George Craske Double Bass circa 1845 – Review

Tell me about this instrument.

This is an absolutely magnificent example of the work of George Craske. It is of violin outline and has a flat back with upper angle break. The front and back have an "affect" purfilling. The golden-brown varnish is the original. The instrument bears two repair labels on the inside back and a pen inscription on the bass side lower- rib. Unfortunately there is no maker's label or inscription present.

So how can you be so sure that this instrument is made by George Craske?

If you have interest or have studied the violin family of instruments you will undoubtedly have come across the luthier George Craske for he was one of the most prolific of all makers.

Unfortunately I haven't seen a Craske instrument before. But what if I had?

Well if you had - the first thing that would spring to mind as soon as you cast your eyes over this well-proportioned instrument would be "If this was a violin it would be a Craske".

Is it really that distinctive?

Yes. Although Craske is acknowledged as a cleaver copyist - an imitator of the great masters - the style of work is easily recognizable.

What models is he known to have made?

He made copies of Amati, Stradivarius, Maggini and Guarneri and occasionally a model of his own design. In particular however - he favoured the work of Giuseppe Guarneri (1698 - 1744) also know as Guarneri del Gesù.

Why do you think Craske favoured the Guarneri model?

It had become a much more popular choice for the player over the Stainer-Amati type models due to the astonishing impact that Paganini had on the English and indeed Western European musical scene. 

As a direct consequence of his first tour of Great Britain in June 1831 during which he gave some 140 concerts over ten months and absolutely astounded audiences - the demand for copies of his 1742 "Il Cannone" simply soared.

So on this double bass what features would you say reference Craske's work particularly well?

Well for starters - the F-holes just seem to hit you in their form, positioning and execution. They are absolutely classic examples of Craske's Guarneri copies. Next I'd have to remark on the edging and arching of the table which is quite flat and also very typical of his output. Also typical is the selection of wood and his use of stain to bring out the grain on the table of the instrument.

Hmm - I'm quite a sceptic. I need much more convincing.

No problem. Remember that I mentioned that Craske was a prolific maker - well the monumental reference work - the "Universal Dictionary Of Violin & Bow Makers" by William Henley (Amati Publishing Ltd - 1973 3rd Edition) notes that Craske's output amounted to 2050 violins, 300 violas, 250 cellos and 20 double-basses. What this tremendous productivity means is that whenever the major UK auction houses - namely Sotheby's Christie's and Bonhams - stage their thrice yearly musical instrument auctions - Craske's work appears regularly.

You mean that we can compare this bass to the violins, violas and cellos that have appeared at past auctions.

Yes exactly. In any random selection of catalogues from our library an impressive number of instruments are virtually guaranteed. For example - in the Sotheby's November 1994 catalogue no less than three instruments appear with pictures out of total of one hundred and fifteen violins, violas and cellos. That's 2.61% of total violins, violas and cellos!

Are all the instruments pictured?

No. Out of the catalogues consulted not all the instruments were pictured and of the examples that were - most were in black & white and of either the back or front view only. Those instruments that were pictured in full colour were by far the superior in quality and condition.

Have any Craske double basses ever appeared at auction before?

No - not to our knowledge. A productivity of only 20 instruments - of which a proportion - we can assume - are no longer in existence - translates to the fact that the double basses are pretty rare things to come across indeed. In fact the last instrument that we ourselves saw by Craske was over 20 years ago.

Just for the record can you itemise the pictured examples that you found in the catalogues?

Yes sure - with catalogues divided into violins, violas and cellos.


    • Bonhams & Brooks 18/09/01 lot 179 dated 1859 (Full colour front, back and scroll views)
    • Christie's 17/03/99 lot 131 with Hill number 9904 on fingerboard end (B&W front view only)
    • Bonhams 31/03/98 lot 143 labelled "special quality" (B&W front & back views)
    • Sotheby's 14/06/90 lot 104 dated 1856 (B&W back view only) 
    • Sotheby's 23/11/89 lot 234 with Warren certificate (B&W back view only)
    • Sotheby's 23/11/89 lot 390 (B&W back view only)
    • Sotheby's 04/11/82 lot 562 (B&W back view only)
    • Sotheby's 04/11/82 lot 732 labelled "special quality" (B&W back view only)
    • Christie's New York 02/12/94 lot 124 dated 1845 (B&W back view only)


    • Sotheby's 23/11/89 lot 367 (B&W back view only)
    • Sotheby's 04/11/82 lot 658 labelled "special quality" (B&W back view only)


    • Bonhams 05/11/07 lot 166 dated 1849 with Voight certificate (full colour front & back views Bonhams 19/03/97 lot 63 dated 1845 with double purfilling (B&W front & back views)
    • Phillips 19/11/96 lot 251 with Hill number 1344 on fingerboard end (B&W front & back views)

So - is it fair to say that you can see the same features and characteristics in this double bass as the instruments in the above auction records?

Yes. This double bass looks every bit like a big Craske violin and as mentioned previously - Craske was fairly consistent in his choice of wood, aching and finish.

Do any of the instruments pictured in the catalogues embody the spirit of Craske's work particularly well?

Yes there are a couple of really good examples. The front view of the violin - lot 131 in Christies March 1999 auction well-captures the Guarneri type F's, the flat edge and arching, the fairly pointed corners and the strong straight grain lines. The front view of the 1845 cello - lot 63 in Bonhams 1997 auction catalogue - additionally captures the placement, cut and angle of the F's on a much larger instrument particularly well. On the cello it can be observed that the treble side F-hole appears to be slightly lower, slightly shorter and cut at a slightly greater angle than the one on the bass side. Looking at our double bass - it too shows a near identical asymmetrical positioning and cut of the F's.

Why would this be?

Many of Craske's other instrument also display - either to a greater or lesser degree - a similar variance in the positioning and cut to the F's - so a plausible explanation must include the suggestion that Craske was trying to reproduce some of the genius of Del Gesu's later work (Described as "eccentric irregularities" by Arthur, Alfred & William Hill in their 1931 volume "The Violin Makers of the Guarneri Family") more accurately than many would give him credit. Alternatively a similar working method to that of Del Gesu could have developed quite naturally simply as a result of his experience in making, his speed of work and his attitude towards the end product.

What sort of working method would that be?

Well - without getting into a lengthy study of the work of Del Gesu lets just call it a more expressive, a more colourful, a more free-hand approach to making in comparison to the mathematically correct principals of Stradivarius's work.

What about the scroll. You haven't mentioned that yet?

No that's right - I haven't. Fortunately the Bonham & Brooks catalogue of September 2001 - lot 179 - shows us in full colour a front, back and scroll view of a "special-quality" - as written on the label - violin dated 1859. In this example we can observe all the characteristics of his work mentioned previously - with the added bonus of seeing a quality wood selection all shown-off to good effect by a splendid "antiqued-effect" golden-red-brown varnish. Other interesting features that can be seen on this example are a very slightly shaky purfilling and "wings" on the lower bouts of the table.

What do you mean "wings"?

Wings are best described as narrow lengths or sections of wood that are added - most usually - to the lower bouts of a front or back in order to produce material of sufficient useable dimensions. On a violin this is rarely seen - because obviously the width of wood required to make a violin is not that great in comparison to the making of a cello or double bass front or back. Looking at the table of our Craske double bass we also see wings on both the lower and upper bouts - bass and treble sides.

So what do the wings suggest?

On the double bass it was a fairly common practice to add "wings". Regarding the violin it tends to suggest that Craske wasn't prepared to waste any timber at all. "The British Violin" - published by the British Violin Making Association in 2000 (ISBN 0 953471 27) mentions that the "enviably old" - well-figured timber that Craske used throughout his production had been bought from William Forster - presumably "Young" Forster.

Yes - that's great - but you still haven't answered my question about the scroll. Does our double bass scroll look anything like this violin scroll?

Yes it's quite incredible. The scrolls of both instruments are virtually identical.

What in particular are you looking at?

When you make a comparison of the very eye of each instrument observe the position and shape of the eye and then the way the volute commences and flows out from it. Observe the general shape of the scroll, the depth of the cut, the chamfers and the throat of the peg box. You'll easily conclude that both scrolls have been cut by the same hand.

Are there any other details on this double bass worthy of mention?

Yes - the visible toothing plane marks on the inside back and ribs and the external scraper marks on the back provide an insight into some of Craske's speedy working methods. Also the apparent wide band of purfilling to the front and back isn't a real purfilling at all but an ebony-dust mixture that has been filled into two scratched-out channels approximately 3mm apart. By doing this Craske has created an effect that looks just as good as the real thing and in the process saved himself the laborious and time consuming task of making up a purfilling wide enough for a bass. How ingenious!

OK - you've convinced me that this is a George Craske bass. Where can I find information on Craske?

In 1901 W.E. Hill & Sons published a lavish marketing pamphlet or brochure entitled "George Craske - Violin Maker 1795 - 1888" with illustrations beautifully printed from engraving plates and text printed on a cream antique-wove paper in black and red ink. The short biographical information contained within had been written and previously published by George Crompton a lifelong friend of Craske. Prices for violins were given on page 4 as £20. £25 and £30. Violas and cellos had already 
been sold and were only occasionally available from their customers. In 1982 the pamphlet was republished by S.A. Kellow with the permission and assistance of W.E.Hill & Sons.

Are there any other useful reference sources?

Yes the Henley Dictionary - already mentioned - has the next largest (1.25 pgs of small text) entry although much of the information has obviously been taken directly from the Hill brochure. In addition one can find a sizeable (1.75 pgs) entry on Craske in the volume entitled "British Violin-Makers" by Rev W. Meredith Morris (Published by Chatto & Windus London 1904) and a third of a page entry in the "Dictionary Of British Violin And Bow Makers" by Dennis G. Plowright (Published by Dennis G. Plowright, Exmouth 1994 – ISBN No. 0 9523081 0 X).

What about the volume "The British Violin"?

Our expectations of a full and authoritative entry in the beautifully presented "The British Violin" - were disappointing to say the least. For such an industrious British maker to be mentioned only in passing in two paragraphs on other makers does seem rather unjust.

OK - what do the dictionaries say about George Craske?

All the main reference dictionaries agree with the Hill brochure that Craske was born at Bury St Edmunds in 1795 and died at the age of 93 on the 14th January 1888. In his early years the dictionaries and brochure record that he was taught by William Forster. This presumably was "Young" Forster as Craske would only have been aged thirteen when "Old" Forster died in 1808. At any rate - Craske is recorded as having produced many instruments for both Forster and Thomas Dodd before departing to live in Bath. Moves to Leeds and Sheffield followed in quick succession and then a more stable twenty year period on Snow Hill in Birmingham. This was followed by Manchester for about twelve months, Salford for a few months and finally Stockport - where he lived in seclusion for more than twenty years.

Can you tell me why so many Craske instruments have a Hill number on the end of the fingerboard and a Hill label inside them?

S.K. Fellow states in his foreword to his reprinted brochure that "When Hills bought the complete stock in trade of instruments made by George Craske from his executor, George Crompton they produced a small brochure on the maker". When you consider the relatively large difference between Craske's death at the beginning of 1888 and the publishing of the brochure to market them in 1901 - the acquiring of the instruments directly from the estate doesn't seem to quite tie in. Indeed Henley takes a different slant on the transaction and notes that George Crompton was the only person allowed into Craske's workshop and writes that "Crompton acquired the whole of Craske's stock". Both Crompton and Henley write that Craske retired to Bath and lived comfortably on the proceeds. Henley follows up by writing that Crompton "subsequently did much to popularise the instruments" but scathingly suggests that he was merely acting in his own interests for Alfred Ebsworth Hill acquired the "complete stock". One ex-Hill violin restorer confirmed that it was from Crompton and not via the Craske estate. Hills then made the instruments ready for sale and sold them bearing the label "Made by George Craske, born 1797 died 1888 and sold by W.E.Hill & Sons, London".

How did Hills make the instruments ready for sale?

On some instruments Hill craftsmen reworked the plates and scrolls. On others they replaced the scrolls. The instruments were then fully set up.

Why do the Hill labels show Craske's year of birth as 1797 instead of 1795?

Good question. The two year difference in date from the accepted date is quite bewildering. At the moment all that one can suggest is that it was an unfortunate printing error. If anybody knows the answer to this one we'd love to hear from you.

I remember you saying in your first paragraph that inside the bass there are a couple of repair labels. Can you tell me about them?

Yes - the first - a white oblong label - can be found on the treble side back above the central brace and reads; "Repaired by: WILLIAM SKELHORN, ALTRINCHAM, CHESHIRE". Between the two printed Skelhorn and Altrincham lines - the following is written in ink in small capital letters "NORMAN BEVAN SKELHORN" At the foot of the label is the date - also written in ink "AUGUST 1960" all apart from the prefix number "19" which is in print.

What about the 2nd label?

Yes - the second label - a faded square orange label bordered by a decorative link-chain is positioned on the bass side back - slightly below the central brace. The label is difficult to read due to damage by dirt, stains, glue-runs and a general fading of the print and ink but despite this - the following can be made out; Probably and in very faint ink at the top of the label "Repaired by" followed in printed capitals "J. HARRAD" with the line immediately below again in print " -------- ON- TRENT." At the foot of the label there is some more hand writing that is extremely difficult to decipher. Most likely it states the month and day the restoration was completed - for the line ends with the year 1872.

The Harrad Label – George Craske Double Bass circa 1845

Oh - that's an interesting label. Do you have any info on Harrad?

Yes - the Henley Dictionary provides a short entry under the name "Harrod". The misspelling is either an information or typo error but the maker is definitely the one and the same. The entry reads as follows; "HARROD, Jack. Amateur. Worked at Burton-on-Trent. Died 1894. Workmanship has one or two inequalities, nevertheless maintains average merit. Fifteen violins circulated in his district."

Are there any more clues as to the basses past history?

Yes - there is a small inscription in ink on the bass side lower rib - near to the corner block. It can clearly be read through the bass side F-hole. "Repaired by Geo Barker 20/7/22 Chesterfield"

Any info on Barker?

Once again the Henley dictionary provides a short but useful entry as follows; "BARKER, George. Born 1870. Worked at Chesterfield, 1923. Excellent Stradivarian modelling. Oil varnish with amber basis - transparent red and brown". The entry is followed by a facsimile of his label.

Feedback received from a grandchild of George Barker.

"Born Hasland, Chesterfield on the 28th November 1870. Lived and worked in Chesterfield. A printer and musician by trade. He played piano for the silent films. Moved to Hull between 1902 and 1904 where he played flute in the theatre orchestra. Returned to Chesterfield after the outbreak of the first world war where he played in the Chesterfield Symphony Orchestra. Opened a music shop in Saltergate, Chesterfield which is known to have been in business in and around 1928. Repairs to stringed instruments and believed to have made 6 violins and one viola. A very good amateur water colour painter. He retired to Baslow in Derbyshire. Died February 1953 aged 82."

What are your thoughts on the trio's restoration work.

Quite frankly - not much at all. Despite the outside of the instrument being in pretty immaculate condition we found some less than desirable work on the inside.

What did you end up doing?

Well pretty well everything. In fact you could call it a total rebuild. It would be difficult to itemise everything but the work included;

    1. Fit Patches to the top and bottom block areas.
    2. Replace the top and bottom blocks.
    3. Unglue the front central seam and treble side lower wing.
    4. Realign, reglue and restud the front central seam and treble side lower wing.
    5. Repair and stud bass side wing crack.
    6. Replace three back braces and refit original central brace.
    7. Fit patch to an over-thin (between 2.8 and 3.8mm) area of upper table.
    8. Regraduate front where necessary.
    9. Fit new bass bar and restore screw holes above bass bar.
    10. Remove old velum and stud work from ribs. 
    11. Wash out, reglue and stud all old cracks.
    12. Fit half-edging and edging where necessary.
    13. Fit new back button and replace purfilling where necessary.
    14. Fit new neck. 
    15. Rebush old cog holes in peg box.
    16. Fit new tuners with brass plates to peg box.
    17. Clean and touch in varnish.
    18. Fit fingerboard, bridge, endpin and sound post.
    19. Setup.

    Wow - that was a lot of work.

    Yes - we calculated that the work took up some 320 hours of time over a period of over three and a half months.

    Was all the effort worth it?

    Yes of course - for the instrument is now structurally in A1 condition and sounds exactly how a good English instrument should.

    How does it sound?

    Full and glorious with a divine touch of clarity and projection.

    Who is credited with all the superb work?

    Jeroen Bruynooghe - a former Shoppe employee who has since left to set up a restoration service in France.

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

    Yes - the instrument has a back length of only 112.6cm. This means that proportionally the whole instrument is a fair bit smaller than the full-size "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.

    Phew - it must have taken you a fair amount of time to write this article. How about a final summary?

    If George Craske had devoted much more of his time and very capable efforts to the making of double basses he would undoubtedly rank highly in the annals of bass making greats. As it is - we are pretty sure that you'll have to wait an inordinate amount of time before you see another example - let alone one of this merit, character and condition. If you are a player looking for a fine concert instrument or a collector with an eye for a good investment then this well made, superb looking, superb sounding instrument by Craske ticks all the right boxes for sure.

    Older Post Newer Post