The “Ex Royal Artillery” Double Bass by John Frederick Lott Jnr. circa 184 – Review

How would you describe this instrument?

Truly magnificent would be a good start.

Just truly magnificent. Anything else?

This is without doubt an exceptional example of the work of John Fredrick Lott Jnr. who is recognised as one of the greatest - if not the greatest of all English makers.

What is the instruments connection with the Royal Artillery?

The instrument was formerly the property of the Royal Artillery and appears to have been in their ownership since 1858.

How do you know that?

The back of the peg box bears the brand R.A.BAND 3 1858. The back button bears the brand RAB 111.

That's a pretty good indication of provenance. It's probably not unreasonable to assume that 1858 refers to the year that the instrument was purchased by the RAB. That means they have held it in their ownership for over one and a half centuries.

Yes that is correct. To be more precise - at the year 2010 - the year that The Contrabass Shoppe Ltd acquired the instrument - they would have had the pleasure of its company for 152 years.

How on earth did you manage to get your hands on this amazing instrument?

The instrument was placed in a London auction in support of the charity "Help for Heroes".

Do you mind telling me which auction the instrument appeared?

Well - I have to say it is unusual for a shop or dealer to divulge their sources - but seeing as you do ask and indeed - as it forms part of the instrument's more recent history I don't mind on this occasion.

So go on then.

The instrument was lot number 17 of Brompton's June 14th 2010 sale. At the auction there was fierce competition from a number of international buyers. The final hammer price plus commission and Vat setting a new world record for an English double bass sold at auction.

That is impressive. How was the instrument catalogued?

It was catalogued as "A fine Double Bass by Bernard Simon Fendt, London circa 1830."

Hmm - I'm confused. How can Brompton's catalogue it as a Fendt and you say it is a Lott?

Without a shadow of a doubt there are clear failings here by the specialists at the auction house. In their defence it is difficult to have expertise in every area of the violin market. If you further take into consideration the fact that many of the London makers of the period worked in close association with each other and in a similar style - identification of double basses even by those that see and handle them every day of the year is not always so easy.

When you first saw the pictures of the instrument in the catalogue - did you know what it was straight away?

Yes. The instrument was the "identical twin" to one that Shoppe director Tony Houska had personally owned for a little less than ten years. He reluctantly sold the instrument on to a talented young player in the orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in February 1994.

What do you mean "identical twin"?

Just that. Virtually everything the same. The same glorious model, identical book matched maple in the back and ribs, the same type of purfilling and a varnish of the most stupendous quality.

Very briefly - can you tell me about the charity that you just mentioned - "Help for Heroes"?

"Help for Heroes" raises money to support members of the Armed Forces who have been wounded in the service of their country. The charity was launched on the 1st October 2007 with an objective of making grants available to fund both capital projects and those "delivery" charities that support individuals and their dependants. For more information about the charity and the valuable work that it performs please visit its web site at the following address; www.helpforheroes.org.uk

Very briefly - can you tell me about the Royal Artillery Band?

The British Army has an incredibly long, completely unbroken and rich history of using military bands to provide moral boosting support for their fighting forces and to provide support for state and ceremonial occasions. In 1894 there were 188 bands in the British Army. In 1926 this number had risen to 198 (source Wikipedia) - which I am sure that you will agree is a phenomenal number of bands. Over the following years the numbers began to decline. According to The British Army website www.army.mod.uk/music by the early 1990's the number had fallen to 69. Today (June 2013) following on from the defence review known as "Options for Change" and a 1993 announcement by the Chief of the General staff there are now only 23 Regular Army (full-time) bands and 20 Territorial (part-time) bands in operation. Although the Royal Artillery Band has a documented history dating back to 1557 it wasn't until 1762 that it was granted official status. Over the quarter of a millennium of its history - tradition has dictated that its musicians are competent on both string and wind instruments. As such the RAB is the only British Army band able to perform independently as a wind band or as a concert orchestra. This fact also means that the Royal Artillery Orchestra is the oldest established orchestra in Great Britain.

Where was the RAB based?

The Royal Artillery Barracks on the south bank of the River Thames in Woolwich in SE London was and still is the home of the RAB. The original barracks were built between 1776 and 1802 and were in constant use as the Royal Artillery's (RA) headquarters until the departure of 16 Regiment RA following a ceremony on 25th July 2007. Woolwich was also the location of The Royal Military Academy, a military hospital and a vast complex of buildings known as the Royal Arsenal that carried out armaments manufacture, ammunitions proofing and explosives research on behalf of the British armed forces.

There must be so much history attached to this one instrument. Have you been able to find any records relating to its service in the RAB?

Considerable efforts have been made regarding this question. It would truly be very rewarding to unearth things like the original purchase invoice or record of the same. Also any repair invoices or insurance valuations or any documentation as to where the instrument travelled when the band was deployed abroad. In true military fashion one would assume that all this sort of information is safely stored somewhere.

So how did you get on with your research?

To tell the truth - not great. Our first effort was directed towards the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich which is also known as "Firepower". The museum was first opened to the public in 1820 and is the oldest military museum in the country. The museum contains an estimated 13 million objects which have been amassed over the centuries and is a tribute to the art of killing ones enemy.

So what response did you get?

We received a brief e-mail dated 20th June 2012 from Paul Evans - the museum's librarian as follows; "I regret to inform you that no purchasing or instruments records relating to the bands of the Royal Artillery have been deposited in the regimental archives. Sorry we could not be of more assistance."

What other lines of research did you pursue?

An enquiry was sent to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall.

Very briefly - can you tell me about Kneller Hall please?

In 1857 a 'Class of Music' was founded at Kneller Hall near Twickenham by His Royal Highness Field Marshal the Duke of Cambridge. In 1887 - the Golden Jubilee year of Her Majesty Queen Victoria it was graciously re-titled as the Royal Military School of Music. On 1st September 1994 the Headquarters of the Corps of Army Music joined the Royal Military School on the site. Today (June 2013) the School of Music is still a centre for excellence that plays a vital role in shaping the attitudes, values and standards of soldiers wanting to join the Corps of Army Music. For those interested there is a Music Museum at Kneller Hall that has a collection of musical instruments, music, documents, prints, manuscripts, paintings and uniforms that show the history of military music. It is open to the public by appointment. For more information on The Royal Military School of Music please click on the following link - http://www.army.mod.uk/music/23271.aspx

What reply did you receive?

Our e-mail dated 24th March 2013 was forwarded on to a Major (Retired) Roger Swift the Music Archivist at Kneller Hall who was good enough to reply as follows; "Regrettably we do not hold any records of instruments once owned by army bands, including the Royal Artillery and therefore much regret we are unable to help directly with your enquiry. All army bands hold their own equipment tables including musical instruments, however the regimental Quartermaster here at Kneller Hall (Captain Paul Goodwin MBE) holds the master copy of all instruments held across the army. There isn't a curator as such, except of course for the Museum of British Military Music, which is co-located here."

Did you get back to Major Swift regarding his mention of the regimental Quartermaster and his master copy of all the instruments?

Yes indeed. It really was too enticing not to.

So what did he say?

"Regrettably the records only go back to the formation of the Corps of Army Music back in 1994. Sorry not to be of more help."

That's a bit disappointing to say the least. Were there any other lines of enquiry that you wanted to pursue?

Yes - I wanted to contact the RAB at their Barracks in Woolwich, London SE18 4BB. In June 2010 just as I was preparing to do this and purely by coincidence a gentleman by the name of Tony Saunders e-mailed me to ask whether I would be interesting in purchasing a bass bow by J.E.Vickers. In passing Tony just happened to mention that he had been a member of the RAB!

I'll bet that you couldn't write your next e-mail quickly enough?

Correct.

So just how long had Tony been a member of the RAB and what position did he play in?

In 1974 Tony joined the Junior Musicians Troop on the double bass studying under Bob Edwards (Ex RA and Covent Garden).

In 1976 he attended the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall studying under Ernest Ineson (Former principle and founder member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra).

In 1977 he joined the Royal Military Band where he served for 21 years rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant. From the late 70's - all apart from a short period - he was the principal bassist of the RAB until his retirement in 1998.

Making contact with a former RAB principal purely by chance really must have felt like an eureka type moment - but more importantly did Tony remember the J.F.Lott bass?

Tony played on a Testore throughout his career however he did use the Lott for a few years while the Testore was away undergoing restoration. On sending a picture of the Lott to Tony his response was; "That's her...seeing that has brought back memories!!!"

Was Tony able to help fill in any of the Lott's more recent history?

Numerous e-mails were exchanged regarding the Lott. Here are a few excerpts from those conversations.

    1. The instrument was always considered to be a Lott. Several insurance valuations were done on it over the years and to a man they all considered it to be so. I believe both the owners of the shops in Kipling Street (Malcolm Healey) and Greenwich High Road (Roger Dawson) certainly felt as much.
    2. The instrument would have travelled extensively with the RA Orchestra throughout the war years. Egypt to name one of the countries.
    3. It was always a 4-string instrument until at least the mid 80's when it had an extension fitted.
    4. On a tour to Germany in 1995 the neck came apart from the main body. The body of the instrument wasn't damaged at all. Fibreglass cases and army lorries are not a good mix in 40°C heat. Malcolm Healey removed the extension and fitted a new five string neck, board and bridge.
    5. After the conversion a hairline crack appeared in the lower body. Roger Dawson undertook the repair and advised that although it was not serious it was more than likely due to the pressure of the extra string.
    6. The carved initials on the upper bass side rib are past players circa 1930.

Did Tony make any suggestions?

Yes he suggested that we contact Barrie Pantrey the current principal bass of the RAB. Barrie joined the RAB at the age of 19. In 1988 having worked his way up through the section he took over as principal bass from Tony Saunders when he retired. This October 2013 Barrie is officially due to retire having been with the band for 44 years.

Was Barrie able to tell you anything about the history of the Lott and the other instruments belonging to the band?

"It would be very hard to pin down the history of the instruments. Some instruments would have been commissioned directly from the makers by the regiment and others purchased from various sources. Many however would have been donated to the band. Due to the many changes and restructuring of the army and military bands over the years it is most likely that the old ledgers have been mislaid, lost or even destroyed."

Did Barrie know why the RAB decided to sell the Lott?

"When the Corps of Army Music was formed in 1994 the army bands became publicly funded with the result that any instruments required by the band were supplied centrally through Nether Hall - which as you know is the Headquarters of the Corps. With no funding available to maintain the Regiment's own instruments - they gradually fell into disrepair and a decision was made to sell them off."

Did Barrie know who would have put the Lott up for auction?

"That would have been the last Director of Music which was Tim Arnold. He would have been instructed by the RA's Commanding Officer".

Did Barrie have any ideas on possible further areas of research?

"I'd be happy to enquire with Bevis Anthony - the band's historian to see if he can dig anything out".

Did you get back in touch with Barrie on this lead?

In June 2013 I gave Barrie a follow up call; "Bevis has been through all the archives. Unfortunately he was unable to find any records on the history of the Lott or the other instruments at all."

Ahh - that is a shame. Does this mean that the records have been destroyed?

No not necessarily. It just means that we haven't been able to locate them yet!

Did Barry have any ideas regarding where the Lott may have been deployed?

"Much of the music that the band owns is notated on the back covers in pencil indicating which music was going where. The inscriptions record the name of the country being toured, the various towns, the year and the names of the players that were scheduled to perform that particular work. Unfortunately the names of the instruments deployed aren't listed - but still it is a great insight into where the band travelled over the years."

With regard the music I believe that the RAB owns a massive amount of music in its libraries.

Yes indeed. The two libraries - one devoted to military music the other devoted to orchestral music - are the largest private libraries in the UK. This is due to the fact that all new publications were purchased as a matter of course.

Lets get back to the bass. What condition was it in when you purchased it?

The body appeared to be in relatively good structural order. It was set up as a five string instrument with a bridge stamped M.G. Healey and what is termed a "Bob Norris" attachment affixed over the E string barrel and to the inside of the peg-box wall.

What did you think of the cogs and worms fitted to the pegbox?

The pegbox walls were fitted with three finely wrought cogs and worms that were almost certainly made by William Baker. Baker is widely acknowledged as the grandmaster of English bass machine manufacture throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. These were the "golden years" of bass making in England. Baker worked at George Street, Brighton and is recorded as having made approximately eighteen double basses of well chosen wood and workmanship.

What about the fourth cog?

The cog at the E position had a slightly smaller diameter and was not quite as good in terms of its design or manufacture quality. With regard to the two worm brackets and the thumb piece there were also notable differences in the design in comparison to the three Bakers.

So three original machines and one of a slightly different design. What did you conclude from that?

The instrument had been made as a three string and then converted into a four at a later date.

Was there any other adjustments or alterations that would support this theory?

Yes - some minor rebushing work on the brass half-plates was consistent with the repositioning of the cogs to make room for a fourth to be fitted.

Did you ask Malcolm Healey (mentioned earlier) why he had fitted a "Bob Norris" attachment to make the conversion to five?

Yes. In a telephone conversation Malcolm was good enough to explain as follows; "I didn't want to replace the original Baker machines with something modern and in any case the peg box was too short to fit five machines". Malcolm also suggested we take a look under the arch of his five string bridge as it was a habit of his to write the fitment date there.

And did you find a date there?

Yes - the date "28/9/95" had been written in pencil. Underneath the treble side foot Malcolm had also written "RAB".

What were your thoughts on the scroll?

Definitely not the work of Lott or even Fendt for that matter.

So what did you think it was?

Probably eighteenth century Italian.

How intriguing. What does the odd scroll suggest?

It suggests that the original Lott scroll got smashed up beyond economic repair and that somebody repaired it by using a scroll and peg box that they had lying around in their workshop.

I thought that you said that the pegbox was fitted with three original Baker cogs and the original half plates.

Yes indeed. The original Lott fittings were simply reused.

Why didn't they just take the bass back to Lott and ask him to make a new one?

Now that is a very interesting question. Without any purchase, insurance or repair records being available from the RA we can only speculate. Here are a couple of ideas.

    1. At the time Lott was busy with instrument making or other repair work and couldn't fit the repair work in quickly enough for the client.
    2. At the time Lott quoted too much to do the job. In other words having an old scroll fitted was the cheaper option. Indeed at the time the notion of trying to keep things as original as possible wasn't considered to be that important especially on an instrument that was still relatively new.

Even if you had found the RA's records on the instrument there is a good probability that the RA acquired it with the odd scroll already in place?

Yes indeed. It is entirely possible that the instrument was damaged and the owner decided to part exchange or upgrade it with something else. The shop or restorer with whom the owner had exchanged it then fitted the odd scroll and when it was back in playing order sold it on to the RA. All speculation of course and we may never know.

Would you say that following the successful acquisition of the instrument your idea was to simply set it back up as a four and put it straight back on the market without doing anything internally?

Yes indeed. Everything seemed pretty straight forward.

After getting the bass back home what was the result of a more detailed internal inspection?

The inside table featured a mixture of stud work and a lot of poorly executed half edging. The inside ribs were heavily lined with large heavy patches of wood.

What were your feelings?

It was really disappointing that the quality of the work wasn't consistent with the importance of the instrument. In order to present the instrument in the finest structural and playing condition possible - there was no doubt that everything would have to be redone.

What did you decide to do about the odd scroll? Were you just going to re-graft it onto a new neck?

No - we decided that the best way to paying homage to Lott was to try and make an exact replica of one of his masterpieces.

How did you set about do that?

We took an extensive number of photographs and measurements from the instrument's identical twin (mentioned previously).

So who did you give the work to?

The work was consigned to self-employed luthier Jeroen Bruynooghe who currently (June 2013) lives in France.

How do you feel the work went?

In total the work consumed over 420 hrs of our restorer's time. Please take a look at the pictures of the restoration work and read the short captions that are immediately underneath. Out of approximately 185 photos taken - the small selection of images that are posted here should hopefully give you an impression as to the extent and variety of the work involved. They have also been selected to demonstrate the high level of skills necessary to complete the project and bring an unquestionably beautiful instrument back to its former vibrant glory.

Before I forget and we move on - is the Italian scroll with the three original Baker machines included in the sale of the instrument?

Yes - the scroll and machines form part of the instrument's history. The five string bridge by Healey is also included in the sale.

Can you tell me about John Frederick Lott Junior please?

At around the age of 14 - after learning the basic skills of violin making from his father - John Frederick Lott Jnr. (b-1804, d-1870) became apprenticed at the shop of Richard Davis (formerly the shop of John Norris and Robert Barnes) where he worked alongside his older brother - George Frederick Lott. There are two different accounts as to how long Lott Jnr. stayed with Davis. The first account puts it at four years while the second puts it at only a year. Whichever case - it does appear that in order to make instruments Lott Jnr. obtained wood and tools from Dodd - where his father worked - and sold the finished instruments through Dodd and Metlzer until about 1823. Disillusioned with his way of life it is documented in the semi-biographical novel - "Jack Of All Trades" - written in 1858 by his friend the violin connoisseur Charles Read that he gave up instrument making for " ... twenty years of colourful travel". John Lott Jnr. finally returned to London in the early 1840's and in 1852 established his own shop at 60 Wardour Street where he developed the art of copying old master instruments to a very high level.

Is that all the information on Lott that you are going to provide in your review? It does seem quite brief for such an important English maker. Can you tell me why?

The life and work of John Frederick Lott Jnr. is well document in most violin dictionaries, reference works on English violins and in various specialist magazines. Tony Houska's main focus in this review was to try and uncover some of the history that this great instrument must have witnessed over the past 170 plus years of its existence.

I completely understand. It must have taken you a considerable amount of time to find out what you have already written. If I did want to do some more research on J.F.Lott Jnr - what reference works would you recommend I take a look at?The British Violin - published by the British Violin Making Association in 2000 (ISBN 0 953471 27).

    1. Edward Withers Ltd - 230 Years of Violin Craft in Soho by Adam Whone. Published by Mill Hill Publications, London 1996 (ISBN 0 9529264 0 7).
    2. The Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers by William Henley. Published by Amati Publishing Ltd 1973.
    3. Jack of All Trades by Charles Reade. Published jointly with Autobiography Of A Thief under the title "Cream". First published by Trubner & Co, 60 Paternoster Row, London 1858.
    4. The Violin Family - and its Makers in the British Isles by Brian W. Harvey. Published by Oxford University Press 1995. (ISBN 0 19 816259 6).
    5. Lotts Of Value by John Dilworth. Featured in The Strad October 1988. Published by Orpheus Publications Ltd.
    6. Bass Behaviour by Martin Lawrence and Thomas Martin. Featured in The Strad January 2000. Published by Orpheus Publications Ltd.
    7. John Lott Junior by Martin Lawrence and Thomas Martin. Featured in The Double Bassist No42 - Autumn 2007. Published by Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd.

Just for the record how long has it taken you to write this review?

On and off study and correspondence with ex-RAB players and military institutions has been conducted since The Contrabass Shoppe acquired the instrument at Brompton's auction house in June 2010. In terms of time scale that works out at exactly three years to the month!

Now really must be the time for you to move your focus on to studying another instrument. How about a final summary on the John Lott Jnr. double bass?

This is without doubt an instrument of great historical significance and provenance. Although the quest for first hand records and archive material hasn't proved as successful as one would have hoped it has establish a fair amount of useful information that can be used as a foundation for further research.

Final, final summary.

English bass making really doesn't come any better than this particularly fine instrument by John Frederick Lott Junior.
 


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