Richard Carte – Saint or Sinner?


The career of the deservedly famous flautist, designer, manufacturer and promoter Richard Carte (1808 – 1891) spanned the entire period during which the concert flute evolved from its simple 8-key conical bored form to essentially the form in which we know it today. Carte wrote at considerable length in connection with his chosen instrument in the form of letters to the media, instructional and promotional materials and his major 1851 treatise entitled “A Sketch of the Successive Improvements made in the Flute”, hereinafter referred to as the “Sketch”. His writings have frequently been referred to or quoted in subsequent works on the flute, and most of his written statements to which reference will be made in these pages have recently been re-published in Robert Bigio’s invaluable work “Readings in the History of the Flute” (London: Tony Bingham, 2006).  The reader is referred to this excellent compilation for perusal of the complete original texts to which reference is made throughout the present series of studies.  

Carte was thus a significant commentator upon the development of the flute in the mid nineteenth century, and one whose work has always been treated as authoritative by later researchers. However, to our knowledge the actual credibility of his writings in academic terms has never at any time been challenged or questioned at all.  Some might argue that this was due to what they see as the transparent integrity and ability of Carte as a writer, designer, manufacturer, businessman and performer.  But in order for such qualities as integrity and ability to become “transparent” in an academic sense, they must first be shown to be transparent – mere opinion or anecdote will not suffice when academic credibility is at stake.  Basically, they must withstand the test of objective challenge and analysis. Carte’s work appears never to have been subjected to such a test. The present studies are intended to remedy this deficiency.

Richard Carte – a brief biography   

Carte was born as Richard Cart in Silchester in Hampshire on February 23rd, 1808 into a relatively obscure military family, his father being the Quartermaster of the Blues.  From the age of ten years, he began to study music, focusing initially on the violin but later adding flute studies, abandoning the violin completely in 1825 to focus on the flute.  Beginning in 1822, at the age of 14, he took flute lessons from the then 41 year old George Rudall (1781-1871) in London, thus establishing a personal connection that was to last for the rest of their joint lives.  

Carte appears to have been fiercely ambitious and possessed both the determination and the ability to raise himself above the relatively humble social status into which he had been born. This side of his nature was well reflected in the very aggressive and businesslike manner in which he approached the development of his chosen profession. This included the addition of an “e” to his given name, presumably to add a Continental flourish consistent with the prevailing preference for Continental musicians (Richard. S. Rockstro followed suit, joining his more famous brother William in changing his family name from the original Rackstraw to the more Continental-sounding Rockstro). 

Carte’s flair for self-promotion became apparent early on when, in 1827 at the age of nineteen, he relocated to Newcastle for a one-year period.  His reason for taking this step was most probably in order to establish himself as a prominent performer in a less competitive musical environment than that prevailing in London.  If so, this would represent a bold but very sound approach to career development.  Carte took full advantage of the resulting opportunities by promoting his own concerts, later adding lecturing on the flute and on music in general to his repertoire in addition to teaching.

After a period spent studying abroad, Carte returned to Britain in 1829, living initially in Edinburgh but relocating in 1831 to London, where he was to spend the rest of his working life as performer, teacher and subsequently designer and manufacturer.

Upon his return to London in 1831, the 23 year old Carte soon became a prominent performer and concert promoter, as well as a respected teacher.  His affairs prospered to the extent that in 1840, at the age of 32 years, he felt himself to be in a position to assume family responsibilities by marrying Miss Eliza Jones, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Jones of the Chapel Royal, Whitehall. Two sons of this marriage later achieved considerable prominence themselves: Henry W. Carte worked with his father in the family instrument making business of Rudall, Carte & Co. and took over the direction of the firm in 1883, while Richard D’Oyley Carte achieved fame in his own right as the impresario associated with Gilbert and Sullivan.

Following his return to the London scene in 1831, Carte resumed his close connection with his former teacher, the now 50 year old George Rudall, in relation to the latter’s part-ownership of the respected flute-making firm of Rudall & Rose.  He appears to have developed a position of considerable influence with that firm from an early date.  By the early 1840’s, when Carte was in his mid-thirties and Rudall in his early sixties, Carte had apparently become the major technical adviser to the firm regarding which models they should or should not produce commercially.  

At this time the old 8-key flute and its upstart rival, the 1832 conical-bored Boehm model, were beginning to experience competition from other designs.  As one of the more prominent English manufacturing concerns, Rudall & Rose were frequently approached by designers wishing to have their creations commercially produced by the company. Hard decisions therefore had to be made.

Carte was instrumental in advising against Rudall & Rose undertaking the manufacture of Abel Siccama’s 1842 design (probably a bad piece of advice, as events proved, since the Siccama design was quite successful over the following few decades) and in persuading them to undertake the manufacture of a modified form of Boehm’s 1832 conical-bored flute commencing in 1843, when he adopted the Boehm flute himself.  In the short term, this advice too proved less than sound in commercial terms, but it did lay the foundation for Rudall & Rose’s securing of the English patent for the 1847 metal cylinder-bored version of the Boehm flute.  As we have shown in Suppression of Boehm’s 1847 “Essay” , Carte undoubtedly exerted his influence with respect to this matter also, and utilized the patent himself in his own subsequent designs.  These were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, with a range of outcomes to be discussed in Richard Carte’s Claims in Relation to the Exhibition of 1851.

Beginning in 1848 Carte became a respected lecturer on the subject of the flute and its music and subsequently in 1850 became a partner in the firm of Rudall & Rose (subsequently Rudall, Rose, Carte & Co.), eventually acquiring the firm outright in 1856 and thereafter applying his considerable business acumen towards greatly expanding the scale and scope of the business, latterly under the name of Rudall, Carte & Co.  Beginning in 1850 he designed his own highly successful flute models based on the Boehm design and in 1851 wrote his afore-mentioned “Sketch”, widely regarded as one of the most authoritative treatises of its day on the subject of the various improvements in the flute which he had observed so closely over the years. 

Carte remained in charge at the flourishing firm until 1883, when he retired to Reigate, leaving the business in the hands of his son Henry, who had been working with his father for many years and knew the business well.  He died at Reigate in 1891 at the age of 83.

The basis for evaluation of Carte’s credibility

Until quite recently, the present authors had fallen headlong into the same trap as their predecessors by unquestioningly accepting the prevailing view of Carte as an unimpeachable source and using him freely without question as a reference for checking up on the statements of others such as the “notoriously unreliable” John Clinton. 

However, during the course of their in-depth studies of the life and work of John Clinton (a highly intriguing individual, whatever one’s opinion of him!), the authors began to find themselves to their great surprise periodically stumbling across convincing evidence to the effect that some of Carte’s statements were not necessarily to be relied upon.  As time went by, more and more of these contradictions came to light. It began to appear that Carte was not by any means necessarily as reliable a source as had previously been assumed. 

This somewhat revisionist state of affairs led the authors to begin as a matter of policy to subject all of Carte’s statements to the same level of scrutiny that had previously been reserved for those of others such as Clinton, whose reputation for unreliability has long been an accepted legend among flute historians.  See our separate essay on Historical Veracity for a discussion of the criteria which we have been applying and intend to continue to apply.

The authors have now assembled a sufficient body of available evidence to permit the presentation of an objective analysis of the veracity of Carte’s statements on a number of matters. It must be emphasized at this point that the studies which follow are not intended to be read in any way as an attempted “character assassination” of a great flautist, a talented designer and a consummate manufacturer and businessman. Carte is long dead and cannot defend himself against such an attack, rendering it highly unethical to initiate such an agenda at this time.  As noted in Historical Veracity, flute personalities such as John Clinton, Abel Siccama and Theobald Boehm have all been subject to attacks of this nature both past and present, and such attacks do no credit to those making them. 

All that we intend to do here is to share with our readers some of the evidence which we have uncovered which appears to indicate that some of Carte’s written statements merit re-consideration.  Our intent is to let the facts speak for themselves, rather than to conjure up charges against Carte on the basis of our own subjective opinions. Carte is responsible for his own statements – for us, that is sufficient.

Our chief concern here is confined to the identification and classification of any errors or reported actions which may be called into question and, as far as possible, their correction for the record. In doing so, we will employ the 5-category system described in our separate essay on Historical Veracity. For convenience, we repeat the five categories of inaccuracy here:

  1. Innocent Errors of Fact
  2. Lies
  3. Omission of facts
  4. Suppression of facts
  5. Selection of facts


Our work in this and other areas of research has been greatly facilitated by the 2006 publication of Robert Bigio’s invaluable book entitled “Readings in the History of the Flute” (London: Tony Bingham, ISBN 0–946113-07-6).  This collection contains the majority of the original writings to which we make reference, and renders those hitherto obscure works openly accessible to present-day researchers for the first time. In addition, Robert has been very generous in supplying further insights and information on specific topics upon request, as well as steering us towards examples of surviving instruments for study.  We have acknowledged his assistance throughout what follows, but we want to take the present opportunity to acknowledge our overall debt to him.  Without his input and assistance, the following pages could not have been written and the conclusions drawn could not have been presented with any authority. 


Note that the name of Theobald Boehm appears frequently in what follows.  Out of respect for his surviving descendant Ludwig Böhm, a valued colleague of ours, we would have preferred to use the spelling of Böhm’s name as he himself wrote it and as his descendant still spells it today.  However, practical issues such as being readily findable on the Web using the common English-speaking spelling have dictated that we use the English form.  The spelling “Boehm” is not actually an error but a common English-language substitute for the umlaut used in written German.  When quoting from the works of previous commentators we have used the spelling which they themselves used.


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  Created October 2006