The McGee-Flutes Research Collection



Why keep a collection?

As a flute researcher based in Canberra, Australia, I'm a long way from the major collections of flutes.  The nearest is a moderately sized but interesting collection at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, the next after that in Los Angeles.  So, if I wish to conduct continuing research on instruments between trips, it's pretty vital to have good examples at hand.

As a flute maker, I find the collection just as important.  Some of these instruments are models upon which I base my own flutes (eg the Boosey & Co Prattens.)  But the others have their place too, providing ideas and inspiration for my work.  The link between today's makers and the 19th century makers was broken by many years of indifference to the wooden flute.  The old makers left us little in terms of words and tools, and so their instruments are their only point of contact.  Spending time with their instruments is as close as we can get to spending time with them.  Rarely would a day go by without me taking down one or more of the flutes in my collection, playing it, playing with it and just looking at it.  The full appreciation for their work drives me on in mine.

About the collection.

The collection is small, but representative of the various generations of conical flutes from the 19th century.  You will notice that the instruments aren't in sparkling condition, indeed they look rather like the ones you see in the major collections.  And for the same reason - I don't want to erase important details by unnecessarily restoring them to apparently new condition.  But it is important for my analysis work that they do play, so I'm forced to tread the fine line between restoring and repairing.

The "Acquisitions Policy"

Unlike a museum collection, this collection can afford to be fluid.  I am prepared to sell some instruments in areas where I have a more useful example in order to build up the collection in areas I do not have.  So please feel free to contact me if something here takes your fancy, or if you have something you think might take mine.  I'm also happy to consider deals involving original instruments as part payment for my own new instruments.  And I'm not too concerned about the condition of instruments as long as they have not been extensively modified.

The Collection

In presenting the collection below, I've arranged it under headings to permit comparison between flutes from different countries, and flutes of a similar generation and different generations.  I should make it clear that this "generations" thing is a convenience of my own construction.  There may be better ways to look at the period, but I think this gives us a handle on it we didn't have before.

I'll fill in a bit about the maker, the history of the flute and point to any interesting features you should know about.  

Section One - English Simple-System Flutes

One-key Flute by Clementi

Boxwood and Ivory with silver key, this is probably an early 19th century instrument, before Clementi took on manufacture of Nicholson's Improved models.  Note the small holes, permitting the cross-fingerings necessary for chromatic operation.

One key Flute by Blackman

On first viewing, you might mistake this flute for a cheap modern replica, but indeed it dates from the mid 19th century.  None the less, one key, rosewood and nickel-silver mark it as an inexpensive option at this late time.  Despite the lack of undercutting that would have been normal on earlier one-key flutes, it speaks surprisingly well.

The Blackman workshop ran from 1810 to 1882 in various London locations.

First Generation English 6-8 Key Flutes

This first period of the eight-key flute brings us flutes which are very reminiscent of the earlier one-key and four-key flutes with extra keys added.  We expect to see:
  • small embouchures
  • very small fingerholes, undercut
  • boxwood and ebony
  • ivory bands
  • flat plate keys or pewter plugs

Boxwood 6-key by Bilton

Bilton set up his workshop in 1826, after working with Cramer, Florent and Key.  The address on this flute, 93 Westminster Bridge Rd, suggests it's from between 1826 and 1856.  His mark, a unicorn head, is common to a number of makers, possibly implying they all worked from a common address, at the sign of the unicorn.

The flute is in nicely-figured boxwood with sterling silver square flap keys and ivory mounts.  Note the small finger holes, and the incised rings on the tuning slide cover and stopper displacement indicator.  The embouchure and finger holes are generously undercut all round to offset their very small size.  The flute speaks quietly but with firmness.

The barrel section of the Bilton, showing the Unicorn mark and the incised rings on the slide which are intended to match similar rings on the stopper indicator.
A closer view of the foot, showing the nicely scalloped flat plate keys in use at the time. 

Ebony 8-key by William Henry Potter

William Henry Potter was born in London on 7 Aug 1760, son of Richard Potter (a.k.a. Potter senior), a leading flute maker of the time.  He apprenticed to his father in 1774 (age 14!) and joined the company as Potter & Son in 1800, taking over in 1806.  He died unmarried in 1848, leaving the not inconsiderable sum of 30,000 pounds sterling.

This lovely flute was made in the period 1815 -33.  It is in ebony, with ivory bands and sterling silver keys using his father's patented system of pewter plugs sealing into fine silver tubes set into the tone-holes.  Finger holes are fairly uniform in size - the ratio of hole area between largest and smallest is about 2.

The instrument is fitted with a tuning slide, the wooden cover of which has three inscribed rings to mark the degree of extension.  The fully closed position is marked "6", the first two rings marked "5" and "4" and the third one is unmarked),

The slide markings "4", "5" and "6" hark back to the earlier days when different upper bodies (corps de rechange) were supplied to handle the different pitches in use.  An example of just such a flute by Richard Potter can be found in the Bate Collection.

Second Generation English 8-key Flutes - the "Improved" Era

Charles Nicholson the Elder ushered in the second generation of 8-key flutes by daring to enlarge the finger holes on a typical first-generation instrument by Astor.  His son, Charles Nicholson the Younger brought the flute to London.  While everyone admired young Nicholson's tone and power, convincing them that the flute was the way of the future took some time and effort.  

The piano and woodwind instrument company Clementi & Co agreed to have flutes of Nicholson's style manufactured for sale through them.  The instruments were actually made by Thomas Prowse who seems to have taken up their manufacture independently after Clementi retired in 1831.

Once the "Improved" flutes were accepted, other makers were quick to realise the benefits.  

Hallmarks of a second generation flute include:

  • bigger holes to give better intonation and more power
  • shorter lengths to achieve higher pitch
  • cocus wood rather than box or ebony
  • metal rings, usually silver
  • saltspoon keys with "purse" pads, giving way later to flatter cups with card-backed pads
  • pewter plugs on the normally open keys, C4 and C#4

Clementi & Co C. Nicholson's Improved 8-key

Before we get too excited about the new age of big holes, check out this apparent enigma.  Proudly labelled as Nicholson's Improved No 1403, but identical in lengths and layout with the Bilton flute above, and with holes only a little larger.

So, were there degrees of improvement available, or was it just good marketing?  More work to be done here!

Note also the saltspoon keys on the two lowest foot keys, where normally we would expect to see pewter plugs.  Also the lip plate, clearly added later as it partially obscures the maker's mark on the head.  The cap is no doubt a replacement - the original cap should be covered by a ring matching those elsewhere on the body.

George Rudall, Willis Fecit, c 1820

When George Rudall returned to London from the Napoleonic wars he took up as a flute teacher.  That meant he needed a supply of flutes for his students.  He turned to established maker John Willis for these.  The flute below is marked Geo. Rudall, Willis Fecit (Latin, literally: Willis made it.)  Willis also supplied similarly marked flutes to dealers such as Thomas Williams and Clementi & Co.

The flute is in cocus, with silver rings and keys.  The head and barrel appear a little lighter in colour, probably due to the finish being impaired by attention to cracks in these lined sections.  The head was probably originally unlined, as the maker's mark appears just above but partly obliterated by the lower ring.

This is another flute that could be argued to be a first generation design.  Supporting that view we have very small finger holes, leather flap pads (albeit round and not square) and the vaulted linkage to the low C key.  Cocus, metal rings and a shorter scale argue for the later category.  "Transitional" would be a fair reading, and would fit the dates well.  
For more on this instrument ...

Prowse C. Nicholson's Improved 8-key

What better example of the new generation but a real Thomas Prowse, C. Nicholson's Improved - No 3904.  Visible in the picture below are two of Nicholson's classic hallmarks - the head thinned around the embouchure and the area around the right hand finger holes flattened.

An unusual feature of this flute is a long F key whose touch bends upwards rather than downwards at the end.

For much more on this remarkable flute:

 C. Nicholson's Improved - the turning point.

J.B. Cramer, Addison & Beale, T. Lindsay's Improved.

Sounding more like a company of lawyers, J.B. Cramer, Addison & Beale were probably just the marketing agents for the real hero of this piece, Thomas Lindsay.  He is listed as a flute and flageolet maker between 1825 and 1833.  Cramer et al were set up in 1824 and ran under that name until 1844.  Our flute presumably dates from within those limits, and possibly between Lindsay's listed limits. 

This is a superbly elegant flute, with holes smaller than the Nicholson, but substantially larger than those of first generation flutes.  Note that it is a 7-key, as Nicholson himself preferred and recommended, and that it carries the magic Nicholsonian word, "Improved".

Lindsay published his views on flutes, including A Few Practical Hints

B&S Dulcet Improved.

Hmmm, there's the "Improved" word again.  And it becomes clearer that these various second generation makers are using it to imply the same thing.  Because they had abandoned the idea of equal-sized holes, second generation flutes had substantially better tuning over most of their range compared to the earlier instruments.

The B&S Dulcet improved is a very typical medium sized hole flute.  It was the 8-key flute I learned to play on first and so I owe it a lot.  I bought it from the late Paul Davis, a scallywag dealer in flutes and concertinas who lived just off the Portabella Road in London.  The makers are believed to be the company Samuel, Barnett.

Metzler 8-key

The Metzler family originated in Germany; Valentine Metzler coming to London in 1788.  V. Metzler gave way to Metzler & Son in 1816 and then Metzler & Co when Valentine died in 1833.  Under the command of the son, George, the company offered "bassoons, serpents, clarionets, flutes, drums, horns, trumpets, trombones and bugles".  George retired in 1866, the company continuing until bought out by Cramer in 1931.

The keys on Metzler's flute bear the imprint underneath of AL - presumed to be the wind instrument maker Alexander Liddle.  Whether Liddle actually made the flute or just supplied the keys we perhaps will never know.  Liddle is listed from 1847 to 1879 which is getting a little late for flutes of this generation.  

Metzler's flutes are not regarded as the best of the period.  Our example is however clearly one of the better ones.  The hand-graved sterling silver bands are not a normal feature of Metzler flutes.  Unfortunately, lack of the customary address makes it impossible to date the instrument closely.

On an historical note, the instrument was previously owned by well-known London-based Irish flute player Roger Sherlock.

Rudail & Rose fake

I must admit that when I first heard of flutes being faked in the early 19th century, I was skeptical.  But no more!  The flute above, provided by Adrian Duncan from Vancouver, is marked Rudail & Rose, not Rudall.  The workmanship is truly appalling.  It's a fake! For the full story on this Imposition Upon the Public ...

Pakistani-made 8-key flute

In the late 20th century, several Pakistani firms began manufacturing 8-key flutes, unfortunately without the benefit of guidance or wisdom.  The flute pictured above was sent to me by a disgruntled owner, with a note asking me to do with it whatever I thought best.  It is a miserable instrument, poorly made, out-of-tune, difficult to play. After some deliberation I concluded the only appropriate use for it was to include it in this collection as a warning to others.

Third Generation English 8-key Flutes

Third generation flutes are more likely to show some of these features:

  • single piece body
  • cocus still the dominant timber
  • nickel or German silver sneaking in
  • some post mounting
  • shorter again than 2nd generation
  • flatter keycups with card-backed pads
  • pewter plugs retained for the two lowest notes

It's my feeling that Boehm probably ushered in the third generation of 8-key flutes, but if so, it was unintentional.  Having been dismayed by the power that Nicholson could achieve on his large-hole flute, Boehm was inspired to produce his 1832 conical flute.  It didn't catch on for a number of reasons, but it set a lot of people thinking.  One of these was Abel Siccama.

Siccama system 10-key, by Siccama

While Boehm's 1832 system flute was underpowered for English taste and strayed too far from the old fingering, Siccama's subsequent and patented Diatonic Flute satisfied both criteria but also delivered better intonation than preceding instruments.

Our particular example is Siccama No 321.  It bears the screw-cup keys - a characteristic hallmark of Siccama's flute maker, John Hudson.

See The Siccama Flute Story for more on this flute and the two men who brought it to us.

Boosey & Co R.S. Pratten's Perfected 8-key

One of those who fell under the influence of Siccama's flute was the rising young star performer, Robert Sidney Pratten.  He stuck with the Siccama for about 10 years, then went back to Siccama's man Hudson and had him make a few changes and revert the Siccama flute back to an 8-key.  The result was marketed as RS Pratten's Perfected.

Hudson left Siccama and went out on his own for a while, then was snapped up by the new company of Boosey & Co, serving them as foreman and continuing production of the Pratten's Perfected.  Our example is Boosey & Co RS Pratten's Perfected No 8626.  I picked it up in Sydney in about 1973 for AUD $25.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.  Note that the metal used is Nickel Silver

The Pratten's Perfected is aptly named.  All of the previous serious problems with intonation have been dealt with in this design.  My Prattens Model and Prattens Plans are based on this flute.

Rudall & Carte 8-key, No 7120

Now this flute is a bit of an enigma and perhaps should be included under 2nd generation 8-keys.  Yet, despite its decidedly 2nd generation look, it features 3rd generation performance.  The riddle is perhaps resolved when we discover its date of birth - 27 February 1893.  This is some 46 years since Siccama and very late for a flute of its appearance.  Significantly, the length of this flute is about the same as the RS Pratten's Perfected.

For much more on Rudall & Carte, and its illustrious predecessors, see Rudall, Rose, Carte & Co - the eight key flute years

Fourth Generation English 8-key Flutes

When Boehm's 1847 cylindrical flute finally became established, diehards for the 8-key system attempted one last stand - fit the familiar old keying system to the new cylindrical bore.  Needless to say, it didn't achieve any of Boehm's real aims - improved venting and the like.  But it sure kept the price down!

Cylindrical bore 8-key by Moon

Moon of Plymouth was probably not a maker, but a retailer who had instruments stamped for him.  So we don't really know who made the flute below.  It mixes some typical 8-key features with some typical Boehm features - the "parabolic" head, the smaller embouchure, the cylindrical body, the short tuning slide integral with the top tenon.  Note at last we have lost the pewter plugs on the bottom two notes.

The colour difference between body and head is noticeable in real life but not to the extent our picture shows.

The size of the bore can be better appreciated in this comparison of the foot ends of the Moon and Nicholson flutes.

Cylindrical Old-system flute by Rudall Carte

Similar in principle to the Moon 8-key cylindrical above, this flute employs Siccama's approach of extending the third finger of each hand with a key.  This substantially reduces discomfort while improving tuning and response.  The Boehm foot is a considerable improvement over the old grasshopper's knees foot, and there are trill keys giving the notes D" and E".

Cylindrical English Old-System Flute

This anonymous old-system flute originally employed keys over every hole, but as you can see several haven't made it this far.  Although looking complex, there is no interaction between the keys, so the operation is simply 8-key.

Section 2 - French Simple System Flutes

By the start of the 19th century, the French seem to have settled on the 5 key flute with short D foot as their standard.  But anywhere development seems unavoidable.

French 8-key

This flute purports to be Australian made, bearing the mark "Nightingale / A.P. Sykes / Melbourne".  It is clearly a typical French 8-key (the long F is missing) and was no doubt made in France and re-badged for sale in Australia.  Note that the hole sizes are similar to the German flutes' and the English flutes before Nicholson.  Special thanks to Colin Goldie (Overton Whistles) for getting this repatriated to Australia.

Tulou's System Perfectionee

A Tulou System Perfectionee, made by Buffet Crampon.  Essentially a French 8-key plus trill keys for D and E, a duplicate C key operated by L3, and the characteristic F# sharpening lever operated by R3.  This flute employing stand-alone keys, some Flutes Perfectionee employ rod & axle construction, and some a mix of both.  This flute was a French Conservatoire reaction to Boehm's instruments - a last ditch attempt to retain small holes and soft dark sound.

Section 3 - German Simple-system Flutes

Given Germany's auspicious history in the development of the flute, the 19th century was less than inspiring, with the obvious exception of Herr Boehm.  Cheap, usually anonymous German flutes flooded the world market, particularly in the US.  The Sears Roebuck catalog carried them for about $5 for an 8-key, around 1900.

Simple 19th century German 1-key flute

A typical German 4 key flute.

German 8-key flute, ivory head, cocobolo body (the barrel is a temporary replacement).

German 12 key flute.  In addition to the more typical 8 keys, there is a trill for E, a second G# operated by the left thumb, a second Bb touch for R1 and a low B operated by L4.  Note also the line-up dots at each junction.

A Schwedlerflöte, the jumping-off point for the German Reform Flute movement.  Very similar to the 12-key flute above, apart from the Brille mechanism to sharpen c#, Boehm-style foot keys, the metal head and ebonite "reform embouchure".

Section 4 - American Simple System Flutes

Pond 6 key

A flute by Wm. A. Pond, 47 Broadway, New York.  Marked "German Silver".  Essentially similar to the Firth & Pond which was the subject of my Interesting Collaboration with Grey Larsen, and lead to the introduction of my Grey Larsen Preferred range of flutes.

Section 5 - Boehm System Flutes

Theobold Boehm was by any account a remarkable man - Schafhautl's concise biography translated and reprinted in Christopher Welch "History of the Boehm Flute" leaves no other interpretation open.  Boehm made two major forays into the flute world - his conical instrument of 1832 and his cylindrical instrument of 1847.  Both created Tsunamis.

Conical 1832 Conical Boehm by Laube.

This French made flute would date from the end of the 19th century.  While Boehm's 1832 conical design didn't catch on in England, it was received much more warmly by the French.  Believed to be acoustically very similar if not identical to the 1832 flute, the system of keying is much more similar to that used on the modern Boehm.

An interesting feature of Boehm's 1832 instrument perpetuated in the Laube is the use of two small tone-holes at the thumb c key, needed to stabilise third octave G.

Armstrong Model 90

What flute collection would be complete without a "plain vanilla" cylindrical Boehm flute?  This one comes from my short career as a metal flute player.

Even this flute has an interesting tale to tell.  It was built in the early 1970s in the U.S.
where pitch had been standardised in about 1921 to A 440Hz.  None the less, the instrument is in better tune pulled out to A 435, Boehm's pitch.


Section 6- Flutes after Boehm

Not everyone liked Boehm's cylindrical flute.  Some rejected it out of hand, others sought to use the new cylindrical bore but retain the old fingering, at least as much as possible.  One of these was Richard Carte, who quickly came out with his 1851 Patent flute.  He revised the design in 1867.  The flute below is an example of this.

Rudall Carte & Co, No 2443, an 1867 Patent flute in ebonite, at high pitch.

Section 7 - Flutes in other keys

All of the flutes we have seen so far are in the regular flute key - 6 holes covered gives D4.  The ones below are in other keys.

Flute in Eb

At first glance, this anonymous cocus and nickel silver flute looks just like a normal 8-key in D.  Until you notice it's distinctly shorter and plays distinctly sharper.  It's probably safe to assume it is an Eb band flute.  The elliptical embouchure is set at a slight angle to the axis of the flute.  Perhaps to encourage the player to stick the right hand end of the flute out a bit so as not to annoy the person marching along at the right?

German 10-key flute in F

F seems to have been a popular key for schools use, as quite young children can manage that stretch.  This is otherwise a very typical-looking German flute, with all the German flute hallmarks:

  • ebony body

  • ivory head

  • integrated right hand and foot

  • German silver keywork and hardware

  • post mounted

  • spun metal cap at both ends

  • extra trill keys

  • angled G#

Rudall Carte Piccolo in D

I picked this nice little piccolo by Rudall Carte up in a second hand shop in London.  It plays effortlessly well into the third octave.  Ouch.

"Improved London" Bb Flute

While in London in 1974, I went with Paul Davis to meet Philip Bate, author of the book "The Flute", and donor of the Bate Collection to Oxford University.  Paul knew that Philip had a Rudall & Rose flute he wanted, and went armed with a simply magnificent Cahusac classical clarinet in boxwood he'd picked up from a rag'n'bone man in the Portabello Rd. 

After the cup of tea, Paul raised the matter of a swap.  Philip protested that his collecting days were over, whereupon Paul produced his bargaining chip, saying "You won't be interested in this then".  The deal was concluded as soon as Philip could summon his breath back.

Philip felt I shouldn't leave empty handed either, and gave me this Bb flute as a memento of my visit.  It is a wonderful player but anonymous apart from a crown and the words "Improved London".

Unnamed Bb flute

I picked up this rather flashy Bb flute in Canberra.  Despite its busy appearance, it is a less willing player than the "Improved London" flute.

Silvertone C fife

This cylindrical fife bears the words Silvertone C Drouyn Bris.  I'm assuming that the Bris stands for Brisbane (Queensland, Australia) but if anyone can tell me more I'd be pleased to hear it.

Hope you've enjoyed this brief visit to my Research Collection.  I'll add more information as it becomes available - stop by when you can!

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