“The history of the Panormo Family as recorded in the various dictionaries of violin makers, is shrouded in confusion. The difficulties arise for several reasons: “Vincenzo’s wanderings; the use of the same first names in different generations; and the lack of labels in instruments.” Vincenzo 1734 - 1813, (known as “old Panormo” from Palermo, Sicily) was one of the most widely travelled of violin makers, settled in London in 1790 or 1791.
Joseph is reputed to have been born in Naples in 1768, though his father moved the family to Paris and then to Dublin to escape the French Revolution. The Panormo family had certainly settled in London by 1791, and at the age of 23, Joseph would have been a fully competent instrument maker who would have shared the duties in his father’s workshop. Joseph left his father and opened his own shop at a number of addresses, but principally at 39 King Street, Soho where he made guitars, violins, cellos and double basses. (His son, Edward Ferdinand Panormo, joining the family firm when he was only 11 years old.) Joseph continued working in various locations in Soho until his death in 1837, but died in the St. Anne’s Workhouse, and was described as a pauper on his death certificate.
Joseph’s basses are quite similar to those of his father, which, over the years, has caused some difficulties with attribution. We believe that Joseph made about 10 basses in total, although some of these are currently known as the work of Vincenzo, who made about 20. *Features in The English Double Bass Book - 2018*
It is no coincidence that London became the main centre for double bass makers in Europe, as the arrival of the very famous Venetian virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti in England in 1794, was a key factor. Beside bringing a number of early Italian Basses to London, whose restoration was entrusted to the Panormo family, Dragonetti was instrumental in commissioning new basses for himself and his pupils.
The outline is bold, being broader across the bottom bouts than Vincenzo’s grand pattern but otherwise remaining quite similar to it. The back is carved from two book-matched pieces of figured maple. The ribs are of similar wood, although they are not as deep as the ribs on some of his other basses. The instrument has been coated with a fine oil varnish of a rich dark red-brown colour; and applied over an under-coating of a warm golden-orange colour & double-purfled both front and back.”
Joseph Panormo made this instrument for the double bass player Mr. W. J. Castel in about 1820, who was a famous player of the time. Mr. Castel (W. James Castel) became a member of the Philharmonic Society of London in 1843. In 1847 Mr. Castel would therfore have played for Mendelssohn when he conducted the first London performance of "Elijah" etc. (See also Centenary performance in Part 2.) Mr Castel’s name appears in orchestra lists for the 1847 and 1849 Royal Italian Opera seasons at The Opera House. In 1853, the Philharmonic Society engaged Berlioz to conduct a concert of his own works, and likewise in 1855 Mr Castel would have played for all of Richard Wagner’s London concerts. Also from 1855, is the orchestra list for the 1st London performance of Il Trovatore at The Opera House.
Here is a Concert Advert from the 1867 Promenade Concerts at the Covent Garden Theatre with Mr. Castel playing and Bottesini and Johann Strauss conducting.
Mr. Castel would have benefited from the growth of the railway during the 1850s and 1860s, and so was able to take his Joesph Panormo Double Bass to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 1869 where his name appears on the list of players. Recently his name has also been discovered for the concert series at the Theatre Royal Promenade Concerts of 1875-77.
It was then purchased by his pupil Mr. JEP Wilkes (James Edward Paul Wilkes, born 16 Oct 1868, died 12 Feb 1946) played in the Queen’s Hall Symphony Concerts and Queen’s Hall Lamoureux Concerts from 20 February 1897 onwards. The Bass was then inherited by his son Mr. J Wilkes who played with the Royal Philharmonic Society. Fortunately a letter written on 25th July 1930 exists from Mr. Wilkes to the new owner (see below...) clearly documenting the history of this bass. The following month he also wrote: " To Kenneth G. Burston: Bought of J Wilkes a Double Bass by Joseph Panormo which I guarantee to be genuine, 20th August 1930."