Barak Norman is today the best known of all English viol makers, primarily due to the large number of his instruments that have survived, including more than 50 bass viols as well as lesser numbers of violins, violas, and cellos. In recent years it has been ascertained that he was born in 1651, but his family background remains unknown, perhaps French Hugenot but more likely English, and almost certainly not Jewish as some have suggested. In 1668, at the age of seventeen, he began a seven-year apprenticeship to William Hardin, a bailiff of the Weavers’ Company, but there is no evidence that he ever practiced, or even learned, that trade. Rather, he is likely to have used this arrangement simply as a way of gaining membership in one of the established livery companies, or trade guilds, which would give him the right to work within the limits of the City of London. While it is unknown from whom Norman learned how to build stringed instruments, a likely candidate is Richard Meares, a leading English maker of the previous generation whose work Norman’s earliest viols resemble.
In 1684 Norman married Mary Turner, and by 1690 had established his own shop near St. Paul’s Cathedral, probably at the corner where St. Paul’s Alley opened into St. Paul’s Churchyard (the address given on his labels changes from the former to the latter about 1710). This area was home to a number of other viol makers during the last third of the seventeenth century—including Thomas Cole, John Pitts, Edward Lewis, Francis Baker, and Richard Meares Jr.—and Norman would remain there for the rest of his life. In 1701 his first wife died and he married Sarah Watts, who herself died in 1702. The following year he took as his third wife Elizabeth Seale, with whom he had two daughters.
Around the turn of the century Norman’s business expanded significantly, adding instruments of the violin family to his output of viols. (The earliest extant violin bearing his name dates from 1704, though he may have made others earlier for sale by different London music shops, a practice we know he engaged in for viols during the 1690s.) While specific documentation is lacking, it was probably in 1705 that he took on as an apprentice the sixteen-year-old Nathaniel Cross, who continued to work for Norman after completing his training, leaving to set up his own shop only after Norman’s death in 1724. No viols are known bearing Cross’s own label—in fact, viol making in England virtually ceased after Norman’s death in 1724—but the existence of a bass labeled “Barak Norman and Nathaniel Cross ... fecit 1725” implies that he must have collaborated with his master’s widow, perhaps on a contract basis to complete instruments already in progress, during at least part of the six years that Elizabeth Norman continued to operate the business after her husband’s death.
As mentioned above, more than 50 bass viols (and two trebles) made by Norman still exist, outnumbering the legacy of all but two other viol makers, Joachim Tielke and Louis Guersan, both of whom are also represented in the Caldwell Collection. Those instruments that retain their labels date from 1689 to 1723, while nearly all of the others can be securely attributed based on the presence of “Barak Norman London Fecit” stamped on the table as part of its floral decoration, and/or because the instrument’s back bears an elaborate inlaid design that can be read—when viewed from either the treble or the bass side—as the maker’s initials, BN. In body length they vary widely, from 60 to 73 cm (with about half falling between 66 and 70 cm), and thus clearly were not made on a mold. Nor are there any clear points of division along this continuum that might serve to differentiate a group of division viols from their larger relative the consort bass, or from the smaller lyra bass; rather, each instrument was probably custom-made to the size that best suited its original owner.
Norman made two distinctive models of viol. One was highly ornamented, featuring a male carved head atop the pegbox and inlaid geometric patterns on the ribs, while a plainer model with an open scroll and without rib decoration usually had more modest ornaments on the back and front of the body. Either kind could be further enhanced with a fingerboard and tailpiece decorated with complex marquetry decoration of a very high quality, supplied by a subcontractor. The tables of Norman’s viols are typically made of three pieces of wood, in contrast both to the earlier English practice of five-piece stave construction and to the two-piece design used for instruments of the violin family and many viols as well. Half a dozen Norman basses are currently fitted with seven strings, but none of these setups is likely to be original.