Bass viol, ca. 1677
Labeled Richard Meares (English, ca. 1647–1725) London
Spruce soundboard, maple back and sides; Total L. 46 1/16 in. (117 cm)
Purchase, Louis V. Bell Fund, Mrs. Vincent Astor Gift, and funds from various donors, 1982 (1982.324)
The bass viol was one of the most popular and versatile instruments of the seventeenth century. It was played in a variety of contexts, perhaps most characteristically in consorts that were made up of matched viols in different sizes—a so-called chest of viols. In the mixed consorts that were the forerunners of the orchestra, viols appeared alongside members of the violin family. The bass viol was an ideal continuo instrument and was frequently used to accompany singers. As the orchestra developed in the mid-17th century, the louder violin family grew in favor but the bass viol remained a popular solo instrument through the 18th century, particularly in England. The division viol, as is shown here, was a slightly smaller form of the bass viol designed to facilitate the playing of virtuosic solo variations referred to as divisions.
This instrument bears the label of the celebrated Richard Meares of St. Paul's Churchyard, London, which was renowned as a center for viol making. However, the label reveals only one part of a probable narrative that illustrates the intricacies of trade and succession in the musical instrument making business. Stylistic and structural features of this instrument, such as its thin purfling and geometrically patterned ribs, suggest that it was most likely made in the workshop of Edward Lewis, who died before the instrument was complete. It is likely that Richard Meares II purchased the unfinished instrument at a sale of Lewis's effects, completed it and marked it with his father's label. Despite the ambiguity surrounding its authorship, scholarship has demonstrated that it is an important example of early eighteenth-century English viol making.