Treble Viol by William Turner, London, 1652

I don’t actually remember the circumstances, but I believe Arthur Middleton was a member of the Viola da Gamba Society of America who had heard about our interest and simply wrote to us, offering his treble viol for sale. We didn’t use this instrument for years since we were between restorers. It didn’t need a lot of work, but it did have a couple of fairly big cracks that needed gluing and cleaning up. It had hung on our wall of gambas for probably twenty years when I heard about Petr Vavrous, a restorer in Prague, and we decided to send it to him. Meanwhile we had almost sold it to José Vázquez, a colleague and friend living in Vienna, when we needed money for our son’s private high school. He decided at the last moment not to buy it but helped us with the logistics of its restoration. When we sold a Turner bass from 1650 that we owned at that time to John Mark Rozendaal, another colleague and friend, we offered him the treble as well but he felt he could only take one viol. All these negotiations were before we had ever heard it. It is not the most beautiful viol we have, and in fact, I use it as an example of what a maker would have made for a buyer of lesser means. The scroll is extremely simple and there is none of the extra purfling so common with English makers. So we were not prepared for how good it sounded after restoration. We were so glad we had not been able to sell it! It has a wonderful rich sound, especially in the middle range, and makes a superb second treble in a consort.



The varnish on the table is so dark and opaque that it is impossible to see for certain whether there are five or seven pieces of pine. A tapered central stave is clear enough to suggest that the table is built in the typical English manner from bent staves. The grain is straight in the center but slopes towards the inside on the wings, and the wood is fairly open with about 5 growth rings per cm. The soundholes are C shaped. The edge purfling is a single broad line consisting of two scribed parallel lines with ink between. In places the ink has rubbed off, and even a few slivers of wood have flaked off.

Again the very dark varnish obscures the details of the back, but it appears to be two pieces of plain maple. The single purfling, which makes a V at the neck heel, is similar to that of the table, except that there appears to be something of a channel scooped out between the scribed lines, and this is filled rather than painted with a black substance, perhaps a mixture of ink and glue, which has crumbled away in places. The score across the fold presumably broke at some time and has been repaired with a cross-grained strip of dark wood.

The ribs are of maple with little flame.

The original plain maple neck is integral with the pegbox, which ends in a flat-sided scroll whose only decoration is a border of purfling similar to that on the back. The stained wood pegs are not original.

The shallow fingerboard and tailpiece are either stained pearwood or brownish ebony, and appear to be old if not original. Evidence of a repair to one rib and the back at the bottom block suggest that the hookbar is not original.

The varnish is a very dark brown, heavily craqueled and oxidized.

Body length 40.0
Body width
      upper corners 18.1
      center bout 13.0
      lower corners 23.0
String length 39.2
Rib height
      top block 4.7
      fold 6.5
      upper corners 6.4
      lower corners 6.4
      bottom block 6.5

William Turner at ye
Hand and Crowne in
gravelle Lane nere
Aldgate London 1652


No biographical information is available about William Turner, but we know he was active in the middle decades of the seventeenth century because his surviving instruments include three treble and three bass viols bearing dates from 1647 to 1656. Two more trebles and two basses, though unsigned, have also been attributed to him based on their perceived similarities to the other six. The treble in the Caldwell Collection thus has four sisters, three of which belong to the collection of the Orpheon Foundation in Vienna, directed by José Vázquez. All three have a heart-shaped rosette in their tables, a feature that, while lacking on the present example, seems almost to have been a trademark of this maker as it is also found on two of his basses, while two other basses incorporate a heart elsewhere in their decorative schemes. The fifth treble, now at the Horniman Museum in London, was formerly attributed to Richard Meares but is now thought to be by Turner, in part because it too has a heart-shaped rosette.

All four of these other Turner trebles were at some point adapted for use as violas, meaning that their ribs were cut down and their original necks and pegboxes replaced, requiring restoration in modern times. Only the Caldwell Collection’s example has escaped this fate, as confirmed by its former owner Jeffrey Pulver, who described and illustrated the instrument in his Dictionary of Old English Music and Musical Instruments (London, 1923), stating that it was then still in its original condition. He there refers to it as a tenor viol, but in fact all five Turner trebles are close to the same size, with body lengths between 40 and 41 cm. In contrast, the few English tenors that survive from the seventeenth century nearly all measure between 52 and 56 cm.

Otherwise, until fairly recently Turner’s name was associated only with a bass viol owned since 1904 by the municipal museums of Nice, France. This was erroneously described in several modern publications as a baryton due to the presence of twelve added sympathetic strings, which have since been removed. It is dated 1652—not 1650 as stated in these same reference works—and was thus made in the same year as the Caldwell treble. Two more basses (one of them formerly in the Caldwell Collection: see Appendix C) are now owned by professional American gambists, another is in the Orpheon Collection in Vienna, and the fifth is privately owned in Paris. These fall into two subgroups based on size, with three having body lengths of 67 or 68 cm while the other two measure about 73 cm. It is entirely plausible that these differences correspond to the distinction, frequently noted by contemporary writers, between division and consort basses: while tuned to the same nominal pitches, the former were slightly smaller to favor agility of fingering, while the latter were larger in order to provide a fuller sonority on their lower strings.

It is possible that Turner also made instruments of the violin family, but none are presently known to exist. However, William Henley did state, in his Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers (1960), that “we have seen two examples purporting to come from his hands, guaranteed by a reputable firm of connoisseurs.”


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John Dowland’s “Flowe my Teares” is one of the most recognizable melodies of the Elizabethan era. The lute song, with its melancholy lyrics, became a source of inspi- ration to a number of composers. Dowland wrote a series of pavans with the same doleful expression for five viols and lute which he titled “Lachrimae,” and other compos- ers often started pieces with the same descending fourth in the same rhythm in very conscious homage to this fa- mous tune. In this recording, of course, the wonderful counterpoint and harmony are missing, but this viol with its superb middle range sings the famous melody.

This treble has what most people would recognize as a con- sort treble sound. It is rich and deep and very satisfying to play. It is somewhat monochromatic, but the sound it has is very beautiful. It is definitely more of a contralto rather than a soprano sound.