6-keyed English flute (antique by William Henry Potter)

This was the first antique flute I bought. I found it in the flute shop on Baker St. in London. This store specialised just in the flute... instruments themselves, and anything connected to flute playing... it was mainly concerned with the modern flute, but also dealt somewhat in antique and reproduction flutes... and I can't for the life of me remember what it was called - was it just "The Flute Shop"? Anyway, I remember asking if they had any old flutes, and out of a cupboard (or it might even have been a safe), was produced an aged metal tin originally manufactured for the retailing of Jacobs' Cream Crackers (the sort of thing you might eat with soup, or put cheese on). The tin itself, I imagine, was almost an antique - well, at least, I'd guess it dated back to the 1930's or earlier. And inside the tin (which I still have) carefully packed in foam rubber, was this flute. Although it was in need of some repair and adjustment, I was able to play it enough in the store to see it's potential (I remember essaying a sonata of Devienne's on it), and I was pleased to be able to purchase it.

This flute was made by William Henry Potter, who was the son of Richard Potter, who established the family flute-making workshop in London around 1745. The mark is "Willm Heny Potter, Johnson's Court, Fleet Street, London", which would probably place the manufacture in the period 1809-1814, since this was apparently the period that the business occupied these premises. The flute shows a number of features that were common to flutes made by the Potters, several of which, indeed, were actually patented by Richard Potter (although this does not necessarily mean that he came up with the ideas originally himself). The head-cap features a screw-piece with graduated marking which can be used for adjusting the position of the cork (by turning the cap, thus extending or retracting the screw). The head also features a tuning slide, with graduated markings, intended to match those of the cork-adjusting cap. The flute has six keys (b-flat, g-sharp, f-natural, d-sharp, low c-sharp and low c). The keys are short, and pivoted in wooden bosses - this is essentially the earliest way of arranging flute keys... later metal posts are increasingly used, and the keys tend to become longer. These keys use "Potter's patent pewter plugs" - that is, an arrangement, patented by Richard Potter, whereby the holes have a metal bushing, and the key ends are fitted with conical plugs of some soft metal (originally pewter, hence the name), which fit into the bushings. I haven't seen a flute by anyone other than the Potters which uses this system for all the keys, although it is not uncommon to see this system used for just the low c and c# keys on a flute (e.g. the 8-keyed 'Nicholson Improved' flute I own).

When I got this flute it needed a certain amount of work to make it really playable. It needed, as usual, a new cork, which in this case I tried to fit to the special cap (which has a coarse screw on the end of its ivory post for screwing into the cork itself). The joints needed rewinding with thread, the old thread having rotted. The keywork needed oiling and easing. Also someone had coated all the plugs with some form of rubber cement in order, presumably, to make them seal... however this had perished, and the seals were no longer good. I removed all the rubber cement, which actually, initially at least, made things worse. I didn't want to get into trying to reshape the plugs to fit them to the bushings better... so what I do is whenever I play this flute I simply apply a couple of drops of mineral oil to each key, which serves, by its viscosity, to seal the closures with the bushings. Mineral oil (U.S. Pharmaceutical Heavy Grade, such as is sold in pharmacies as a laxative) is what I use for oiling the bores of all my flutes - this was recommended to me by makers.

Unfortunately, as you can see to some extent from the illustration above, this flute has warped quite badly, especially in the lower two joints. They now have a distinct curvature, and what is worse, the tenon that fits into the top of the foot joint has warped into a thoroughly elliptical shape, whilst the hole it fits into is still essentially circular. I have to use some wax to pack this joint in order to help the seal... and the bottom d still doesn't play very well. There is also a crack in the barrel now (the section of the head below the tuning slide) - this didn't seem to directly affect playing, presumably since this section is lined, but I have patched it with Nu-skin nonetheless. You may notice that there is a thread tied round the arms of the low c and c# keys... it seems a shame to impose this bondage on the intrument, but basically these keys don't usefully work any more - they can be closed, but the springs are quite inadequate to the task of opening them again. This is, in fact, true of every flute I own with an extended "c foot", except for the 8-keyed German flute - and that doesn't actually have a separate foot joint at all, and uses a relatively modern type of keywork pivoted on metal posts. I suppose it might be possible to return these keys to full functioning by fitting new springs - but this would be beyond my abilities, and I would have to find a woodwind technician (whom I trusted with antique intruments, and who had the time and was willing) to do it for me.

I have played this flute quite a lot. Even though the head is lined with metal, it has a sweet, almost fruity, very 'wooden' tone, and is warm and smooth to play. (Ok, ok... this is beginning to sound a bit like a wine-tasting - but I don't know how else to describe the playing characteristics of flutes ;-} ) The keys naturally mean that it can play very chromatic pieces more evenly - although because it only has the short f key (and very short it is too) when rapidly moving between d'' and f'', for example, it is not really practicable to use the key for the f, and so the fork fingering is still required in some cases. The keys also make the awkward notes in the third octave (f''', f#''' and a''') much easier and more certain to play. I tend to mostly play later 18th century material on this intrument - Stamitz, Mozart (it's a shame the low c key won't work, since Mozart's Flute and Harp concerto was almost certainly written for a flute similar to this), Devienne, Muthel. These last two I strongly recommend to the attention of any flautist who hasn't discovered them - Muthel didn't leave a lot of work, but what there is is extremely interesting (not to say rather idiosyncratic, and quite challenging to play); Devienne, on the contrary, left lots of material for the flute, for which he also wrote a method (sadly he ended his life in the same asylum for the insane to which the Marquis de Sade was committed).

If you have any questions or comments, or related experiences you'd like to share, or whatever... email me at xorys@idirect.ca.

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