Large theorbo update; combining old and new….

Last week Sandra and I took a little break. We went to the Taizé community in France, one of the most beautiful places we know. Time to reflect and get some rest, meeting the most interesting people and getting new ideas and inspiration. But more on that later.

Making the Schelle theorbo is like a journey. It was commissioned by Punto Bawono, a young lutenist studying at the conservatory in The Hague. He was looking for a theorbo in D-minor tuning for late baroque music. Over the last months we have both been researching these instruments, exchanging ideas and information. It became clear that there still is a large field of research open, both in playing, as in organologic knowledge about these theorbos. They often get overlooked and misplaced in museums and publications.

We also started to investigate the life and work of Sebastian Schelle, and his heir Leopold Widhalm. A couple of weeks ago Punto said he found a Schelle lute in the collection of the Municipal Museum (Gemeentemuseum) in The Hague. It would be great to examine this instrument as a reference for our own version…

There was one problem: the instrument collection has been in storage for the last ten years. The focus of the museum is on arts of the last two centuries, not musical instruments. It’s inaccesability a wellknown complaint among instrument makers and researchers. But Punto managed to make an appointment to examine the instrument.

So at a sunny tuesday two lute nerds cycled through The Hague, armed with calipers, rulers, pencil and paper.

Visiting the Gemeentemuseum is an experience in itself. The building was designed by the well known H.P. Berlage. He was one of the last architects who made “gesamtkunstwerken”, designing everything from corridors and staircases to door handles and cutlery.

We were led through a side door into the library of the museum where the Schelle lute already was resting on a pillow.

Like most lutes this one also had a very intensive life. The only thing we could be sure was made by Schelle was the bowl, the top is a thick replacement, more resembling a ‘wandervogellaute’ than a baroque lute. The pegbox is clearly a replacement, probably made somewhere around the middle of the 20th century. Perhaps the neck is original, but the inlay seems a little bit unrefined compared to other instruments by Schelle, and even the bowl it is attached to.

Besides taking measurements and photographs there was something extra. A large part is getting a sense of the instrument. Looking at the details, feeling the shapes and structures. There is simply now way to put that kind of information into words or measurement tables.

Our first aim was to get a reference to the work we had already done. And surprisingly it came very close, even the wide inlays between te ribs seemed a perfect match. Also the ‘fluting’ of the ribs (the paper linings on the inside of the bowl cause the ribs to bend a little bit inwards).


After we examined the lute there was a second mission; visiting the large Mondrian exhibition. A thing I always ask customers is whether there is something personal they would like on their instrument; a special piece of material, text or decoration.

After a while Punto came up with a great suggestion: why not put a Mondrian painting on the back of the neck extension? Still seen as one of the epitoms and archetypes of modern art. And even more appropriate: this year it is the centennial of the foundation of the Stijl movement. This group contained artists like Vilmos Huszar (who invented the characteristic color scheme), Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck, Gerrit Rietveld and Piet Mondrian.

The Gemeentemuseum has one of the largest Mondrian collections in the world. Drawings, studies, paintings, but also personal letters and materials.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Mondrian: One is that he couldn’t paint and therefore just made simple paintings. To get a grasp of his work you should see the development. He learned the basics of panting from his uncle, and only over time started to make his work more abstract.

Another misconception is that the spacing of the lines and colored squares was done according to the golden ratio. There are no indications that Mondrian used any theoretical system to set up his paintings. Investigations into the layers of the paintings show that the setup was more associative. He arranged and re-arranged the lines and squares until they formed a harmonical composition. One inspiration for this was the jazz he heard in the cafe’s and dancings around Paris.

Parts of this process can still be seen in his unfinished “Victory Boogie Woogie”, made just before his death in New York.

A thing often heard when people talk about Mondrian (or any modern painter) is “Yes, my little niece can do that too…” I always congratulate them that they have such a talented niece. And it seems there are a lots of artistically gifted children out there. Sorry but no, your children don’t make art like this by nature. It might look simple, but that doesn’t automatically mean it is.


After some searching and sparring we settled on three of the ‘diagonal’ paintings. Made in the late twenties, Mondrian they broke with the traditional way of orientating the canvas.

At first sight the paintings appear very sober and often people are recreating them using solid colors. But when you look at the real canvases you will discover that they have structure, the paint isn’t flat, but there is a certain amount of reliëf. Wether intentional or not, it does give an extra dynamic and dimension to the paintings. But how to recreate this on the theorbo? One way to give it some “depth” is to make them into inlays instead of painting them on.

What materials to use? White, black and yellow were easy to find: bone, blackwood tek (or ebony), and maple. But what to do with the blue and red? I started some experiments with various inks and stains. Ecoline, Clou and vintage Gimborn ink.

The Gimborn ink has a special connection to the place where I live. Its manufacturer, mister Gimborn had a peculiar hobby; collecting trees. At first in his hometown of Zevenaar, but in the first half of the 20th century he bought 30 acres of land in Doorn, where he started his arboretum. One of the day laborers he hired to create the park was my great-grandfather. Later it became property of the Utrecht University, and is now owned by a local foundation.

To get the ink all the way through the wood (scraps of maple), the pieces were put under vacuum. Those little wine stoppers are ideal for that…

After a couple of days soaking in ink, the pieces could be taken out. As you can see there is a difference in the colors. While the Gimborn ink gave a deep red, the Ecoline is more like fuchsia. The Clou mahogany stain didn’t penetrate the wood at all, so it also fell off.

And then the fun part started…

I know some people will regard it blasphemous to put something “so modern” on an historical instrument. But let’s keep in mind that the instrument is made NOW. I like to put little winks and jokes in instruments, not because I don’t take them seriously. No, because I take them serious enough to do so. It might be a bad habit, but I tend to joke about things I care for. In order to have a laugh with the people I care for.

In my work I always try to combine different fields; head and hands, past and present, arts and technology. Seriousness and humor if you will. In the focal point where all these fields come together you will find my instruments. To me it is a way to make the instrument unique, not to make the 100.000th soulless copy without thinking. It is a tribute and sign of respect to the original maker, to investigate their working methods and style. Keeping their tradition, but also adding something to it.

Like this case in the Gemeentemuseum. Between old ceramics there is one new figure…


This entry was posted in Lute, Projects, Research, Think different, Uncategorized, Woodworking, Workshop and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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