Our Sales Manager Sam has been researching the most famous yet elusive of our Double Basses – The Old Lady
Very few instruments have names. Those that do tend to be mythical old Italian instruments such as the Messiah Stradivari, Paganini’s Il Canone Guarneri del Gesu, or those formerly owned by legendary players such as Kreisler, Ysaye, or Heifetz.
In contrast The Old Lady appears to be more a title than a name – not implying a specific identity, instead leaving only the impression of an individual.
Through the late 19th and 20th century the bass was attributed to the great 17th century Brescian maker Giovanni Paulo Maggini. It featured in a picture-article in The Strad in 1910 and reads “We are able this month to present one of the most remarkable photos of a musical instrument ever published. This is a double bass by Maggini, with a scroll carved by the famous Italian sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini.” The bass shows a clear Brescian influence, with double purfling lines on the front and back, broad and wide-shouldered outline, and long elongated. The back of the pegbox is ornately carved with a beautiful geometric Italianate pattern which leads up and around to where the scroll would be. But instead of a scroll, we come face to face with a beautiful and striking carving of a woman, complete with teeth and smile!
This attribution proved to be erroneous as recent dendrochronological tests date the wood of the front of the bass to approximately a century after Maggini’s death. However there are other clues to the history of this bass, including a small plaque on the side of the pegbox, just under the G tuner, engraved with the following three lines:
December 6th 1867
What is HMT? What happened on the December 6th 1867? And who was Ammon Winterbottom?
Ammon Winterbottom was a violinist, composer, conductor and bass player. He played double bass with many of the top orchestras and ensembles of the time most notably Queen Victoria’s Private Band, and the Royal Italian Opera Orchestra (which later became the Royal Opera House’s orchestra in Covent Garden). As a bass player he performed in the orchestra of Monseur Louis-Antoin Jullien, who organised annual Promenade concerts beginning in 1845.
By 1847 the Promenades had evolved into international prestigious musical events with Jullien engaging his celebrity compatriot Hector Berlioz to conduct several concerts. Subsequent programmes included virtuoso double bassist Giovanni Bottessini performing his own compositions in 1851 and in 1852 Bottesini joined Winterbottom in the bass section of the orchestra to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under the baton of Berlioz.
Berlioz was fascinated in new developments in instrument technology and frequently utilised them in performances and compositions. Symphonie Fantastique is one of very few pieces still in the repertoire to feature the Ophecleide, a keyed brass instrument patented in 1821. However due to its weak sound and complex playing technique it became obsolete very quickly, and by the mid-1830s it had been mostly replaced by the louder and easier Trombone.
In 1851 Berlioz had been on the panel of experts judging instruments at the Great Exhibition in South Kensington. The instrument makers exhibiting included a Mr Sax and his new “sax-ophone” which Berlioz described as “a delightful brass instrument with a clarinet mouthpiece”. Berlioz also met the Parisian luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume who was exhibiting his collection of fine Cremonese instruments, his own copies of old Italian instruments, and his new Octobass, an instrument double the size of a conventional double bass and twice as low in pitch! The Octobass clearly left a lasting impression on Berlioz who wrote:
“The octobass (this is the name which M. Vuillaume has given to his new instrument) produces a sound of rare beauty, full and strong but without any roughness. It would be desirable to have at least two of these instruments in all orchestras of any importance.”
The orchestras that Berlioz conducted often had to acquiesce to his request for this gargantuan instrument, and in 1850 Ammon Winterbottom became the link between Bottesini, Vuillaume, Berlioz, and Vuillaume, as the first player in the UK to play on Vuillaume’s octobass in Jullien’s Promenade Orchestra conducted by Berlioz with Bottesini leading the Double Bass section.
So onto the second and third lines: “HMT// 6th December 1867”. The Royal Italian Opera Orchestra which Winterbottom played in was based at Her Majesty’s Theatre in The Haymarket, London. On the night of the 6th December 1867 the theatre caught fire, destroying the majority of the building and surrounding shops. Some records state that miraculously the instrument store room survived mostly unscathed as it was lead-lined and protected by the staging. Although we can’t be certain The Old Lady was in the theatre at the time she was there was clearly a strong enough link for someone to attach a sterling silver plaque to her cheek!
Later in life Ammon Winterbottom gave the bass to his son Charles, also a professional bass player and renowned pedagogue, who authored books and articles on the double bass and double bass technique. In 1902 Charles was a founding member of the London Symphony Orchestra and continued to use the bass throughout his professional career. In the LSO archive there is a 1932 photograph of the orchestra playing under the baton of one Sir Edward Elgar, in the corner one can just make out Charles Winterbottom and The Old Lady.
Charles bequeathed the bass to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where it remained until the 1970s when it was purchased at auction by Thwaites founder Jack Pamplin for a world record price for a double bass. Jack always doubted that the bass was a genuine Maggini and was proven correct when dendrochronological testing and many expert opinions have since identified her as one of the finest “Grandfather” John Lott Double Basses in existence.
There is still uncertainty as to whether the lady’s head is original, although it clearly dates to before 1867 when the plaque was attached, as the geometric pattern on the back of the pegbox matches that of the back of the scroll. One theory is that the head was put on by Jack Lott (son of John Lott), who travelled around Europe working various wonderful jobs, including at one point working as an elephant trainer for a Hungarian circus! Legend has it that Jack was involved in dismantling iconography in Italian cathedrals and churches, and this may be where the head originates.
Brescian pattern double basses were very popular in London at the mid-19th century when the Lotts were making. Because of this popularity, propagated by the arrival of celebrity double bassist Domenico Dragonetti in 1794 with his Gasparo da Salo bass and subsequent copies made by Vincenzo Panormo, the Lotts and others frequently used this pattern and style for his basses. The more intricate Brescian elements, such as the double-purfling and Brescian-inspired f-holes may also show the hand of Jack Lott, who had a penchant for making very convincing copies of fine Italian instruments. Moreover, as Gasparo da Salo was Maggini’s direct predecessor and teacher the attribution to Maggini is not surprising, and it is obvious that this baroque Italian style is where the Lotts drew their inspiration for this magnificent and mysterious bass.