Quinton by Louis Guersan, Paris, c1760



The table is of two unmatched pieces, with the grain, unusually, narrower towards the edges. The soundholes are F shaped. The single black-white-black purfling has a wide center strip.

The arched back is two unmatched pieces of maple with regular narrow flame sloping slightly down from the center joint. The single purfling matches that of the table. There are ebony pins each side of the center joint in both top and bottom blocks.

The ribs are four pieces of maple with broader flame than the back, with the flame sloping forward on the bass top and bottom bouts, and back on all the others.

The original neck of plain maple ends in a partially pierced scroll. The carved vine design on the back of the pegbox continues over the top of the scroll, and each peghole forms the center of a large flower on the sides. The top of the cheeks are decorated with chip carving. The rosewood pegs with ivory pips are old.

The fingerboard of maple with ebony veneer has seven silver, or perhaps ivory, inlaid frets that are now flush with the surface. The neck and fingerboard shows some evidence of having been narrowed slightly. The original tailpiece is ebony and attached with silver wire soldered to a silver plate. The endbutton is boxwood.

The varnish is orange brown.

Body length 34.2
Body width
      upper bout 16.0
      center bout 10.5
      lower bout 20.4
String length 32.0
Rib height
      top block 3.2
      upper corners 3.2
      lower corners 3.3
      bottom block 3.3

[printed, with the final two digits never added by hand]

Bought in December 1970 from Alain Vian, Paris


Louis Guersan, one of the most important makers of stringed instruments in mid-18th-century France, was born in Paris about 1700; the luthier Jacques Boquay was his older half-brother, being the child of his mother’s first marriage. It is unknown from whom Guersan received his training (he was formerly thought to have been a pupil of Claude Pierray), but by the time of his marriage to Marie-Françoise Lécuyer in 1725 he was already an independent maker. During the following decades he built an extensive and prosperous business making instruments of both the violin and viol families, and selling related items such as bows, strings, accessories, and wood. In 1744 two of his wife’s nieces married luthiers, Benoist Fleury and François Lejeune, giving him still more family connections in the same business. Four years later he was elected maître juré comptable of the luthiers’ guild, subsequently also serving that organization as syndic (in 1750) and dean (in 1769). In 1758, four years after the death of his wife, he married Marie-Jeanne Zeltener, the widow of the violin maker Pierre-François Saint-Paul, whose son Antoine took over the shop following Guersan’s death in 1770.

In his own time Guersan enjoyed a high reputation, counting among his customers both noble amateurs and leading professionals such as the violinist and composer Jean-Marie Leclair; in 1754 he received a royal appointment as “luthier de Monseigneur le Dauphin,” that is to say violin-maker to Crown Prince Louis, the son of Louis XV and father of the future Louis XVI. An inventory of his shop taken at the time of his second marriage in 1758 lists more than 300 violins (fewer than half of them “de la façon du Sieur Guersan,” i.e., his own work) along with some three dozen cellos, but also a dozen pardessus, eight quintons, and no fewer than 64 bass viols, many of the latter by other makers both Parisian (Barbey, Bertrand, Boquay, Chéron, Collichon, and Pierray) and English. Most of the violins were valued at 30 livres, as were the pardessus and quintons, while cellos were worth variously 20, 30, or 60 livres, but bass viols were considered less valuable at either 10 or 20 livres, no doubt due to their declining popularity by this time. For the most part these values were unchanged in 1770, when Mme Guersan died only a few months before her husband, at which time the shop also contained several violas d’amore, a contrabass, and “deux violles en forme de violoncelle” (two viols shaped like cellos).

Guersan was an especially prolific maker of five-stringed pardessus de viole, of which more than 50 survive from his workshop, nearly all with backs and ribs made with alternating strips of dark and light wood. These date from 1741 to 1770 and account for nearly half of all extant instruments of this type. The Caldwell Collection’s example is thus one of many such instruments (including six others from the same year, 1754), while its undated companion quinton has only half a dozen known sisters. Parenthetically, it should be noted that 18th-century makers and musicians did not follow the modern convention of using the term “quinton” to distinguish a five-stringed instrument with sloping shoulders but many violin-like features—such as pointed body corners, F shaped soundholes, overhanging edges, and an arched back—from a viol-shaped instrument of similar size, tuned identically, to which the names five-stringed pardessus and quinton were applied interchangeably at the time.

The Musée de la musique in Paris has a notably large number of Guersan’s instruments in its collection, including two violins, two violas, four cellos, and no fewer than nine pardessus (one, exceptionally, with six strings); however, no bass viols by him are known to survive.

We found this interesting instrument hanging on a wall at the Alain Vian shop in Paris. It was completely covered in dirty coal-oil or kerosene soot and seemed to have been on a wall for 200 years. Jim started cleaning it in our hotel room and uncovered a brilliant orange varnish. Since the dirt was removed it has darkened into the more subdued orange that it is now. It is in pristine condition and has possibly never been opened. The solid silver “tail-gut” ends with a beautiful ornament on the tailpiece.

There is some controversy about the instrument known as a quinton. Some say all five-stringed instruments should be played at the knee and others think that some were played at the shoulder. Since one of the two Guersan instruments in the collection is clearly a viol type and the other a violin type, I am of the latter opinion. This instrument has clear violin characteristics, including its overhanging edges, carved back, F holes, and pointed corners. Its only viol features are its sloping shoulders and the presence of ivory frets inlaid into the fingerboard. It is not known if they were raised at one time and have been planed down or were originally flush with the fingerboard as they are now. Our thought is that this style of quinton was built for those late 18th-century violinists who wanted to play the increasingly popular pardessus literature.

Marilyn McDonald, our colleague who is now Professor of Violin at the Oberlin Conservatory, made her first venture into historical performance on this quinton, coming back to us a week after borrowing it with a Barrière sonata learned. She used it for the Oberlin Baroque Ensemble’s Vox Box recording, playing not only Barrière but also La Gamme by Marais and Couperin’s La Sultane and La Steinquerque.


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