Category Archives: Andy’s Blogs

FRANKENSTEIN DA GAMBA?

Sitting next to its very formal neighbour, the Forster viola, in Old Tullie House, the viol da gamba looks downright relaxed.  His ample frontage, deep ribs, sagging shoulders “rustic” construction and finish suggest an old chap in retirement.  But who would have thought that an old chap like that would have had cosmetic surgery – or even something rather more severe – like a complete new head?  This old chap is not entirely what he appears to be.

Viola gamba

The Tullie’s viol da gamba-cum-viola

 

Of all the bowed instruments, the viol da gamba stands out; but not because it’s beautiful like the viola d’amore or the Amati violin. The viol is not a pretty instrument; it is best to say that it looks “country-made” and it looks downright wrong because the neck, head, scroll, and tailpiece, are not the ones it was born with.  This is an 18th century instrument made into something more modern.  So how? And, equally interestingly, why?

 

 

Brampton violin-maker Corrie Schrijver was a great help in deciding whether the instruments in Old Tullie House were in a condition that would allow their exhibition.  They have been out of sight for all but a very brief time for at least 20 years; hers was the first expert eye on them for rather longer than that.

Corrie said it was plain the VDG’s neck has been re-shaped, that the surgery really had been very drastic and done entirely to turn an instrument that once had ten strings into one that has just four – an imposing, if peculiar, viola.

Viola da gamba with seven strings

A modern viol da gamba with seven strings

And yes, ten strings.  Corrie pointed out the ten filled holes in the bottom of the viol and the long ebony saddle across the bottom, under the gut loop holding the new tailpiece.  It was common for viols to have six strings, seven too, some eight.  Is ten too many for a VDG?

 

Viola - 10 strings

Figure1 – Ten filled holes say this instrument once had ten strings

 

Corrie wondered even if it was originally a “country-made” – aka “ a bit rough” – viola
d’amore, with perhaps six bowed strings and four sympathetic strings.  No room to
explain here…look at this instead:  http://www.violadamoresociety.org/Vda.html    Whatever it was, why turn one instrument into another?

The VDG was part of a bequest to the museum by Sybil Mounsey-Heysham in 1949.  She probably bought it from the famous London violin-maker W.E. Hill in the mid-1930s.  Perhaps the surgery was done by Hills, to make the ten-string instrument into a more saleable, money-in-the-till, four-string viola?  The unusual viola might well have appealed to an enthusiastic, moneyed, amateur-musician such as Sybil.

Neck Joint

The new head/neck joint, complete with dowelling

Is the work up the Hills’ standard? Possibly not, so perhaps I am miles out.  Perhaps it is simply that the work was done earlier to make it playable as a viola, say for someone to learn on. Why buy a viola when there’s already the old VDG in the house that can be shaved down a little?  Or maybe the work was the best compromise after some serious damage.  It is doubtful we will ever know.

So is this VDG a monster or is just a bit of Hollywood nip’n’tuck going on here?  The neck surgery is quite apparent and the attachment of the head is anything but invisible, so it is fair to say that our old chap certainly could not go on Graham Norton and deny having had work done.  Let’s be kind and say facelift rather than Frankenstein, but either way, unlike the rest of the half-dozen instruments on show in Old Tullie House, it looks like this old thing had to adapt the most to survive.

Andy
Curatorial Assistant

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Picture This 3

After the previous two blogs, which looked at cameras from the early 1900s, I’m jumping the generations to look first at what a camera snob might say is the most awful thing they’ve ever seen.  But it’s not really the garish, fragile, unreliable, dirt-cheap, cute and amazing Snappit camera that I’m interested in – it’s the film it used.

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A Herd of Snappits

The Snappit first though. The Tullie’s example given its name by the film processing firm Supasnaps, but the camera appeared under many brand names around the world.  It might have been given away free, or might have cost, say, £1 or less if you were unlucky enough to have to pay for one.  You might be amazed that there is one in the Tullie House Collection,  but it was a popular – in its literal sense – camera. It was aimed at those who didn’t much care what their photos looked like, but who just wanted to remember the moment.

The film of the day for doing that was Kodak’s 126 cartridge.  The cartridge is longer than the Snappit’s tiny body so that some of it sticks out; the camera’s smart design keeps the bit that matters light-tight till the shutter is pressed.

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126 Cartridge

In 1963 Kodak had reacted to complaints from people who found loading cameras generally difficult.  It brought out the 126 drop-in cartridge and the first Instamatic camera. The film involved was actually 35mm but with just one perforation per frame, not for winding on, but so a pin can engage with the film and stop the wind-on so the last part of the action can cock the shutter.  The image size was about 26mm square.                                                  

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A basic Kodak Instamatic

Kodak aimed to match or beat the success of the Box Brownie with its Instamatic cameras and its fool-proof drop-in loading system.  Millions upon millions of Instamatic cameras were sold, with varying degrees of sophistication, between 1963 and the late 1980s.  Other makers bought into the format in a big way.  Typically, Rollei and Zeiss made expensive single-lens reflex 126 cameras.

 

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Rellei and Zeiss offerings

But 126 had a built-in big drawback.  Film flatness is crucial to sharp focus and 126 film was never very good at being dead flat behind the lens.  There was no pressure plate; it relied on the film cartridge being within spec, and it was never great*.  Then consider that the majority of 126 cameras had simple plastic lenses, no fine-focus mechanism and no way to check focus, so the snapper was up against it from the start; but most people didn’t care.

Many old Instamatics are relatively new and still work and it’s amazing how many of the Snappit-type cameras can be found.  The last 126 film was made by Ferrania in 2007, but if you’re handy, you can reload an old 126 cartridge with current 35mm film, but the image will overlap onto the film’s perforations.  It’s actually quite a nice effect in a print.  The web will tell you more, and like most things, you can see it done on youtube.

The Tullie’s Snappit is currently on show in the museum atrium, along with well over a dozen other cameras dating from 1900 to 2004.

*126’s “subminiature” partner, 110 film, was even worse, but it still sold by the ton.

Andy – Curatorial Assistant

Amati Violin and Friends

Fiddle.  Some would say we have one in the foyer of the Old Tullie House; the one that was made in the 1560s by Andrea Amati.  Some violinists might be quite indignant if they heard it called a fiddle.  Most seem not to mind and many call their own instruments fiddles.

ViolinsOK then. Fiddle – a word developed slowly through the medieval period that can mean any bowed instrument.

It appears that the Arab world gave us the kick-start on fiddles in the 8th or 9th centuries in the shape of a gourd with strings stretched over it – the ‘rabab’ or ‘rebec’.  In Europe it was carved from wood.  Maybe all that carving effort was too much and gave the luthiers of old the idea to make a built-up wooden box instead.

 

If it hadn’t been for that leap forward the Old Tullie House might be graced with something rather different by Andrea Amati.  The five instruments – all fiddles if we go by the definition above – that have joined it there might have been all rather different too.  But no, the viola, the viol da gamba, the viola d’amore, the pochette violin and the tiny violin are all wonderful wooden boxes of maple, spruce, pine, ebony, ivory, bone and boxwood.  Boxes, but ones of just the right shape, weight, thickness, density to be quite wonderful things.

Violins2Andrea Amati’s violin, which has stood alone in Old Tullie House for a good number of years, is an amazing survivor from the court orchestra of King Charles IX of France.  That it is 450 years old almost beggars belief.  When it was made; Elizabeth I had been queen for eight years, the Spanish Armada was not even a glint in Philip II’s eye. It is one of the oldest violins in the world, and it survived the French Revolution.

The five instruments new to Old Tullie House are all rather younger, three of them 18th century, the viola is early 19th century, and the tiny “toy” 16cm-long violin late 19th.  All survivors, if only from the ravages of children.

The miniature violin is included in the display to represent the local makers of Cumbria in the Tullie collection – Maghie, Birtles, Scott.  I wish we could tell you the names of the luthiers who made the elegant viola d’amore with its 13 strings, the rather rustic viol da gamba that at one time had ten strings but now has just four, and the pochette violin (somebody said “dinky” the other day) which would have been played for the better off as they honed their ballroom skills – but not one of those instruments has a maker’s mark that can be seen.

They are on show now for the first time in more than 20 years.  To add to the spectacle, a new Collection Conversation has been developed around them.  You can find out more about how a violin is made; what Mr Amati came up with that makes the violin different to its contemporaries, and more about the origins of the instrument, with a replica soprano rebec that you can handle.  You can even try to play it if you feel bold and want your cat to write a sympathy card.

For their help in putting these instruments on show, and developing the collection conversation, Tullie House would like to thank:

 Violins3

Anthony Calvert, of the Early Music Shop, Salts Mill, Saltaire, W.Yorks
Corrie Schrijver, violin maker and restorer of Brampton, Cumbria
James Rawes, violin maker and restorer, of Cotehill, Carlisle, Cumbria

 

Picture This 2

Picture this….

ORIGINAL BROWNIE

Tullie staff’s interaction with visitors is often memorable; I never cease to be amazed at the turns our conversations with visitors can take.  Recently in Old Tullie House, a very elderly man and his grown-up granddaughter appeared.  We started talking about the Pre-Raphaelite artists, but the conversation swung to how the young woman was about to start the third year of her degree in photography as fine art.

Her course was heavily film-based; that’s to say very little digital and lots of rolls and sheets of film and long, absorbing hours of darkroom work.  The grandfather’s love of photography had infected her, and she was taking an opportunity he had never had.  He was clearly bursting with pride and was overjoyed that she understood film.

There’ll be plenty now who have never seen a roll of film but will doubtless have seen a film camera – maybe in a junk shop or car boot sale or in the back of that rarely-opened drawer.

Recently I started a trawl through the cameras in the Tullie collection, improving their descriptions on our database.  It was interesting to see how many of the very old simple cameras are still fully functional, and to be reminded how solidly even some of the cheapest of them were built.  Of course “cheap” is relative.

They deserve attention, after all these old cameras were in at the beginning of popular photography and are the devices that gave us our most detailed social record.  This year the People of Earth are expected to take well in excess of one TRILLION photos.

What surprised me a little was that more than half the 90-or-so cameras in the collection turned out to be Kodak-made.  They are mostly the cameras of the “common man” (although for years Kodak’s advertising deigned to acknowledge that even a woman could take a photo). They are also of a time when photography was still something quite special.  The majority are box and folding cameras, the earliest about 1898, the latest about 1984, with the 70s and 80s represented by the odd Instamatic and one or two cine cameras. There are no what you would call “good” modern cameras. There are a few amazing pieces of machinery in the collection.  But a, or better, THE stand-out camera of the lot is this model of simplicity pictured here.

This unassuming black box camera is the camera that took photography into the price-bracket of the ordinary person.  This is THE Kodak Brownie of 1900-1901.  The one-dollar camera.  That was about five shillings, or 25p, in Britain then.  Add another dollar and you could buy a Brownie and a film AND get it processed and probably get fish and chips for two with the change*.

Kodak made 245,000 original Brownies from February 1900 to October 1901. They were wooden boxes with a mostly cardboard interior (check out the picture – you almost feel you could make one at home).

They had a simple metal rotary shutter and took just half a dozen pictures 6cm square on 117-size roll film.  The small box on top of the camera is a reflecting viewfinder, which could be bought as an accessory.  Without it the user had to almost imagine what would be in the photograph using two lines marked on the camera body as a reference.

The Brownie is fully functioning, and in remarkable condition taking into account its age, construction and the amount of use it could have had.

*Fish and chips in 1901, say 3d or a bit less maybe?  So taking inflation into account, about £1.50 each now?

Andy Whysall – Curatorial Assistant

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