A good English cello by William Forster II, London, c. 1803

A rare example of a Forster cello based on a Stainer model, made for one of his most important customers, the Reverend A. H. Hole

London was an extraordinarily vibrant musical city at the end of the 18th century. The musical impresario Johann Peter Salomon made his first public appearance in Covent Garden in 1781 and served as the musical link between London and the German-speaking lands. In 1790 he persuaded Joseph Haydn to visit Britain, but the credit for introducing Haydn to British audiences largely goes to the violin maker William Forster. Back in 1781 Forster had bought the rights to publish Haydn’s Symphony no. 74. A warm business relationship blossomed and Forster went on to bring more than a hundred works by Haydn to the British public.

Forster set new standards for English making and in the 1780s he gained the patronage of the Prince of Wales and his brother, the Duke of Cumberland. This allowed him to command the market of wealthy London society. Prices for instruments by ‘Old Forster’ soon rivalled those paid for prestigious Cremonese ones. An article in The General Advertiser on November 6, 1787 marks the sale of a Forster cello made in 1772: ‘The rage for music was never more conspicuous than now. A few days ago, a violoncello made by Forster, was sold for the sum of one hundred guineas and an Amati bass, worth at least fifty guineas in exchange. The purchaser was Mr. Hole, an amateur, in whose praise much has been, though too much cannot be said.’

Cello by William Forster II, London, 1803, bought by the Reverend A.H. Hole. Photos: Tarisio

The Reverend Humphrey Aram Hole (1763–1814) was a dream client for Forster. He was chaplain to the Prince of Wales and son-in-law of the Bishop of Norwich. According to his obituary: ‘In Musick he eminently excelled; and was allowed (notwithstanding the loss of the first finger of his left hand) to be the first [i.e. the finest] amateur player on the violoncello in the kingdom.’ His life is recorded in Sandys & Forster’s History of the Violin, including a gruesome account of the amputation of one of his fingers.

‘The purchaser was Mr. Hole, an amateur, in whose praise much has been, though too much cannot be said’

Hole was both influential among Forster’s client base and an enthusiastic customer. In 1789 he bought his first Forster cello direct from the maker. When James Cervetto (one of the great cellists of the day) bought the first of Forster’s Stainer copies later that year, Hole promptly put in an order for one of his own. He bought three more Forster cellos in 1796, 1803 (pictured above, also a Stainer copy) and 1806.

By the mid-1780s Forster claimed to make copies of ‘every Capital Instrument in England’, although in reality the vast majority of his instruments were based on an Amati model. Forster resisted following the generic English Stainer models in order to differentiate himself. When he did eventually make Stainer-model instruments, he consciously kept away from an English tradition. Genuine Stainer cellos are rare, and there is some doubt whether one was available for Forster to copy, but the few Stainer-model cellos he produced are much more in keeping with Stainer than those of the English tradition.

By the time Forster began making Stainer copies, the 18th-century London tradition was on its way out. Forster himself preferred Amati; Vincenzo Panormo was beginning to influence makers gravitating around the Betts workshop; and John Dodd was taking his influence from Cremonese models. These rare examples of a Stainer model made by Forster really fit outside the tradition exemplified by Peter Wamsley or Thomas Smith. They were intended as copies of the ‘Capital Instruments in England’ and were chosen by some of the leading cellists of the day.

Tarisio sold this 1803 William Forster cello in 2012. Read more about the development of English cello making in The British Cello by John Dilworth.

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