Roller Skates and Mechanical Swans: John Joseph Merlin’s Cremona Emulus.

John Joseph Merlin was one of London’s most significant inventors and entrepreneurs of the late eighteenth century. Amongst automatons, clocks and a bewildering variety of inventions he may well have paved the way for Charles Babbage‘s invention of the computer. He produced musical instruments of unparalleled ingenuity. He also held the secret to Cremonese tone – or did he? 

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John Joseph Merlin by Thomas Gainsborough. The portrait was reputed to have been exchanged with a musical instrument Merlin had made for him. (Kenwood House)

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is considered by many to be the father of the computer, inventing the Difference Engine in the 1820s which could perform programmable mathematical calculations – the first mechanical computer, but his introduction to the world of machines came as a Devon schoolboy visiting Merlin’s Mechanical Museum, just off Hanover Square in London. According to Babbage’s own account:

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Charles Babbage (National Portrait Gallery)

During my boyhood my mother took me to several exhibitions of machinery. I well remember one of them in Hanover Square, by a man who called himself Merlin. Iwas so greatly interested in it, that the exhibitor remarked the circumstance, and after explaining some of the objects to which the public had access, proposed to my mother to take me up to his workshop, where I should see still more wonderful automata. We accordingly ascended to the attic. There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high.

One of these walked or rather glided along a space of about four feet, when she turned round and went back to her original place. She used an eye glass occasionally, and bowed frequently, as if recognizing her acquaintances. The motions of her limbs were singularly graceful.

The other silver figure was an admirable danseuse, which a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings, and opened its beak. The lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible. These silver figures were the chef-d’oeuvres of the artist: they had cost him years of unwearied labour, and were not even then finished”

After the death of John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) his collection of mechanical wonders was auctioned off, and Babbage managed both to purchase the danseuse, and eventually to complete her to display her prominently in his house. (His other The implication: That Merlin’s genius for mechanical devices played a significant part in the birth of modern computing – is it too much to call him a kind of grandfather figure if Babbage is seen as the father of modern computing. Several of Merlin’s extraordinary inventions survive, chief amongst them the Silver Swanthat he made in 1773, which is kept at Bowes House Museum. Watch and be amazed!

Merlin’s genius for inventing things went well beyond automatons, into such devices as ‘Gouty Chairs and Morphices’ ’Sleeping Chairs for infirm persons’ ‘patent Rotisseurs’, an ‘Invention that restores paintings to their original beauty’, a ‘two-wheel chariots for one horse only’ and even a horseless carriage which he ‘…kept in motion by means of a windlass and it went with tolerable facility…’ In musical circles, Merlin appears to have enjoyed considerable celebrity – he was friends both with Johann Christian Bach in London and the music historian Charles Burney, whilst there is some discussion that the portrait of him painted by Gainsborough – himself both an avid musician and collector of instruments – was commissioned in return for a musical instrument made by Merlin.

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Johann Christian Fischer by his father-in-law Thomas Gainsborough, 1780. He was the most celebrated oboe player of his day. The square piano in the painting is inscribed Merlin Londini Fecit. (Royal Collection).

The portrait of Johann Christian Fischer, Thomas Gainsborough’s son-in-Law shows a kind of square piano inscribed Merlin Londini Fecit on the name-board. For all his other inventions, musical instruments appear to have been the main commercial element of his entrepreneurial activity. Amongst his early inventions, he seems to have been credited with the invention of the Pentachord, a kind of five stringed violoncello which Sir Edward Walpole equally takes credit for (or at least credited for bringing it to prominence as an idea): It was demonstrated by Karl Friederich Abel as a ‘newly invented’ instrument in April 1759, before Merlin’s arrival to England and James Cervetto later praised the instrument, declaring “I know not a more fit Instrument to Accompany the Voice”. The example shown in the 400 Years of Violin Making in the British Isles Exhibition (pages 256-57 in The British Violin) is by Joseph Merlin. In 1774 (bearing in mind that the earliest English grand piano is from 1766) he patented designs for an instrument that would function both as a pianoforte and harpsichord.

One example has a Russian provenance to Catherine the Great and survives in the Deutsches Museum in Munich which further incorporates a clockwork device for transcribing the notes played onto a roll of paper (a way of mechanically outputting information that is very much a precursor to Babbage’s concept of a punched card input for his Difference Engine 2). Although he employed workmen to complete his keyboard instruments, the carcasses and keywork seems sufficiently generic of London work at the time, that it seems likely he was more involved in modifying semi-finished instruments with his inventions and concepts. Notably in 1776 he sued Ephraim Celsson his former assistant for making and selling combined harpsichords made to his patent, and in another instance, a harpsichord made by the celebrated London maker Jakob Kirckman made in 1758 has a swell mechanism that was added by Merlin in 1779 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts). Various newspaper adverts allude to his inventions as improvements that could be fitted to existing instruments.

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By January 1775 Merlin’s workshop and house was at 61 Little Queen Ann Street moving to 66 Queen Ann Street East in 1778. In April he placed advertisements announcing ‘a new invented Fiddle, with five strings’ and ‘a new improvement to violin design’ described as ‘a very simple contrivance by which the pegs cannot get loose, and will help the tuning with a wonderful facility, safety, and accuracy’. He also claimed thathe could ‘also improve the worst Fiddle to that degree as to be equal to the best Cremona’. The previous month he announced a new stringed instrument, the Ipolito, said to have been invented by Mr Barthélémon nad made by Merlin – potentially a violin with an additional c-string. In August 1779, Merlin listed ‘… the various instruments and pieces of mechanism, which he has constructed, such as his great collection of Patent Piano Forte, double Bass harpsichord, and portable instruments call Celestinettes, and his new Violins, Tenor and Bass, and improves violins, tenor, and bass, tho’ ever so bad, makes them equal to the best Cremonea…

Merlin’s violins are vanishingly rare. Lot 229 at Sotheby’s Early Music auction on 10 November 2004 was a violin of 1776 labelled “Josephus Merlin Cremonae Emulus No. 121, Londini 1776, Improved, No.66, Queen Anne Street East, Portland Chapel”. The violin is in most respects just a conventional London trade violin of a Stainer-pattern, although the length of back is small at 349mm which is rather unusual for English instruments generally speaking. The consensus as suggested in The British Violin is that these instruments were probably made by John Carter, although ‘two New Fiddles not finished’ were listed in the 1783 posthumous inventory of his assistant, Louis Lavigne Verel. The absence of any observable improvement within his ‘improved’ violin is a bit of a mystery, but it may just be possible that the improvement came about in a certain type of string.

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A second violin, illustrated here, is an entirely different prospect. It has a magnificent label: “MERLIN/CREMONA EMULUS/INGENIEUR pour les INSTRUMENTS/de MUSIQUE et de MATHEMATIQUE/et HORLOGER en grand et en petit/fait toutes Sortes d’inventions/ MECHANIQUES, London 1785/Princes Street, Hanover Square” set between engravings of a complex armillary sphere, and a sophisticated clock evidently musical on account of being shaped like a lyre. Made in 1785, the violin shows Merlin’s eccentric flair for innovation. Once again it has a small body length of 344mm, and the proportions are somewhat deranged with an exceptionally wide bottom bout and a very narrow upper half – 151mm over the top bouts, 212mm on the bottom and 102mm at the narrowest point. By contrast to his keyboard instruments, whose veneer finishes make them amongst the prettiest looking instruments of the English school, there is surprisingly little effort to produce something of high quality when compared to the more beautiful work being produced by contemporaneous makers such as Joseph Hill and Henry Jay especially as well as the relatively fine work on his surviving Pentachord. Perhaps his aim, as alluded to in his advertisements was to prove the worth of his inventions by producing “bad” instruments following his claim that he could “also improve the worst fiddle to that degree as to be equal to the best Cremona”, for there are adverts of 1783 (in The Morning Post) and 1784 (In the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser) which are quite explicit in mentioning that he had Cremona violins amongst his goods for sale (becoming the first Queen Ann Street dealer of such things as far as I know).Screenshot 2017-08-23 19.12.44.pngEver the showman, not only does the new design seem more fanciful than grounded in any particular science, if any of these violins could be shown to remotely compare to a Cremonese violin, the roughness of them would aid in providing the impression of obvious difference. Certainly amongst his immediate circle, Charles Burney and Thomas Gainsborough were both connoisseurs owning Cremonese violins, so it is not as if he was playing to an ignorant market (all the time at least). The rudimentary acoustical experiment in the shape of the 1785 violin makes a good sound and is not unappealing in its own right, but needless to say it didn’t change the way that instruments were conceived of, and it is simply coincidental, if not downright ironic, that it’s date of manufacture coincides with Antonio Bagatella’s publication of his Regole per il costruzione de violini’ a first serious and structured attempt to apply methodology to understanding Cremonese design.  Nevertheless this was a period of fascination with Cremonese violins amongst the English, as evidenced for example by the advertising trade cards of John Betts and Richard Duke (see your copy of The British Violin), and however trivial the instrument can be seen in the context of a wider picture of efforts to reproduce the quality of Cremonese instruments, it serves the purpose of demonstrating how interesting this had become to an English audience. Merlin’s violins might be consigned to the dustbin of curiosity, along with Sultanas made by Perry in Dublin, or Thomas Howell’s oddly shaped patent violins made in Bristol around the 1830s and 1840s, but the invention of the roller skates gives Merlin’s involvement with the violin a peculiar immortality of its own, as related in 1825 in Thomas Busby’s, Concert Hall and Orchestra Anecdotes::  

“One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels. Supplied with these and a violin, he mixed in the motley group of one of Mrs Cowley’s masquerades at Carlisle House; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”

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The Volito, or, Summer and Winter Skait. London, 1823. (Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.) 

A detailed history of Joseph Merlin is given in The British Violin, (pages 50-51) and a pentachord, his five-stringed cello (pages 256-57), was included in the exhibition. I am indebted to Margaret Debenham’s “Joseph Merlin in London, 1760-1803: the Man behind the Mask. New Documentary Sources” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 2014, which is easily accessible online for many of the sources cited in this article.

The Forensic Challenges of a Renaissance Cittern

One of the highlights of British instrument making of the Renaissance is a small “Shakespearean-period” cittern that turned up unexpectedly on my desk in 2007. At the time, despite an enviable repertoire and historical record, no English examples were known. As a result, the business of authenticating what turned out to be the only known English example involved producing comparisons from an enormous field of different instruments made around the same time. By using a forensic nexus of comparable instruments it was possible to provide a compelling identification of the cittern within a demonstrably English context. 

My story with this instrument begins one morning in 2007 at Christie’s Rockefeller Centre with a phone-call from reception that a lady had dropped off two violins wrapped in a blanket. None, it transpired were violins. The familiar of the two was a mute viola d’amore  last seen in 1999 at the sale of the Barons Albert and Nathaniel Rothschild. A wonderful piece that ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That would have been prize enough, but the next instrument to reveal itself took my breath away.

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The cittern whose label reads “Petrus Raitta … [illegible]” Now in the National Music Museum, South Dakota

The cittern was one of the most important instruments of the Renaissance and survives more in paintings than surviving instruments.  Somewhat less than fifteen examples are known in museums across Europe and North America. Most of them are Italian, made in Urbino or Brescia, whilst there is a strong history of them in Dutch golden-age paintings. However, whilst the cittern was much in use in Italy and beyond, it is specifically it’s English repertoire from the mid-sixteenth century onwards that is particularly rich – arguably the most virtuosic of all music ever written for the instrument. Years ago musicologists realised that the music was probably only possible if the English played on a smaller cittern than surviving Italian examples. Michael Praetorius the seventeenth-century composer and music theorist described such an instrument, a kleine Englische zitterlein in his ‘De Organographia’ of Syntagma Musicum (1619). He wrote of how:

About three years ago an Englishman came to Germany with a very small citterlein, the back of which was left half open and not glued. On it, he could bring about a strange but very lovely and beautiful harmony with fine, pure diminutions and trembling hand, so that it is heard with curious pleasure. [This sound/technique] might now be practiced in the same manner by some distinguished lutenists.

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Michael Praetorius’s Klein Englisch Zitterlein is number 7 on the engraving from De Organographia (1619)

Sometimes expertise of instruments is the result of careful study slowly getting towards a conclusion of what something might be without any real guarantee in the end of a result  (It my take months with a particularly difficult violin). Other times a conclusion can be instantaneous and firm – the type that Malcolm Gladwell describes in Blink. This type of decision can be no slower in reality, because then the process begins of questioning it and looking further to the reasons why it was wrong. To me the instrument was had an immediate certainty to it, but that confidence could be as destructive to a correct attribution as not. The problem was that if I were right, it would be a stellar discovery and completely unique. It had to take its time.

As an auctioneer for Christie’s, we had further problems. It had historically been described as a mid-17th century Italian cittern prior to the Rothschild sale in 1998 – one of the most significant auctions of recent years, with a low estimate of just a few thousand pounds before being withdrawn from the sale because of its perceived low value and because a serious crack in the ribs diminished its quality against the other treasures in the sale. Although many objects had done better than their estimate in the sale, we were obliged to stick to an estimate that reflected the original judgement back in 1998. It made for a rather silly looking sales catalogue with an estimate of just $4000-6000 (it sold for a deserved $180,000). It was political enough to change the nationality of the instrument from Italian to English, which most people would have assumed would damage it’s sale prospects. At the same time, auction being what it is, you can’t hold an instrument back for six months whilst writing an academic paper on it. It had to go out as best it could by the catalogue deadline, because that was the job in hand. Meanwhile behind the scenes I was having sensible conversations with serious buyers – “ignore the estimate, you know what it’s worth to you”. There are many serious musical instrument collections that don’t have a cittern from any country, and an instrument with a demonstrable connection to Shakespeare’s culture or to Praetorius’s Syntagma Muscium had a significant cachet.

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A Brescian cittern by Girolamo Virchi made in 1574. The design of the little cittern was obviously derived from a similar Brescian work.

When we try to describe the process of identifying something it ends up as a kind of systematic list, however the actual process is instantaneous with ideas coming from all directions. I already knew that the size of Praetorius’s klein Englische zitterlein was about the same as a violin from head to toe thanks to the scaled drawings in De Organographia, but what seriously interested me was the materials and techniques that the instrument was made from. The English style of around 1600 is familiar from various viola da gamba and other instruments including the cittern-like bandora and various surviving instruments exist. Some years before I had begun examining those that existed in order to get an idea of an early English school. Nothing was so directly connected to it as to identify a particular maker, but it was well within an overall style and similarities could be seen across a relatively wide range of surviving instruments (relatively wide, in so far as these were relatively rare to begin with). At the same time, it was important to compare the instrument more broadly to make sure comparisons weren’t inadvertently being made to wider European traits. Despite everything that appeared English, the design itself was fundamentally a reduced version of a Brescian model exemplified through Girolamo Virchi’s work of the 1560-70s.

One of the significant departures from Italian work comes in the form of the gothic tracery rosette. Tracery of this general sort does appear throughout Europe on harpsichord rosettes, and is relatively rare on stringed instruments. However, there is a stylistic resemblance between this and the rosette of an orpharion – a uniquely English instrument – made by Francis Palmer in  London in 1619 (who, to judge by the head must have been closely associated with Henry Jaye’s whose heads are in a very similar style).

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The general gothic scheme of the rosette as compared to an orpharion by Francis Palmer, London, 1619.

Against a variety of other English sources the styling of the fruitwood tracery and infil of the rosette made much better sense, with examples by Henry Jaye, Henry Smith and William Turner into the middle of the seventeenth century showing consistent use of both the trefoil infil and also the decoration around the edges of vacant spandrels. Note particularly the way that each arm of the tracery is parted and how it is cut at an angle.

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The cittern’s sound hole as compared to a 1624 tenor viol by Henry Jaye (Musee de la Musique, Paris).

The pegbox has a rather pleasing dog’s head doesn’t have any particular concordance with other carved heads of the period, in part because they are so few, but the detail of the decoration is indicative of English work from the decades either side of 1600. I am nervous to compare it too readily to Jaye’s style of carving (which reflects wider English styles of the time) but the general concept for the eyebrows has a degree of commonality  with the way he constructs a human face.

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Henry Jaye’s “Marsyas” head of 1619, note the exaggerated eyebrows.

The use of a circular punch embellishment for the pegbox walls is effectively identical to the technique applied by John Rose in 1580 for his Cymbalom Decachordon a kind of early guitar with ten wire strings (five courses).

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Detail of circular punch marks on the cittern against the John Rose Cymbalom Decachordon made in 1580. Comparison to the tailpiece and fingerboard of the British Museum citole, with the associated date 1578 (below) is also compelling.

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Another compelling comparison for the cittern comes from the matching tailpiece and fingerboard of the British Museum citole, a fourteenth century musical instrument that was converted by the Bassano family in London to become a violin, using ready-made violin fittings from their own, or another London workshop. In general terms this kind of decoration seems to fade out by about 1605 and is last found on the Ashmolean’s viol by Richard Blunt. Henry Jaye adopted a much smaller punch and it carries on throughout the early seventeenth century. Although other makers from other countries – Joachim Tielke in Hamburg, for example, adopt it at the end of the seventeenth century, it appears from surviving instruments to be an exclusively English trait in the decades around 1600.

Jaye’s relief carving differs between instruments, either a rather flattish naturalistic acanthus leaf pattern seen on the 1619 Jaye bass and in earlier instruments such as the Ashmolean’s Richard Blunt of 1604, or a Mannerist Renaissance form of his 1624 bass viol that is inherited directly from earlier from templates either inherited or derived from the John Rose workshop prior to 1600. Although the pegbox walls have been lowered with circular punches, there is a small vestigial clover leaf in the corner of the pegbox side, which is very much in common with Blunt’s work of around 1604 and the Jaye of 1619.

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Details from Richard Blunt c.1605 (Boston, MFA) the Raitta cittern and Jaye 1619 (London, RCM).

Other elements of the pegbox suggest English work. Without direct comparisons, the low relief carving and it’s acanthus design is well within the forms that are familiar on English viols. Likewise the approach to cutting the pegbox.

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Interior work on the pegbox of a Henry Jaye violin is essentially identical.

The instrument shares with Henry Jaye, for example a similar shape of chamfer as the pegbox meets the nut of the instrument, and the general margins of the carving are much the same, once again more in line with English instruments where relief carving is an accepted feature of the scroll and outside of other extant comparables. It may even seem over simplistic, but in the sixteenth century a violin-type pegbox was still not the expected technology for citterns which harkened back to earlier instruments with the pegs protruding from a solid block instead.

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Relief-carved scrolls are usual for English viols of this period and rare elsewhere. The general scaling of the cittern’s scroll accords well with Henry Jaye’s work especially noting the margins around the edge.

Choices of wood, finally, seem to be a consistent characteristic of English making, with decisions about purfling that follow. Varieties of fruitwood are used extensively, although the nature of them is that as they get old the cell structures tend to look increasingly similar and a general darkening means that it is not really practical to identify individual words. Nevertheless, plum or pear is a likely contender for the ribs and neck, whilst a darker wood that may equally be yew is used on the back alternating with maple. In all cases there seems to be a particular interest in using especially gnarled and characterful pieces of maple. Purfling on English instruments of this group alternates depending on the wood – on maple it is black/white/black, and on yew or other dark woods it changes to white/black/white. This is the case on the Francis Palmer bandora of 1619, and of an instrument possibly by William Bowcleffe made around 1600 or earlier, as well as on the cittern. Later makers in other countries, especially eighteenth century France adopted similar styles, but omit the purfling detail, and tend to use distinctly different woods.

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No element of itself guarantees that the instrument was made in England and not elsewhere, yet point after point about the instrument has strong concordances amongst a  handful of instruments that are regarded as English of a certain type, and that hold together coherently, and they in turn extend out towards a wider nexus of instruments of broader and in some cases more confident attribution. Just as importantly there are are no competing traditions of making that significantly cross reference these traits. When examined in this manner, it does not matter that it is the only cittern in existence when the same craftsmanship traits exist throughout allied instruments made around the same time, though someone who is only interested in citterns would find it difficult to build connections with different instruments the likenesses are such that it becomes illogical to hold out for an alternative proposition.

After the instrument was sold to the National Music Museum in South Dakota, John Koster and Andrew Dipper were able to look at the label with greater detail than was possible in the limited time and facilities of the auction house. It is printed and as best we know reads “Petrus Raitta” with an illegible date. One possibility is that it is reference to Raitea, the name of the Roman province that included Füssen, whose instrument making guild produced makers that travelled around the entire of Europe. As a result, the only place, from Bologna to Venice to London that the instrument is unlikely to have been made in is Fussen itself, as “Petrus Raitta” would seem to be a name adopted by someone that had moved away from his native town (as Gaspar da Salo worked in Brescia, Giovanni Maria da Brescia worked in Venice, the Bassano family from Bassano worked in Venice and London and so forth). Although England seems to have had its own native instrument makers, explicitly John Rose, the Bassano family, Comeys from Cremona and the Lupo family from Milan were amongst Italian instrument makers brought to London in 1538, whilst German makers also seem to have settled in number around the city. Early records of lute makers in England as far back as the 1560s with John White “almaine” indicate the settling of German makers in England of one sort or another. Sometime after 1600 Jacob Rayman settled in Southwark from Füssen and it is entirely consistent that a maker should style himself in this manner. Potentially working with him was Thomas Miller alias Maller of St Andrew’s Holborn “Dutchman and noe denizen” who was recorded in 1621 working also in Southwark, recalling another familiar Füssen name.

In terms of dating the instrument, it was impossible to be completely clear on when the instrument was made. In this blog, several of the examples used to demonstrate authenticity come from around 1580 and others from the mid 1620s. In many respects that represents a long period of time and change, but in musical instruments and many other decorative art forms the high point of the Elizabethan era became a “golden Age”. A date around 1580, therefore is as viable as one from the 1620s given the long period with little stylistic change.

After her death, James I consciously modelled his court as a successor of Elizabeth because he feared that casting her legacy aside would make him politically unpopular. Hence that there are only subtle differences in what some architectural historians call the ‘Jacobethan’ period. English virginals continued a circa 1590s aesthetic well into the 1670s, whilst the Francis Palmer orpharion is an excellent example of an instrument associated most with the 1580s produced in 1619 with no significant variation on its design and John Rose’s concepts of the viol only see subtle changes in the seventeenth century. The gilded parchment on the rosette is particularly close to the style seen in Henry Jaye’s work of around 1620 and that alone provides an indication that the instrument may possibly be from the later part of a period that ends around 1625 with the influence of Inigo Jones and the markedly different approach to monarchy of Charles I with the attendant changes in fashion. Dendrochronology undertaken by Peter Ratcliff in 2017 gives a definite youngest tree ring date of 1610, placing the instrument well within the period of Henry Jaye’s viols (to which it seems particularly familiar) and the Francis Palmer bandora.

“Peter of Fussen” working in London in around the final years of Shakespeare’s life and integrated within the local traditions of instrument making, and perhaps drawn to Southwark where other Douchmen and Alamains were making instruments, closely related to the Jaye workshop? There is nothing unlikely about that, it’s just a shame we don’t know a tiny bit more.