Bass Viol attributed to John Rose, London, c1600

In this catalogue the instruments have been organized according to the place and chronology of their making, not of our acquisition. So the reader needs to refer to the stories of the c1685 Tielke (catalogue no. 5) and the Barak Norman (no. 3) to appreciate the following story.
We had dreamed of having a Rose viol since we had missed the one at Hill’s by a day (see no. 3). By this time we also knew that the head that we had managed to buy from Mrs. Keffer, thinking it was the original to her Tielke viol, was indeed a Rose head (see no. 5). I had seen the viol attributed to Rose at Hart House in Toronto, and even though it was a smaller instrument, the head was certainly by the same maker. So we were looking for a Rose viol to be reunited with a Rose head!

Years had gone by since the acquisitions of the Tielke and Barak Norman, we now had a young son, and the collection was pretty stable, although there were a few instruments waiting to be restored. Jim’s interests had begun to swing to bonsai trees, another passion that led to caring for 600 trees in our back yard at one point. We were taking the major step of buying a Nicolò Amati cello in modern setup (catalogue no. 22), which required some serious rearranging of assets, selling a number of instruments, and taking out a new mortgage on our house. The day we were to sign the mortgage papers, we received a set of pictures from Tony Bingham of the most beautiful viol we’d ever seen. And if the festooned viol in the Ashmolean collection is by John Rose, then certainly this one is! We had no choice but to figure out how we could swing buying both the Rose and the Amati, even though Tony was not giving us very much time to come up with the money. We looked at the collection and realized we now had three French seven-string viols. We were not playing the Jean Ouvrard very much, as we were more comfortable with the Bertrand and the Lambert (nos. 13 and 14). So we called our friend Mary Anne Ballard, another active collector of viols, and since she did not have a French viol, she was thrilled to buy the Ouvrard.

Tony personally delivered the Rose on his way to a meeting elsewhere in the United States, and we always remembered that we were outside looking at a double rainbow when he drove through the rainbow to our house with the Rose. It was more beautiful than we had expected from the black-and-white pictures, and the sound was already wonderful. We believed, but were not sure, that this was the very same viol that we had missed nearly fifteen years before. It had a Hill neck and fittings and a decent new head, but we were eager to have our Rose head joined to this Rose body. Not only were the size and color of the head appropriate, but a detail of the purfling led to our personal belief that this truly is the correct head. Unlike other English makers, Rose used a slightly curved bit of purfling at the end of some of the patches of decoration. On the back of the head there is the same curve in the purfling. We believed the Italianate carving to be a depiction of Ulysses, whose unhappy visage perhaps shows him chained to the mast, tortured by hearing the beautiful music coming from the viol (standing in for the sirens of myth). The sea creatures and harpies carved on the back of the scroll add credence to this conjecture.

We had heard of a new restorer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and decided to try him for this seemingly straightforward job of attaching the head to a decent Hill neck. Mark Norfleet thought we really needed a more decorative fingerboard and tailpiece and therefore, why not a new neck too? We offered him the wood we had kept from a 100-year-old pear tree that we had needed to remove from our back yard, so the viol has a truly personal connection to Oberlin. As he began to work he determined that the worm damage on the back was not sufficiently well repaired by Hill and started work on that as well. He did a superb job on those repairs, but we had not, in fact, asked for them. Oddly enough, we had had better communication with our European restorers than with him only 100 miles away. We had hoped to have the viol returned to us with its new old head in a matter of weeks, but three years later we were wondering where it was. Meanwhile, the time was fast approaching for an important recording by the Oberlin Consort of Viols in which we had planned for years to use the two Roses as the bass instruments. Jim finally demanded that we get the viol back in any condition and Mark brought it with the new wood from the worm repair still unvarnished. It did sound marvelous and we returned it to Mark after the recording for the varnish touchups.

One of the unique features of the Rose viol is that, due to its unusual festooned body outline, it can stand upright on its own with no support. That is a very novel attribute that ranks as a party trick!



Bought from Tony Bingham, London, 1986

The table is made in the typical English manner from seven staves of pine, bent, joined, and carved. The wood is of even grain with 15 to 9 growth rings per cm. The soundholes are flame shaped and edged with black-white-black purfling in the same manner as the instrument of similar outline at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which is also attributed to Rose. There are two rows of black-white-black purfling which, at the incurves in the top and bottom bouts, cross over each other to form two points, one of which rather awkwardly runs on to become the stalk of a stylized tulip flower delineated in a narrower purfling. The ground within the flower is crosshatched with a knife so that the varnish collects in the knife cuts and “colors” the flower. The execution of the design is awkward enough to suggest the flowers were an afterthought, but on the lower bouts at least, where the inner line of purfling rises to become the stalk, the purfling strip appears to be one piece continuing all round the bout, and not a shorter, separate piece added later.

The back is two pieces of maple with a light irregular flame. The double black-white-black purfling, as on the table, crosses over at the incurves, and this time resolves into a complicated knot pattern which is a condensed version of the more open design used at the base of the back. As with the flowers on the table, the way these knots rise from the edge purfling is awkward, again suggesting afterthought, but a careful examination of the strips again reveals a continuous piece running the length of the bout. The same pattern is used pointing up and down the center seam where the edge purfling crosses the body above and below the fold. In the center of the back is a circular geometric figure of unusual design that might be read as a stylized flower – perhaps a rose? The overall effect of these multiple knot patterns is somewhat heavy and unbalanced, especially because the condensed version of the knot is so much denser than the larger version, which retains the same character as the typical English designs on the ribs. The edge purfling unusually rises to a point at the base of the back and at the heel of the neck.

The ribs are of maple with broad, irregular flame more intense than that of the back. There are nine sections, and only the short bottom section is without a geometric purfling pattern set within a double purfled border. The latter runs out into the neck–body joint instead of turning to cross the upper end of the rib as on some English instruments that have such a border. The same designs, with one tiny variation, are used much later in the 17th century by Edward Lewis.

The neck is modern, as are the fingerboard and tailpiece, which are maple with beefwood veneer and appropriate geometric purfling. The head, which may not be original to the instrument, is almost certainly contemporary with it, and is quite magnificent. It represents a bearded man with laurel wreath, and the ornamental relief carvings on the back and sides of the pegbox are in high Italianate-English renaissance style. The whole piece is the twin of the head on a smaller instrument in Hart House, Toronto, also thought to be possibly by Rose. The modern pegs are boxwood with ebony pips.

The hookbar is of a stained wood, pear or maple, and is also carved with Italianate scroll decoration. It may be the work of W.E. Hill and Sons.

The transparent varnish is a rich red-brown on yellow ground.

Body length
      66.2 to bottom block
      68.5 to edge of bottom bout
Body width
        upper bout 32.1
      upper corners 33.1
      center bout 24.7
      lower bout 38.6
Rib height  
      top block 8.5
      upper corners 11.6
      lower corners 11.5
      bottom block 11.4
String length 70.4

The Rose head on a base, as it sat on the mantelpiece of Mrs. Keffer’s home. It sat on our mantelpiece for nearly twenty years, until we found the Rose viol to go with it.


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.


» Swipe for more pictures.

1584 Rose

Tobias Hume was a military officer during some of his life but he published two remarkable books of music for the lyra-viol in London in 1605 and 1607. This name is more accurately described as playing the viol lyra-way. Printing music in tablature like lute or guitar notation instead of on a lined music staff, allowed the player to tune the instrument to a number of different intervals and play what he saw without having to transpose. Lyra-viol music is generally chordal in nature, exploiting the resonance that the different tunings create. Many of the pieces in these books have rather unusual tunings, but “Life” is in the usual bass viol tuning. It was popular music and certainly might have been played on this viol built just at this time.

Despite its unusual shape, this viol has a more sophisticated sound than the earlier Rose. The high D has more complexity and the instrument speaks more easily. There is less resonance than in later viols and the sound has a lot of fundamental. It has a cello-like immediacy in the articulation and is very satisfying as a bass in a consort or as a basso continuo line.