Bass Viol labeled John [Rose], 1584

A serious collector will often form a symbiotic relationship with a major dealer. The dealer will search for objects that he knows his collector wants and he, in turn, has a regular customer. Ours was with Tony Bingham, the well-known dealer in early instruments, ethnic instruments, and early music books and manuscripts. Based in London, he has continued to be arguably the most important dealer in these objects for the past forty years. In preparation for this catalogue I unearthed dozens of letters from Tony on his flamboyant letterhead. They contained not only negotiations for the instruments we eventually bought, but also offers of a number of other instruments that we decided against acquiring. Communication in the late 1960s and 70s was by airmail across the Atlantic Ocean, so each transaction was a relatively lengthy affair, with the correspondence about restoration, auction results, shipping, etc. happening on a weekly cycle.

Jim also made annual visits to Europe, usually stopping in London to see what Tony had to offer. As I remember Jim telling me, Tony said this large viol had come from somewhere in Scotland where “it had been in a barn for 300 years. ” He said a repairman had been working on it when its owner died so it had been offered to Tony. It was sold as an anonymous viol and it was Michael Heale, a viol maker and restorer in Guildford, England, who deciphered the label while he was restoring it. The instrument does not resemble the other extant Roses, but there are so few comparisons that Heale felt comfortable with the attribution.

Attribution is a tricky topic in the world of collecting of any art. Each antique viol that is uncovered adds to the body of knowledge. As additional details of makers’ work become known, understanding of the historic processes of instrument building is spread. Certainly the age of the internet has allowed many people to see in a few hours pictures of the same number of viols that it took Jim weeks in Europe to see in person. In the more than forty years since this collection was begun, doubts have arisen about the maker of only two viols. I hesitate to speculate how Jim would react to these new opinions. I think he would continue to believe, as I do, in the attribution of this viol to Rose, based on the scarcity of comparable viols. (However, one of his favorites, the German bass with unusually-shaped soundholes resembling his own initials, J.C., had an attribution to Johann Christian Hoffmann based on another instrument that is no longer thought to be by Hoffmann, so I have listed it as anonymous in this catalogue.)



The table is made in the English manner from five staves bent, jointed and carved. Whereas on the festooned bass No.2, attributed to John Rose, the table is made from seven separate pieces (the central three running the full length of the body, and the four shorter pieces forming the edges of the upper and lower bouts), in this case all five staves run the full length of the body. In the center bout a large part of the outer staves is cut away, leaving only a narrow strip of the inner edge on the body. The wood is of even grain with from 14 to 8 growth rings per cm. Along some of the staves the grain runs at a slight angle to the seams so that the grain lines converge along the joint. The soundholes are C shaped. The double purfling consists of two solid lines of black stained wood instead of the usual black-white-black.

The back is made of two pieces of what looks like fruitwood, but it has also been suggested that it might be English yew, a wood that was certainly used for making lute backs, but which is very unusual in viols. The wood is slab cut, with bole wood (from close to the roots at the base of the trunk) providing attractive figure on the lower back. There is no purfling.

The ribs are of similar wood to the back, but quarter sawn, with a fairly open, slightly wavy grain.

The maple neck is modern, as are the fingerboard and tailpiece made from maple with ebony veneer and boxwood stringing.

The pegbox is probably original, but only the top four pegholes survive from the instrument’s later conversion into a cello. The flat-sided scroll head has a circular boss, carved with acanthus leaves and darts, glued to each side. The modern pegs are boxwood with bone pips.

The varnish, which has been overlaid, is a transparent medium brown, the table darker than the back and ribs.

The label clearly states John and the 1584 is handwritten. The rest of the label is illegible although Michael Heale believed that he deciphered “Rose”.

Body length 71
Body width
     upper bout 34.3
      center bout 23.8
      lower bout 41.0
Rib height
      top block 7.0
      fold 13.1
      upper corners 13.0
      lower corners 13.2
      bottom block 13.5
String length 70.6

Bought in November 1975 from Tony Bingham, London.

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1584 Rose: top before restoration.

1584 Rose: back before restoration.

1584 Rose: inside of top.

1584 Rose: inside of back. Pencil notations are by Jim, written when he was working with Michael Heale during the restoration.

1584 Rose: detail of corner construction.

1584 Rose: restored inside of top.

1584 Rose: restored inside of back.

Simply beautiful! The 1584 Rose.

Label of the 1584 viol. This is the best picture we have, taken when the instrument was open for restoration. After examining the label in person, Jim and Michael Heale interpreted what they saw on the first line as “John Rose”.


Though much remains unclear about the life of John Rose, we do at least know that there were two instrument makers by that name, father and son, working in Elizabethan England. Sir Thomas Chaloner’s account book records several payments in 1552 “to Jo: Rose for an other vyall ... of the finest sort” and for repairing lutes and supplying strings. Nine years later a lease granted the tenancy of several rooms in a former royal residence in London called Bridewell to “John Rose together with Jone his wife,” explaining that “the said Rose hathe a most notable gift given of God in the making of instruments even soche a gift as his fame is sped thorough a great part of Christendom....”

The 1615 edition of John Stow’s The Annales of England reported that “In the fourth yeere of Queene Elizabeth [i.e., 1562], Iohn Rose, dwelling in Bridewell, devised and made, an Instrument, with wyer strings, commonly called Bandora, and left a sonne farre excelling himselfe, in making Bandores, Voyall de Gamboes, and other Instruments.” As John Pringle points out in his article “John Rose, the founder of English viol-making” (“John Rose, The Founder of English Viol-Making.” Early Music 6 (1978): 501–11), it is unclear from this statement whether Rose not only invented the bandora in 1562 but also died in that year. Though documentation is lacking, such a conclusion is plausible considering that by this time he had achieved international fame and is thus likely to have been born some three or four decades earlier, perhaps around 1525. In that case, the “Jhon Rosse Instromentmaker” who was buried on July 29, 1611, in the parish of St. Bride must have been his son, because by then the father would have been about 85 years old, an extraordinary age in those days even if the composer William Byrd was in that very year still actively publishing music in his early seventies, more than a decade away from his own death in 1623.

Most likely all surviving viols signed by or attributed to Rose were made by the son, with the possible exception of the bass at the Victoria and Albert Museum. When this was purchased in 1877 the auction catalogue assigned it a date of 1560, but that was only a guess (perhaps based on knowledge of Stow’s report), since the label reads simply “John Rose.” On the other hand, Pringle notes that the irregularly figured wood of its back and ribs is quite similar to that found on the tenor (or lyra) viol in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which is labeled “John Rose 1598”; assuming the V&A bass was made around the same time, it too would probably have been built by the son. (The museum currently lists it as “ca. 1600.”)

The label in the Caldwell Collection’s 1584 bass is nearly illegible, with the date being the clearest element of its text, placed alone in center of the second line. Above and to the left, in a handwriting that may or may not be the same, appears a name that is almost certainly “John,” even though its last letter has been damaged. Following this is a short word whose first letter seems to begin with a vertical stroke and thus could well be an R, though what follows is indecipherable. On the rest of the first line no marks at all can be seen, but surely this was not originally left blank, and there is enough space to have accommodated the words “in Bridwell,” a phrase Rose is known to have used on other labels.Although significant differences in body outline, soundhole placement, and decoration exist between this instrument and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s example, there are so few other viols securely attributed to Rose that it is difficult to know how widely his designs may have varied. If it was indeed made by Rose, it would be his earliest extant and dated viol. In any case, it seems that he made two very different types of body outlines, as demonstrated by the festoon-shaped bass in the Caldwell Collection and the similar instrument in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Both are unlabeled but have been attributed to Rose in large part because their lavish decoration reveals the work of a specialist master craftsman, a role in which he had no known competitors in late-16th-century England.

Other basses that have been associated with Rose’s name include one owned by the late Dietrich Kessler that might actually have been made by the slightly later Henry Smith (whom Thomas Mace mentioned alongside Rose in the often-cited list of the best old viol makers that he published in 1676); a much-altered composite at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York whose decoration is similar to that of the two festooned basses previously mentioned; and a third, labeled “John Ross 1609,” that has not been seen since an exhibition in England in 1951. There is also a second tenor (dated 1604) at the Musée de la musique in Paris and an unlabeled treble (currently necked and strung as a small tenor) at Hart House in Toronto, whose carved head is a near-twin to the one now mounted on the Caldwell Collection’s festooned bass.

Michael Heale holding the 1584 Rose viol. Jim’s notations refer to decisions concerning neck angle and length.

Michael Heale finished the restoration in 1979, telling Jim that the viol had not been opened since it was made. Michael had noticed small holes at the edges of the top and ribs and as he opened it tiny pieces of gut fell from between these holes. There were no linings of linen as in later instruments and he conjectured that these gut binders had been used to hold the instrument together while the glue was drying. The top is in the early English five-piece style with quite clear burn marks from the bending process on the inside. It is extraordinarily thin and sounds like a drumhead when tapped. The reinforcement patches on the top and back imply that the instrument was designed from the outset to have a soundpost, making it a truly baroque viol. The neck heel is original as well as part of the neck and the very simple “scroll.” Michael determined a neck angle and length by lining up what was left of the neck with the wear marks on the back of the scroll.

Some interesting information from Michael Heale. I don’t remember that Jim followed up on the leads. We agreed that the Rose should remain a six-string viol instead of trying to embrace the 18th-century practice of adding a seventh bass string to an antique English instrument.

Because the gamba was so large, we at first hoped to have it restored to a seven-string, French-style reconfiguration of an old English viol. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries there was a fashion in France for “modernizing” antique (that is, early 17th-century) viols and harpsichords by extending their ranges to accommodate newer musical needs. In the case of viols that meant adding a seventh string tuned to an A below the cello’s C. The extremely thin top of the Rose made that idea too risky, however.

I remember some disappointment on Jim’s part with the final appearance of the viol. The color of the top had been lighter than the rest of the body when we first saw it, and despite Jim’s protests, Michael equalized the color during the restoration.


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Diego Ortiz’s Tratado de glosas sobre clausulas y otros generos de puntos en la musica de violones (Rome, 1553) was written as an instruction book for improvising the type of ornamental flourishes that were popular in the 16th century. Much of the book illustrates the manner of ornamenting over common bass lines or well-known madrigals, but there are also some beautiful solo recercada. Since there is speculation that the Rose family’s background is Italian, it seems feasible that this mid-century music might have made its way to London later in the century.

This early viol’s bass notes sound like a double bass or organ. The low E sounds especially like an organ pipe. The low D has a fairly strong wolf. This instrument sounds the least like what we think of as a viol. The sound is not smooth or light, but has a graininess to it, especially with a gut C string. The word I think of is natural or “organic.” I do not use catlins (unwound gut strings) on the bottom two strings because there is not enough room to wind those thick strings onto the pegs in the original pegbox. The top D is not as beautiful as on the later viols but it is not too thin in sound. The range over the instrument is even, although the bass is certainly its strong point. The articulation is different from later ones, needing more definition to start a note making a true legato almost impossible. We have used it extensively as a consort bass.