Just a little docket
John Frederick Lott II is without doubt one of the most outstanding, fascinating and colourful characters in the world of violins. His 66 year life (c.1804 – 1870) seems to merit a feature film all of its own even if you disregard the inspirational copies he made of Guarneri del Gesu, Stradivari and other classical makers. If it was not for the little publication by Charles Reade written in 1858 entitled ‘Jack of all Trades – a Matter of Fact Romance’, rather less would have been known of him. In fact nearly all we know of him is contained in this short volume that is generally accepted to be based on Lott’s turbulent life in London and abroad.
George Hart, the respected British violin expert and contemporary of John Lott, said of him in his book ‘Famous Violin Makers and their Imitators’: “I have many times heard John Lott relate the chief incidents so graphically described by Charles Read. He was certainly a man of singular ability and his talents were strangely varied.” Therefore I think we can assume the tales to be true. One of the more bizarre adventures followed his introduction to an elephant named Madamoiselle Djeck in April 1828 and his various exploits thereafter including travelling to the United Sates with her and joining a travelling circus. Dramatically, after unfortunately killing or maiming a number of people (including a clergyman) which resulted in an official trial whilst Lott and his charge were in Geneva in 1837, the elephant was herself dispatched by means of a cannon ball. The episode was newsworthy enough to be mentioned in The Times.
My own fascination with Lott was greatly augmented from the moment that I was fortunate enough to take over the violin shop of Edward Withers Ltd in 1987 with which it is known Lott had close connections. He would also have known well the previous shop of Richard and William Davis that became Withers in 1846 as both he and his elder brother George were employees there.
Frustratingly though, and despite frequent delvings during the time I was writing the Withers 150th Anniversary book (Mill Hill Publications 1996), I was unable to find any document relating to Lott in the Withers archives, though admittedly there is much more sifting still to be done. A task for a very long rainy day. However, last year I made a seemingly minor but remarkable discovery – a small eye into the past.
I was sorting through a collection of wooden violin patterns that belonged to the Withers shop including a number of f hole templates. Most of these are undoubtedly from the 19th century (a few possibly earlier) and I am convinced that some may have belonged to John Lott as he not only made instruments for Withers but was also his teacher. One of the little ‘treasures’ of Withers is a shop sign, almost identical to one in the Horniman Museum, carved by Lott in the shape of a violin back and with Lott’s inscription “Lott Maker and Repairer” let in in mastic. To the one owned by Withers, Mr. Withers has added ‘Edward Withers Pupil of…’ above Lott’s identical inscription making the relationship clear. It is understood that Lott gave this shop sign to Withers.
I believe it is extremely likely that on Lott’s death, Edward Withers acquired other things of his including instrument and f hole patterns (if they weren’t already in the shop due to their strong connection). Anyway, I digress…
Making my way through the dusty and ancient f hole patterns, I stumbled upon a small saleroom docket dated 8th January 1853 on which was an f hole rubbing in pencil. Written below the lower part of the f hole also in pencil are the words “…add this to go to the centre…” – clearly a small memorandum to the author of how to place the f hole on the table of a future copy to be made.
The docket is made out to non other than “J. Lott”. The man himself.
I think we can be fairly certain that the penciled writing is his too as no one else would be likely to have possession of his sale docket. To my knowledge there is no other evidence of Lott’s actual hand. This remarkable little discovery also must add weight to the likelihood that other of the templates are from John Lott too. It is a shame that although some of the patterns have the model (Joseph Guarnerius, Amati and so on) inscribed on them there is no evidence of a maker’s name. The only patterns that are clearly named are a full set (including the internal rib mould and clamping blocks) for the distinctive Withers pattern viola. These are clearly stamped ‘Joseph Chanot’, a son of George Chanot, and confirm that Joseph was working for Edward Withers – either as an out-worker, or at the shop.
Fired up like nobody’s business and clutching a copy if the precious docket in my hand, I legged it over to the British Library near St Pancras station in London and immediately signed up as a member in order to have access to their archives. Brandishing my new member’s card I ordered heaps of volumes from Puttick and Simpson sales records which promptly (in their universe) arrived on trolleys from somewhere I assumed was distant and subterranean. Despite hours of very careful searching, and even being armed with the precise sale and lot number (sale 241, lot number 262), I was sadly unable to discover the exact auction and consequently which particular item Lott had purchased.
However, it was astounding to note how many purchases of top flight instruments were made by both Lott and a small circle of other dealers whose names cropped up time and time again throughout the sale records (including his own brother George). They may also have been purchasing on behalf of important clients – for instance it is known that John Lott knew J.B. Vuillaume well and acted as his interpreter on visits to the UK. If I had time and energy another trawl through the sale catalogues might be a good idea but I am still waiting for that rainy day when I will be able to spend more time doing all those things I keep putting off because it’s still sunny.
From such a small piece of evidence much can be gleaned but for me, what is most exciting, is getting nearer to the man himself – the person who created those remarkable instruments and who, without these little discoveries, can seem like just another mythological figure that we find it hard to relate to as a living being. So often, characters from the past remain largely mysterious. Until research for the Withers anniversary book was carried out who would ever have thought that Edward Withers I was a confectioner working in Blackfriars before his sudden career change in December of 1846 to violin dealer/maker! In similar fashion (though perhaps more universally significant) the recent discovery of Stradivari’s last will and testament gave us a rare insight into the real life of this legendary man and his workshop.
Lott was real and there are undoubtedly other real “John Lotts” right now creating someone else’s future visits to the British Library – except it will be somewhere in cyber-space this time. It has been said that without understanding our past we can’t fully appreciate our present or our future. I sincerely hope to be able to continue appreciating and investigating the amazing violin making tradition we are fortunate to have here in the UK and that many others will enjoy doing the same.
[If there is anyone who happens to have written evidence, artifacts or knowledge relating to John Lott II (or Edward Withers for that matter), I would be extremely happy to hear from you]