It's well known among old flute enthusiasts that the famous firm of Rudall & Rose was founded in 1821 by the flute teacher George Rudall and the flute maker John Mitchell Rose. However it's the flutes that George Rudall had made in the few preceding years by the maker John Willis, and in particular one of those flutes, that is the subject of this post.
It was a very common arrangement for well known "professors" of the flute to associate themselves with a particular maker, and would provide these flutes to their students and others, and in this case Rudall chose his collaborator well.
John Willis came to prominence as a maker in the early 19th C, someone who made flutes for resellers, but operated on his own account from several addresses. Here's what the NLI has to say:
John Willis had a younger brother, Isaac who initially operated from Dublin, taking over from the Goulding d'Almaine & Potter operation there in 1816, later moving to London. I hope to reveal more about Isaac in future posts about the Dublin woodwind trade, but I'll leave it till then, since his relevance to this post is simply to acknowledge him as John's brother. It's thought that Isaac was purely a reseller, and never made on his own account.
When did John Willis make the flutes for George Rudall?
Rockstro says that he resigned his commission in the army ( he had been a Lieutenant in the Devonshire Militia ) around 1820 and commenced as a flute teacher and supplier of instruments at that time. However there is quite a lot of evidence to contradict this, which shows that he was a flute teacher by 1816, and this might help explain why many of these flutes survive. This has been discovered recently:
One aspect of this that has always struck me as odd, is that while Willis was a well established maker, making flutes of superb quality, Rudall chose to move to another supplier for his flutes and he chose someone who had little or no reputation as a maker. John Mitchell Rose is a mysterious figure about whom really very little is known, given that he was one of the major figures in the 19th century English flute community.
I'd advise reading Robert Bigio's account of him in his " Rudall, Rose, and Carte. The Art of the Flute in Britain".
There are several other interesting aspects of the flutes that Willis made for Rudall. Firstly, given the relatively short period that the association lasted, a surprising number of the flutes have survived. Secondly, the degree of variation between the individual flutes is remarkable. This is most noticeable in terms of the style of key work, for example in the two DCM examples, one has padded keys and pewters on the foot, and the other has pewters throughout, and an "up and over" C#/C mechanism, very much in the style of Potter.
I've also seen examples with square flap keys, and I've one in my own collection which appears to have been originally made for flap keys, but converted to pads. Most of these flutes are 7 keyed, missing the long F, but mine is an 8 keyed with some other rather quirky variations, e.g. the blocks are lined except the main long F block, even though the guide block is! This I'm sure is entirely original.
The woods that Willis used were standard for the time, boxwood, and cocus, for the most part, but this particular flute is made from neither, but rather one of the woods from the Caribbean genus Platymiscium.
Having worked in flute restoration for over 40 years gives me some insight, I believe, into the woods that the old makers used. The vast majority, of course are either boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), or cocus (Brya ebene), with the occasional appearance of ebony ( Diospyros spp.), and rosewood and African blackwood (Dalbergia spp.). One confusing aspect of wood nomenclature ( see my post -A Wonderful Confusion ) are the wildly inaccurate descriptions of wood type in auction catalogues, and very often even museum catalogues. In fact it's only with long experience, and some botanical training that one begins to be able to be confidant about identifying these woods and to realise that there is another timber which was quite widely used.
It's only relatively recently that I began to realise that this timber was turning up in my restorations more and more often, and in very high quality instruments as well, and from diverse sources including London, Vienna, and New York.
So how to recognise it? One of the really characteristic "tells" is the presence of chatoyance, which in itself requires an explanation. Look at this video first...( and apologies for redirecting to YouTube, for some reason Blogger would not allow me to upload the video directly)