Bass Viol by Jean-Nicolas Lambert, Paris, 174?



The table is of two matched pieces, with 15 growth rings per cm at the center, widening to 4 at the edges. It has been extended several centimeters with new wood at the neck. The soundholes are C shaped. The single purfling is black-white-black.

The replacement back is two pieces of maple with a broad flame angled down from the center joint. The purfling is two lines of ink.
The ribs are six pieces of maple with straight medium flame.

The replacement neck of maple is grafted to an original pegbox of pearwood or very plain maple. The magnificent carved head represents a man in a feathered cap with a turned up, scalloped brim, or perhaps a metal crown, long curly hair, and earrings, perhaps depicting an American Indian. The back of the pegbox is carved with a descending acanthus leaf motif with a beaded central spine. The ground of the back and the entire sides of the pegbox are stippled with a sharp point. The replacement pegs are streaked ebony with bone pips.

The fingerboard is maple with ebony veneer, and the tailpiece and hookbar solid ebony.

The varnish is a dark reddish brown.

Body length 72.5
Body width
      upper bout 32.8
      center bout 21.6
      lower bout 38.9
String length 70.6
Rib height
      top block 8.1
      fold 12.8
      upper corners 13.3
      lower corners 12.9
      bottom block 13.3

The label is illegible.

Bought in October 1970 from Tony Bingham, London


Jean-Nicolas Lambert was born in 1708 in the village of Saint-Laurent, near Épinal, in northeastern France (Lorraine), and probably received his training in nearby Mirecourt, an important center for making stringed instruments from the early 17th to the mid-20th century. (His father, a laborer, had died when he was only six years old; he and his two younger brothers may have been raised by their much-older sister, who was married in that same year.) Some time in the 1730s Lambert moved to Paris, where in 1739 he took an apprentice, implying that he had previously qualified as a master craftsman himself. Clearly he had a good reputation among his peers, for in 1745 he was chosen as an official (maître juré comptable) of the instrument-makers’ guild. Two years earlier, already quite prosperous, he had married Anne-Charlotte Caron, who continued to run the business for three decades after Lambert’s death in 1759.

Inventories drawn up at the time of their marriage and his death reveal that the workshop made a wide variety of stringed instruments, both bowed and plucked, including viols of all sizes; violins, violas, violas d’amore, and cellos; guitars, lutes, and mandolins; and hurdy-gurdies. Examples of nearly all of these types can be found today in European museums, notably at the Musée de la musique in Paris, which owns no fewer than ten of his instruments. However, the only known viol by Lambert is the bass in the Caldwell Collection. Interestingly, although there were 15 bass viols in the shop when he died, they were valued at only 3 livres each, in contrast to 6 livres apiece for the 8 pardessus and 10 livres apiece for 16 quintons—all of which, however, were far outranked by 14 hurdy-gurdies ranging in price from 24 to 40 livres.

This large bass had a newish back when we bought it. The back was longer than the front so the ribs sloped at a very odd angle, looking a little like an old Venetian viol. Paul Reichlin replaced the back (Jim watched him antique the new wood in his driveway with chains, etc.) and skillfully lengthened the belly at the top to allow the ribs to be at a normal angle between top and back. It takes fairly close examination to see the enlargement. He also gave it a comfortably thin French style neck and fingerboard.

The original head is superb. After years of being puzzled by its subject, we were looking at costume designs for the first production of Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau. We suddenly realized that the Lambert head (a male with a feathered headdress, earrings, and long flowing hair) depicts a noble savage as envisioned by a 1740s Parisian.

Although the label is now almost completely illegible, Jim felt he could make out the essential words “par Lambert a Paris” on it.


» Swipe for more pictures.

Antoine Forqueray, Marais’s younger but highly accomplished rival, wrote some of the most difficult music ever written for the viol. He retired in 1730, but his five suites were not published until 1747, two years after his death. The first movement of the first suite introduces his rich, complex, astonishingly difficult style. It seems that a basso continuo line would be superfluous since the solo viol is playing almost all of the notes in the harmonies!

 Forqueray’s music is a good choice to demonstrate the Lambert. The viol has a very vital middle register and its bass notes punch out clearly. The top has always been somewhat glassy, but this movement does not spend much time in the high register. The clarity of the Lambert’s middle registers allows all the inner ornamentation and complexity to be heard. On the top D string I have to angle the tip of the bow towards the bridge rather acutely, which is exactly the technique that Jim always said would avoid squeaks. Even though he often played this viol, I always dismissed his opinion since it came from an oboe player. He was right again!