9001 - multi-key conical "Nicholson's Improved' flute by Thomas Prowse Jr. #4101

This is an extraordinary flute by any standards. It is unusual in being a B-foot Nicholson flute. It has number of very specifically chosen added key touches and levers affording alternative means for obtaining certain keyed notes, it has some of the biggest fingerholes of any surviving Nicholson flute, and  is an elaborately decorated model. It has survived in its original case with fittings and tools. But the most remarkable thing is that its entire history can be traced: It has perfect provenance.

It was my first Nicholson flute,  and I treasured it despite my being unable to play it because of the huge fingerholes. In 1980, while looking for accommodation as a Masters student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, it was suggested by a friend that I knock on doors in the Cathedral Close. It was a happy accident that, knocking on the door of no 19, I was invited in by Canon James Gilchrist, and his wife Norah. They didn’t use the third floor of their substantial Edwardian house, so after deciding (apparently because I had ‘good shoes’) that I was OK, they rented me the top floor. To compress a very long story I became part of the family, which among other things meant regular clerical breakfasts in the formal dining room, hung with extraordinary paintings. At some point in my time there James gave me a flute which had been passed down through his family, gently kick-starting my interest in 19C flutes. 


Years later, not being able to clearly decipher the Latin motto below the crest engraved on the lip plate  but looking up ‘centaur’ in The British herald, or Cabinet of armorial bearings of the nobility and gentry, I was immediately lucky to find the Fitzmaurice arms, with the motto Virtute non verbis which echoed that on the flute. As the engraved monogram was clearly LRF, I googled the Fitzmaurice family and came up with a one Lewis Roper Fitzmaurice (1816-93) who was recorded as an explorer and surveyor aboard HMS Beagle, and after whom the Fitzmaurice River (in Australia’s Northern Territory) is named. He warranted his own page on Design and Art Australia Online, which read:


A sketcher, surveyor and sailor who while serving on the Beagle, made some of the drawings subsequently reproduced in Stokes's Discoveries in Australia….. …He was born on 29 April 1816 in Deptford, England, son of Lewis Roper Fitzmaurice, a master mariner. He entered the Royal Navy on 12 January 1831. Fitzmaurice had joined the Beagle as mate, but Stokes later appointed him assistant-surveyor. As such, he carried out a survey of the Queensland coast between Flinders River and Van Diemen’s Inlet until severely wounded in the foot by the accidental discharge of a gun. Disabled by his injury, he was promoted lieutenant and given a pension.

When serving in HMS Beagle under John Clements Wickham and J. Lort Stokes he made some of the drawings subsequently reproduced in Stokes’s Discoveries in Australia…Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle 1837-43 (London 1846). In his introduction, Stokes thanks Fitzmaurice and Graham Gore 'for many of the sketches which illustrate this work’. Contributions by Fitzmaurice include the frontispieces to both volumes, ‘Natives of Western Australia’ and ‘Messrs Fitzmaurice and Keys Dancing for their Lives’, the latter a bizarre reversal of the standard image of Aborigines dancing for white spectators.

For me this was like a bolt of lighting. One of the paintings beneath which I’d eaten breakfast (with the Bishops of Southwell, and Southwark, among others) in the Gilchrist’s dining room was a small oil painting of two men in naval uniform dancing with handkerchiefs in front of a large, threatening-looking aboriginal group. James had often told me that this was painted - in ship's paints - by a relative who had travelled on The Beagle. It didn’t take long to find a digitised copy of volume 2 of J. Lort Stokes’s Discoveries in Australia; it’s one of the key texts in the history of the British occupation of Australia. The frontispiece was an engraved copy of the original painting in James’s dining room in Norwich.

To cut a long story short, I had established a Fitzmaurice-Gilchrist connection, which I then verified with the surviving family. Disappointingly, Brand Inglis, the eccentric silver dealer enlisted to sell James Gilchrist’s assets on his demise, had died in the intervening period, having sold the original painting to someone in Australia, so for the moment I can’t show you it here. But I have now traced the flute’s passage from its original owner, Lewis Roper Fitzmaurice ii, who emerges from his will as a keen musician, through various generations of the Fitzmaurice and Gilchrist families, to me…

Now a closer look at those extra key touches and key levers: There's an additional touch for r/h1 for Bb, tucked below the  r/h1 C key. This isn't unusual, indeed it's found on numerous other Nicholson flutes. Tucked above this is an additional touch for r/h1 for G#, which operates by lifting a tag on the cup of the G# key.

The piece de resistance however, is an additional l/h thumb key, positioned below the usual Bb key, which is linked (across the joint between upper and lower body) to a semi-circular lever for the r/h thumb - and strategically positioned in relation to the carved recess for that thumb - both of which provide additional touches to the short F key, again lifting a tag on the cup of the latter. Such additions, together with the exaggerated excavation around the r/h finger holes, and the carved recess for l/h 2 fingernail, speak of a player who knew his mind, with considerable technical facility, and the wear on the various moving parts suggests regular use of the instrument. Of course, the keywork connection across the two body parts, and the positioning of the various multiple touches for l/h thumb and r/h1, dictate that the flute can only be assembled and held in the precise position the original player found comfortable.

My love and thanks to the Gilchrist family, who have been generous and supportive at many points in my life. 

The photo of James and Norah, below, was given to me by Norah when I lived at 19, The Close.