The ‘Lord Aylesford’ cello by William Forster Jr.

15 Jun 2023 - John Dilworth

John Dilworth examines a fine cello by William Forster III with a fascinating English provenance.

The Forster family made some of the very finest English cellos, and this example, made by William Forster junior in 1804, is a particularly beautiful and well-preserved example, with an unusually full history.

William Forster junior was in fact the third William Forster, and actually the fourth violin maker of the family which had its origins in Brampton, near Carlisle. His great grandfather John was born in about 1688, and is recorded as having made violins ‘resembling Stainer’, although none are known to have survived. His son, the first William, similarly made Stainer modelled fiddles in rustic style alongside his work as a maker of spinning wheels. But it was his son, William II, known generally as ‘Old Forster’, born in 1739, who made the move to London in about 1759, and evidently established himself very quickly as a highly regarded professional maker, gaining a Royal Warrant from the Prince of Wales in 1762. It is not known quite how he made the transition from the part-time lutherie he knew in Brampton to becoming one of the most prestigious makers in London.

His son, William III, or ‘Forster junior’ as he signed his work, was born in London in 1764, and was a partner in his father’s business by 1800. The history of the firm, assembled and published in 1864 by his son Simon Andrew Forster in ‘The History of the Violin’, provides the best record of the work of the family, their astonishing energy, and their particular legacy of extraordinary cellos.

Sotheby's 1990 catalogue entry for 'The Royal Forster'

There seems to have been an enormous appetite for the cello in Britain in this period, possibly influenced by the Prince of Wales, Frederick Louis, who died in 1751 before acceding to the crown. The son of King George II, Frederick was born in Hanover, and came to England in 1728, eager to establish the musical culture he had known as a boy. He sponsored the Italian Opera in Haymarket, and is depicted in several portraits by Phillippe Mercier playing the cello. His son George William Frederick, who also became Prince of Wales, and subsequently King George III, was also a cellist, as was his son, George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales and famously Prince Regent until his coronation in 1820.

The elder William Forster made two cellos for the Prince George Augustus in 1782, and one for George III himself in 1795. He had also gained a Royal warrant from the Duke of Cumberland, George III’s brother Prince Henry. One of the two that Forster made for Prince George in 1782, lavishly decorated with his coat of arms, is one of the most celebrated of all English cellos, and known as ‘The Royal Forster’, a title also applied to William himself. Prince George also owned a finely decorated Alessandro Gagliano of 1704.

There seems to have been an enormous appetite for the cello in Britain in this period, possibly influenced by the Prince of Wales, Frederick Louis, who died in 1751 before acceding to the crown.

Many other factors also contributed to the popularity of the cello in England in the mid-eighteenth century, and a great number were made by eminent makers, from Wamsley and Banks to Betts and Kennedy in this period. They have become ever more appreciated because in part they are fine, well-crafted instruments, but also generally made on a good model of modest size. These English makers were amongst the first to work to the newly established smaller model, which eclipsed the old large form with 80cm back length, working to a more manageable 74cm length. In adopting a Stainer model, hugely popular in England at the time (one with very few precedents in actual fact – genuine Stainer cellos are very rare) Forster created a pattern loosely based on violins he would have known well.

Robert Lindley, owner of four Forster cellos

The accounts presented by Simon Andrew Forster state that the workshop produced three distinct qualities of work, but it also shows the number of celebrated cellists working in England in the period, who certainly lifted the instrument to widespread popularity. General Ashley, not so well-known today, but a leading London player in the period 1770-1810, James Cervetto, the London born virtuoso and son of the Italian cellist Giacobbe, his pupil Robert Lindley (1776-1855), known as the greatest player of his time, and John Crosdill (1751-1825) were all immensely popular performers of the period, and all were clients of the Forster workshop. William senior made his last cello for Cervetto, and William junior made no less than four cellos for Robert Lindley.

The 'Lord Aylesford' Stradivari cello; image courtesy of Tarisio

This cello, dated 1804, and numbered 25, was made by William Forster junior, according to the Forster accounts, for another prestigious client, Lord Aylesford. The Earls of Aylesford date back to the seventeenth century, and the name is significant musically in that there are two Stradivaris associated with it; the 1683 ‘Lord Aylesford’ violin, which the 4th Earl, Heneage Finch acquired from the Italian virtuoso Felice Giardini in London, and the famous 1696 ‘Aylesford’ cello, which James Cervetto had acquired from Forster himself in 1816, and had also been brought to England by Giardini. Forster made a second cello for Aylesford in 1806.

It is rare to have such a full history for an English instrument, but this is an exceptional cello.

The 4th Earl, who was Forster’s client, was born in 1751, and died in 1812. A member of Parliament for Castle Rising and then Maidstone between 1774 and 1777, before taking his seat in the House of Lords, he was evidently a cultivated man; a friend and possibly a pupil of Giardini, and an accomplished landscape painter. The Stradivari cello remained in the family until 1875, when it passed to the London violin maker and dealer George Hart. The head of the family was then the 7th Earl of Aylesford, and the dissolution of his marriage in 1877 would have caused some redistribution of the family assets. It was around this time that the 1804 Forster was probably also sold by Hart, to Mary Arkwright of Hereford. The Arkwright family were the wealthiest landowners in Herefordshire at that time, and theirs is another name with Stradivari connections; the c.1732 ‘Bagrit’ Stradivari violin was owned by Mary’s brother John Arkwright, and remained in the family until 1886, and the 1727 ‘Gillott’ belonged to Marian Arkwright in the early twentieth century.

The Forster cello passed from Mary Arkwright to her son Samuel Ronald Courthope Bosanquet (1868-1952), Chancellor of the Diocese of Hereford, and from him to daughter Rachel, then to the present owner, the grandson of Samuel Bosanquet, who loaned it to his cousin Caroline Bosanquet, the cellist and composer who died in 2013.

Mary Arkwright's brother, Edwyn, with his cello

It is rare to have such a full history for an English instrument, but this is an exceptional cello. It is labelled, signed, numbered and branded in the clear and reassuring manner which indicates Forster’s pride in his work, and his assurance that his name and work was valued. The Forster records often specify either Stainer or Amati model, but although the description is missing, it is listed among ‘the best violoncellos made by Wm. Forster, jun’, and is clearly made on their Stainer model, with its extravagantly styled scroll and distinctive soundholes.

Inscription on the bottom rib

The back is made of two matched pieces of quarter-sawn maple with a beautiful muddled flame descending slightly from the joint, while the ribs are of mixed stock, still well-figured. The scroll, typically, is of plainer maple, while the front is from exceptional straight-grained spruce, the grain of which is grouped in bands of fine to medium width, rather than progressing evenly from finer grain at the centre to broader width at the edges.

The worksmanship throughout is of a very high order, the wood surface extremely well-finished, and all aspects of the modelling well-regulated. The distinctive outline is rather broad across the lower bouts, and only barely related to an authentic Stainer model. The arching does not follow the characteristic Stainer style, with deep compound curves around the edges, which English makers tended to exaggerate, but is a smoothly contoured, more Amati form. The Stainer elements are seen more clearly in the soundholes and scroll. The soundholes have a distinct diagonal ovality to the finial circles, a mannerism adopted by many Stainer followers, if not entirely authentic to the maker himself. The scroll is highly distinctive, and flawlessly carved. The deep, extended last turn into the eye is indeed a distinctive Stainer feature, but the scroll is also in many ways definitive of the Forsters, with its steepled pegbox sides leading to the strongly rounded and sloping chin.

The varnish is of the very best quality, generously applied and rich in texture, with a fine crackled surface and deeply pigmented with warm orange-brown colouring.

This fine cello certainly deserves its noble title, not just through its association with the aristocracy and with the instruments of Stradivari, but for its qualities as an exceptionally beautifully-crafted and well-preserved example of the great period of English cello-making.

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