The life and work of John Clinton, cont.

Clinton’s 1851 Instrument

Clinton and Potter persevered, and by 1851 after three years of effort they obviously thought that they finally had an instrument which was worthy of public scrutiny.  It is this model which is the subject of our present study.

Now that they had a flute with which they were apparently fully satisfied, Clinton and Potter had to introduce it to the flute-playing public.  Far from being content with merely trying the instrument out quietly with a select cross-section of the flute-playing public (although he may well have done this too), Clinton chose to meet his rivals head-on at the outset by launching his new flute in the full glare of international publicity at the World Exhibition of 1851 in London.  This grandiose gesture seems entirely typical of the man whom we are coming to know, but is mainly significant in that it is inconceivable that he would have chosen so public a field of action had he and Potter (on whose stand the flute was exhibited) not both been genuinely convinced in their own minds of the merits of their flute by comparison with others.  The competition at this Exhibition was extremely stiff and included designs by Rudall & Rose, Theobald Boehm, Abel Siccama, Jean-Louis Tulou, William Card, Richard Carte and Cornelius Ward in addition to the Clinton/Potter duo.  Clinton must surely have known this in advance and reckoned that his flute could compete with any of them.

It is hoped that our further studies may throw some light upon Clinton’s judgement in this regard. As time progresses, we hope to have the opportunity of examining and playing examples of other flutes which appeared in the 1851 Exhibition, in particular the 1847 Boehm and the 1851 Carte Patent flute, both of which “beat out” the 1851 Clinton in terms of awards.  The authors have their own example of the 1851 Carte which is currently undergoing restoration prior to a full comparative test.  We expect shortly to have an opportunity to evaluate an example of the Boehm entry as well.

In order to promote the successful launch of his new design, Clinton wrote the 1851 treatise (op. cit.) to which reference has already been made. This publication has often been ascribed by previous authors to 1852 (apparently on the sole basis of a handwritten notation on the copy in the Dayton Miller collection), but the present authors have been forced to question this date.  Based on an examination of the instrument, it is beyond doubt that the paper is describing the previously un-catalogued Potter/Clinton flute which is the focal point of this study.  Moreover, the paper speaks of the “pending” introduction of this flute to the public.  Since this actually occurred in 1851 at the Exhibition, we are forced to the conclusion that the Treatise was written prior to the Exhibition and was published to coincide with the public release of the new flute at the Exhibition.  The fact that it was published by Henry Potter (on whose stand the flute was exhibited) appears to further support this opinion.  The present authors contend that this Treatise, previously assigned by other writers to 1852, is almost certainly in fact a promotional document prepared in 1850 or early 1851 to be made available on Potter’s stand at the Exhibition in support of the new flute.  Viewed in this context (and in no other), the document makes perfect sense.

It must be remembered that Clinton himself would have had ready access to examples of most of the competing models, in particular the Boehm 1847 model which had been on public sale for the previous 4 years. Accordingly, he would have been well able to make his own direct comparisons with the opposition beforehand, and must surely have been absolutely convinced that his new flute could pass any  test. 

This being the case, the result must have been a bitter pill for Clinton to swallow. Boehm walked away with the prestigious Council Award for his silver 1847-model flute, and even Richard Carte secured an award for Rudall & Rose for the prototype of the “Boehm patent” version of his 1851 Patent flute (later to evolve into the “Guards” model).  Even William Card and Jean-Louis Tulou were granted Honourable Mentions in the official Awards List! Clinton had to be content with a “favourable mention” in  the text of the Jury’s report, worded as follows:

"It should also be mentioned that several improvements are illustrated in Mr. J. Clinton's flute exhibited by Mr. Potter, in which the facilities of other modern flutes and the ordinary system of fingering are combined and their defective parts avoided.  In this instrument, the tone and tune are rendered equal by the same means that Mr. Boehm has adopted (our emphasis), namely, an equality of size and distance in the holes.  It has likewise claims to consideration for comparative cheapness, the mechanism being so simple that its price does not exceed that of the old eight-key flute".(12)

It seems odd that this “favourable mention” did not translate into an official Honourable Mention in the Awards List for the Exhibition.  Richard Carte,  Rudall & Rose, William Card and Jean-Louis Tulou were not mentioned at all in the text of the Jury’s report, although they did receive Honourable Mentions in the Awards List!!  The only flute designers who merited comment in the Jury’s report were Boehm and Clinton.  This inconsistency is hard to rationalise!

It is also worth mentioning at this point that Rockstro met Boehm in 1851 at the offices of Rudall & Rose, and actually tried the award-winning sliver flute.  Rockstro considered the award granted to this flute to tell “more against the jurors than in favour of the instrument, the intonation of which was distressingly false” (Article 911, op. cit.). 

This statement must be balanced by some consideration of the jurors to whom Rockstro was referring. The Jury for musical instruments was composed of a number of distinguished musical and scientific figures of the day,  including (among others) such luminaries as Sir R. H. Bishop (Professor of Music at Oxford University), Cipriani Potter (eminent composer, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music and incidentally grandson of the eminent flute-maker Richard Potter of London), Sir George Smart of London (organist and composer of the Chapel Royal), Henry Wilde of London (Professor at the Royal Academy), and last but by no means least, the distinguished composer Hector Berlioz of France (11). To suggest that such a group could not distinguish between a well-tuned instrument and one with “distressingly false” intonation is clearly absurd!  We will have more to say about Rockstro’s comments later.  We also intend to test an example of an Exhibition-era Boehm flute to see for ourselves how good or bad the intonation actually was.

The “favourable mention” notwithstanding, Clinton had signally failed to sweep his rivals from the field.  Not only that, but the fundamental concept behind his flute was still being credited to Boehm!  Many lesser men might have accepted defeat, but not Clinton. The paucity of surviving examples suggests that very few of the 1851 Potter/Clinton flutes were actually sold, but that does not appear to have put Clinton off at all. In fact it is entirely possible that, following what he would likely have seen as yet another rejection, he abandoned plans to put the instrument into large-scale production and instead set himself to develop further improvements.

Once again, we see the reaction to a set-back that we have now come to expect from Clinton – don’t give up, rather pick yourself up and get things moving forward again! If this instrument wasn’t good enough, he would make one that was!! In any event, he carried on unabated in proceeding to further refine the instrument over the next three years, still presumably in collaboration with Potter. Again, his perseverance and confidence in his own abilities is noteworthy, as is his ability to step back and re-evaluate his own ideas while never losing sight of his ultimate goal.

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