Nicholson's Own Flutes



It was Charles Nicholson who broke away from the "German Flute" as made in London by the likes of Potter, Astor, Monzani et al, and introduced the "Improved Flute", and with it, a new era - the golden days of the cone flute that stretched from around 1816 to 1850 and beyond.  So it's particularly interesting to see what Old Leather Lungs, or Iron Lip (to use two of his popular descriptions) played himself.  Or at least had presented to him!

The Nicholson's Improved flute was made by Prowse for sale by Clementi, and interestingly at least two were made by Prowse specifically for presentation to Nicholson.  We know this because both carry presentation messages, engraved on their lip plates.

The two flutes are lodged in the Dayton C Miller collection in Washington (DCM 1265, no serial number given) and the Royal College of Music collection in London (RCM 214, Prowse No 2898).   They are very similar, suggesting that they were indeed made for the great man.  

Both had:

  • seven keys - Nicholson disliked the long F

  • ivory embouchure inserts, an preference Nicholson stated in his tutor

  • silver lip plates

  • heads thinned in the embouchure area

  • dots set in each side of every joint, to facilitate lining up the parts

  • a large indentation for the lowest joint of L1

  • a large excavation for the right thumb, to permit a sharkskin inlay

  • both feature salt-spoon keys and pewter plugs on C and C#.

There are some differences:

  • the DCM flute seems to have escaped the usual head and barrel combing

  • The RCM flute has the area under the right hand fingers flattened.

The Inscriptions

Both flutes carry inscriptions, engraved on their lip plates.

The DCM flute's is relatively simple:

Mr. Nicholson,

The RCM flute more poignant:

This was Nicholson's Flute
From his Playing hence mute
And the Embouchure through
Which Charlie last blew.

We can perhaps safely draw the inference that Charlie was held in considerable affection and was not a man given to false airs.

A puzzling matter

One might expect that the flute "through which Charlie last blew" would be the later, indeed the last of Nicholson's instruments, yet it is a Clementi.  After Clementi sold his business, Prowse went out on his own, still making flutes stamped C. Nicholson's Improved.  The DCM instrument is a Prowse, and therefore later than the Clementi, yet it is the Clementi which bears the terminal message.  

A possible explanation is that Prowse made the later instrument for Nicholson as an asset which could be realised to help relieve his penury.  A presentation instrument to such a figure would fetch much more than a plain vanilla one.  One can imagine that it might even have been auctioned or raffled at a "benefit" concert, which were popular in London, in the absence of any more formal method of providing support to musicians in hard times.  It may be that more such presentation instruments will surface in time.

The flutes

Here are the two instruments, first the DCM Prowse instrument, and then the RCM Clementi.


And the Alignment?

At first glance, you could be excused for wondering why I aligned the holes on these flutes so badly before taking the images above.  But indeed, I lined the sections up carefully using the alignment dots provided.  The fact that both flutes have such dots and that they are so idiosyncratically placed gives credence to the notion that both flutes were actually made for Nicholson, and to his requirements.

Taking the holes of the right hand section as our datum, we find:

  •  the head turned in quite significantly, indeed in line with common practice of the time, the "edge" being lined up with the centreline of the finger holes, and

  • the right-hand section turned 45 degrees forward (not back as some payers are tempted to do!) of the left hand section.  

Yes, 45 degrees, I measured it carefully.  You can experiment with Nicholson's hold by rotating the right-hand section of your flute so that the holes end up halfway between the vertical and horizontal.  You will find it somewhat unusual, requiring the right elbow to be held higher than normal.  It does however permit greater flexibility of the right hand fingers, as they and the wrist are straighter than in the normal grasp.


Now suddenly something else becomes clear.  Many Nicholson flutes were made without the Long F key - Nicholson wasn't personally fond of it.  But those that do have the long F pose a mystery - why does the touch bend upwards, rather than downwards like on most other flutes of the period?  Nicholson's grasp explains all.  If you rotate the right had section forward, as the alignment dots shows Nicholson does, the long F touch has to bend upwards if it is to be at all accessible. 


The long F key on the image above is bent, possibly by accidentally clashing with the long C key when rotated, or conceivably for the comfort of a past owner.  You can imagine that if straight, it would fall in the usual position, on the lower cheek of the G# block.  But if the right hand section were rotated forward during playing, both the upwards turn of the touch and the curve of the bend would help keep the touch accessible.


Thanks to the Curators of the Dayton C Miller Collection and the Royal College of Music for permission to examine these instruments and take these images.

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