English Double Bass by William Calow, Nottingham circa 1870 – Review

Tell me about this instrument.

This is a very decently made English instrument. It is viol shaped and has a flat back with upper angle break. The front has purfilling - the back does not. The golden-brown varnish is the original.

The model and proportions look much smaller than most English instruments.

Yes - the instrument has a back length of only 112.7cm. This means that proportionally the whole instrument is a fair bit smaller than the full-bodied and "grand" Brescian models - that can measure upwards of 114.0cm - so traditional of the English school of making.

I am looking for a smaller, more manageable instrument of quality.

The smaller proportions of this instrument will definitely suit a great number of players. The flat back and nicely raked shoulders mean that it is very easy to move up into the thumb position, the higher positions and the areas up in the rosin dust. The string length of only 105.5cm means that it is not necessary to stretch and strain ones left hand in the lower positions.

OK - I like small proportions but I still need a big sound?

The instrument certainly doesn't disappoint in this department. It has the power and quality of sound that is associated with fine English instruments.

Is the bass labelled?

No unfortunately it does not have any internal labels or inscriptions. What it did have was a Calow, Nottingham brand at the root of the bass side neck.

I notice that you said "did" have a Calow neck.

Yes that's right. As part of our restoration programme - it was necessary to replace the Calow neck with one of more standard measurements. The Calow neck that was removed has been retained and accompanies the instrument as part of its history.

Can you tell me about the William Calow attribution?

The instrument was purchased by its former owner around the year 1990 from a well known bass shop located to the North-West of London. It was sold to that person as being by William Calow. Although we Boffins at The Contrabass Shoppe have not had the privilege to examine a Calow double bass before - the characteristics and features of the instrument do support what we know about the maker and his work.

So what are the general characteristics that support the opinion?

The main features are as follows;

    1. The model; We know that William Calow worked in Nottingham and made instruments on the viol outline. It was a model favoured by the more Northerly-English makers of the 19th and early 20th century. Other makers that also adopted this model include William Tarr of Manchester, James Briggs of Wakefield, James Cole of Manchester, James Brown of Huddersfield, T. Davies of Birmingham and William Howarth of Manchester.
    2. The varnish; The rich golden-brown colours, texture and application of the varnish are in keeping - if not fairly typical - of Carlow's output.
    3. Guarneri features; We know that William Calow made instruments that were loosely based on a Guaneri model. If we look at the this instrument it does display Guaneri-esk type features in the arching of the table, the cut and positioning of the F's and the form and execution of the scroll. 
    4. Wood; The wood for the back, ribs and scroll is made from English Sycamore which is in keeping with William Carlow's output.

Weren't there several generations of makers by the name Calow?

Yes. There were three members of the Calow family strongly associated with bass making who lived and worked in Nottingham. According to The Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow makers by William Henley [Amati Publishing Ltd 1973]

    1. William Calow (1847-1910) - collected basses and specialized in making them. 
    2. Thomas Calow (1868-1905) - son and pupil of William. Assisted father in repairing. Committed suicide at 37 by hanging himself with a bass string. 
    3. Francis William Calow (1884-1925) - son, pupil and successor of William. Many instruments stamped 'Calow Nottingham'.

Were there any more makers in the family?

Yes there was Thomas Calow (1833-1852) who lived in Tansley, Derbyshire. Thomas was the father of William Calow and grandfather of Francis William. He is reputed to have produced a few nicely made violins and violas following the Stainer model.

So - why couldn't this instrument have been Thomas or Francis William Calow?

The form, features and workmanship suggest that the instrument was made before 1880. If we take a look at the dates of the members of the family William was the only member of the family that was physically around and capable of making an instrument. He would have been between 23-33 years of age.

What does the Henley Dictionary say about William Calow?

In terms of double bass making there is a very good write-up about him as follows;
"Born in Tansley 1847. Travelled extensively to collect double-basses. Had a remarkable collection of 40 or 50 of these large instruments which brought experts and amateurs from every country to his establishment in Sussex Street, Nottingham. Died 1910.

Made a speciality of making double-basses of the old viol type with Guarnerian characteristics. Altogether produced about 20 splendid specimens. Workmanship shows his heedfulness and enthusiasm. Made himself thoroughly acquainted with the principles of light and shade varnishing. Oil varnish - orange and nut brown. 
Experimented with the bass bar which he usually split about midway between the centre and lower end, and opened the two ends fish-tail shape. Arrived at an almost perfect purity of tone with depth and power. 
Also made violins and cellos."

So - after examining the instrument and considering all the information available. Would you say that the attribution to William Calow is reasonable?


Have you done anything to the instrument at all?

Yes - the instrument has been fully upgraded to modern day concert standards. In brief we've set the instrument up with a new neck, fingerboard, bridge and post and the peg box is now adorned with a stunning set of new Baker style machines set on brass half plates. Internally - improvements have been made to the acoustics by means of judicious regraduation work and the replacement of the original bass bar. A photograph that shows the meticulous level of work performed on the inside table accompanies the instrument.

English Double bass circa 1870 att. William Calow Internal restoration

Phew - all in all that was quite a bit of work then?

Yes indeed it was. But in our opinion it has been worth all the effort - for the instrument is now structurally in A1 condition.

Would I want this instrument?

The main reason that English instruments are in such demand is because they produce the power and quality of sound that professional players want and need in order to do a top job. Should you happen to be of smaller stature or have particularly small hands then you will already know just how difficult it is to find an English instrument - or any instrument of quality for that matter - of more manageable proportions. If this is the sort of instrument that you are looking for we suggest you get down to The Contrabass Shoppe as soon as you can. We are confident that you'll be well impressed by this instrument's looks, feel and performance. We are also confident that with time this instrument will prove to be a most worthy investment.

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