By Rachel Beckles Willson
Some time between 1878 – when it was made – and 1894, when it was presented as a gift to the Prince of Wales in London, an oud travelled to London. It is the first one we know that has a label inside revealing the maker, the place of the workshop, and the year in which the instrument was made. It is also the first oud we know made by a member of the celebrated Nahat family in Damascus. But we lack information about the maker himself, Yousif. From the sophistication of his work it is clear that this Yousif was older than the ‘Nahat brothers’ who set up their workshop in Damascus in 1880. The name of their father was ‘George Yousif’, and given the naming habits of Christian families it is possible that Yousif was his father. But we lack documentary confirmation.
The owner of the oud in 1894 was Sir George Donaldson (1845-1925), an English dealer in antique furniture, tapestries, paintings, drawings and sculpture. He was an amateur violinist (he owned a Stradivarius) and had a taste for decorative musical instruments. When he gave the oud away it was part of a collection of 166 objects, mainly instruments, that was to be a museum within the new building of London’s Royal College of Music, of which the Prince of Wales was President.
Donaldson’s catalogue offers us no hint of how he acquired the oud, but it is likely that he came across it while living in France, or while travelling in Italy. The bulk of his instruments were made in Europe, but one illustration reveals a group identified as ‘Oriental’, and these are listed individually as ‘rabab’, ‘Indian fiddle’, ‘Kasso, African Fiddle (Senegambia)’, Koto, ‘Sarange’, ‘Persian Fiddle’ and ‘Senegalese Drum’. The oud is not among these. Rather, it is pictured beside two Italian lutes of the 16th and 18th-centuries and identified as ‘Persian’, from the 17th century. So in the imagination of the compiler of the catalogue, Alfred James Hipkins (1826-1903), the European lute and Persia could be brought together and held apart from the ‘Orient’. ‘Persia’ presumably provided the dignified history from which Europe had emerged.
Donaldson made his gift with certain conditions attached to it. It was to be housed in a particular room in the Royal College, which he himself would design for display, providing all the necessary alterations and furnishings at his own expense. Thus he had the ceiling fitted with cedar coffering that had carved supports variously gilded and painted; there were stone columns erected within the rooms, mosaic paintings, crimson silk wall hangings and carved wooden doorways. Furniture of the Italian Renaissance – tables and coffers – were part of the setting, as were windows that combined old stained glass panels with newly commissioned ones involving the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales. Musical instruments were gathered in glass cases.
This setting was not the first that Donaldson had arranged publicly for his collection. He had already designed spaces for several exhibitions, including rooms for exhibit within the International Inventions Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall in 1885. In each place, he created lavish historical settings, with instruments within them either as primary foci or adding to the generally elegant effect. Each of these spaces were extensions of Donaldson’s home environment, for this too was curated historically in several rooms, and replete with display cabinets.
This oud still belongs to the Royal College of Music. At the moment is is suffering from serious cracks, and a restoration project is underway.