violin family of instruments - in particularly that of the double bass - was considerable.

Do you know how this style of head developed?

It would appear to be a remnant of viol making. Indeed the book Gasparo Da Salò La Vita E L'Opera 1540-1609 by A.M.Mucchi published by Ulrico Hoepli in 1940 - shows us several views of a viola da gamba and a double bass with this style of smooth ridgeless scroll and rounded pegbox.

Are there any other well document examples with this style of head?

Yes - the head of the "Ex-Tarisio Violone" by Gasparo da Salò is essentially in this style. The instrument is featured on page 27 of The Baroque Double Bass Violone by Alfred Planyavsky which was published by Scarecrow Press, Inc in 1998 (ISBN 0-8108-3448-0). In addition the fine and rare "Delmas" Maggini double bass that was sold on the 4th May 2011 by Tarisio the online auction house - has a scroll that apart from outward projecting points near the centre of the pegbox profile is fundamentally in a similar style.

Thanks for all that info. It certainly is a beautiful scroll. One more question. Is that an extra turn in the volute?

Yes it is. Once again it would appear that William Fendt was inspired by the work of Gasparo da Salò. If we look at the exquisite colour photographs of Dragonetti's Gasparo Da Salò bass - which incidentally are the first colour images to be ever published - in the highly researched and sumptuously produced volume - Liuteri Sonadori Venice 1750 - 1870 by Stefano Pio which was published by Venice Research in 2002 - you will observe a remarkably close similarity to the whole concept of proportion and design.

Don't we have Dragonetti to thank for bringing a lot of Italian instruments over to England?

Yes we do. It was Dragonetti's involvement in the vibrant musical scene in England that influenced the demand to play the double bass and improve playing standards. This in turn fuelled a demand for both old and new instruments.

When did Dragonetti first come over to England?

According to the book Domenico Dragonetti in England (1794-1846) by Fiona M. Palmer published by Clarendon Press in 1997 (ISBN 0-19-816591-9) Dragonetti (1763-1846) first arrived in England in the autumn of 1794. Apart from trips and periods back to Italy and other countries - England became Dragonetti's home and it was England where he was buried fifty-two years later.

Do you think that Dragonetti was in close contact with many of the London makers of the time?

Yes - it is quite feasible that a young William Fendt along with his dad had the opportunity to see and examine some of Dragonetti's instrument collection. Maybe he even saw the Gasparo da Salò bass on which Dragonetti played throughout his career. Where ever the inspiration to make this wonderful instrument came from it is certainly tragic that William Fendt's mastery and unquestionable skill was cut short.

How about a final summary.

In terms of London making - this fine and rare example of the work of William Fendt really is a King amongst Kings. In terms of comparing this classic English instrument to the beautifully understated Maserati GranTurismo - at the very least you'll be happy to know that if you purchase the William Fendt your insurance premiums will be much lower than if you spend the money on a Maserati!

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