Who was Joseph Pons? César’s son – and that’s all we know.

We can now safely all but eliminate Joseph Pons from the list of Pons family members who followed their father César in the luthier trade. For over a century, Joseph has been given probable-to-positive attribution for building more than a few of the limited number of extant Pons guitars and lyre guitars. This includes the c. 1805 lyre guitar labeled “Pons Fils / luthier / Rue du Grand Hurleur / No. 5 / A Paris, an 13” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met attributes the instrument to “possibly Joseph Pons.” Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has two Pons lyre guitars credited to Pons fils: a rather plain model and an ornate deluxe model. The plain lyre is dated c. 1805 with an interior label that reads: “PONS, fils, / LUTHIER, / Rue du Grand Hurleur; / No. 5 / A PARIS, an 18,” (note: the “18” posted on the museum’s website is likely an error and should be “13” as the French Revolutionary calendar ended at “14”). The embellished model has “Pons Fils / A / PARIS / 1810” engraved into a pearl shield at the base of the soundboard. They attribute both of their lyre guitars to Joseph Pons. The Worchester Art Museum owns a lyre guitar from 1805-1810 they attribute to Pons, but rather than committing to a particular family member, they attribute it to “possibly César Pons,” “possibly Joseph Pons,” or “possible Louis-David Pons.” Regardless, any attribution to Joseph – possibly or positively – now appears to be in error. I’ll explain why in a moment, but let’s first review the Pons family labels and branding.

Pons family members generally chose not to use their first names when marking their instruments, making for a more difficult attribution. There is a five-course guitar branded “Cesar Pons A Grenoble” (the family patriarch), and another six-string guitar branded “L. Pons Grenoble” (likely by Louis-David – one of César’s eight sons) but other Pons guitars are labeled or engraved Pons fils (son), Pons jeune (the younger), or Pons aîné (the elder). There are also examples (e.g. the Pons in this collection) that are simply branded Pons à Paris on the inside of the back.

My rethink of the Pons family history came after reading Bruno and Catherine Marlat’s recent publication, René Lacote, Luthier à Paris. It has often been assumed that Pierre René Lacote, the greatest French guitar maker in the first half of the nineteenth century, apprenticed under Joseph Pons in Paris, and therefore I was more than surprised when I found no mention of Joseph in the Marlats’ biography of Lacote. Only Antoine, one of Joseph’s seven brothers, is mentioned as working in Paris and Lacote’s likely mentor.

The Marlats did an admirable job affirming the career choice of Antoine Pons and Louis-David Pons through their military conscription records. Both brothers declared themselves luthiers at age 20. Additionally, at the 1831 settlement of their father César’s estate in Grenoble, the court required that all inheritors be present or represented by proxy and appointed a notary to represent Antoine because it was noted that he was a “luthier living in London.” Moreover, there is no evidence that two other brothers, Honoré – a watchmaker or Pierre-Claude – a silversmith, worked with Antoine in Paris before he left for London in 1818 or after he returned to Paris in the early 1830s. There is reason to believe, however, that Louis-David remained in Grenoble to work with his father as the guitar labeled “L. Pons Grenoble” would suggest. 

Birth records show that César did have a son named Joseph, born in Grenoble on September 25, 1781. However, no record of Joseph’s life or career has been found beyond this date. Did he die in childbirth? Perhaps. But unless new evidence emerges to the contrary, no documentation exists to suggest that Joseph was a luthier in Paris or anywhere else.  

So how is it that history has mistakenly listed Joseph as a luthier working in Paris? Probably from the work of the famed early twentieth century Belgian musicologist René Vannes (1888-1956) in his Dictionnaire Universel des Luthiers – a comprehensive resource guide for stringed instrument luthiers.

Regarding the Pons family, Vannes lists César, Louis-David, and Joseph. The description of Joseph reads:

Pons, Joseph. Brother of the previous [Louis-David Pons], Baptized in Grenoble on September 25, 1781, lived in the early nineteenth century in Paris and perhaps also in London. (See the following note.) We know of his violins of average construction. A large format guitar, back and sides, in bird’s-eye maple, marked Pons in Paris, was sold to the Imperial Court of Russia (old Snoeck collection, no. 76).

The “following note” mentioned in Vannes’ description above, goes on to describe the single guitar marked Pons, London. 1819.  We know from the work of the Marlats and Dr. James Westbrook that Antoine Pons was the builder even though Vannes credits no one specifically and conjectures that it may have been built by one of César’s sons. Why did Vannes list Joseph as a luthier and not Antoine? We can only speculate.

Many questions remain including, of course, who was Pons fils, Pons jeune, and Pons aîné?

Catherine Marlat has pointed out that instruments by Louis-David and Pons jeune are different and distinct. It could be that Antoine used Pons fils early in his career and later Pons aîné when he returned to Paris in the early 1830s. (There are two extant guitars labeled Pons aîné from 1832 and 1835.) Perhaps the biggest mystery is the identity of Pons jeune, who worked in Paris during the decade Antoine worked in London. And of course, equally curious is why only a single guitar from Antoine’s London period has survived. Dr. James Westbrook theorizes it’s possible that Antoine’s London-made guitars had their peg headstocks – affixed with the Pons engraved shield – removed and refitted with tuning machines. This is a plausible explanation as the English were early adopters of mechanical tuners, and such a modification would result in a London-made Pons losing its branding.  As an example, one of the two Laprevotte guitars in this collection went through a like modification after arriving in London, evidenced by its unoriginal headstock with machine tuners stamped “Journet of London” on the back of the head. Fortunately, Laprevotte used internal paper labels and this, combined with his distinctive oval soundholes, allows for positive attribution.

Finally, who built the few surviving guitars – including the Pons guitar in this collection – simply branded Pons à Paris? Could Antoine have contracted journeyman luthiers to build guitars for sale at his Paris workshop? There are marked similarities – but also differences – in the work of a few builders in the region of Mirecourt in Northeastern France (a large guitar-making center during the nineteenth century) and the Pons guitar in this collection. Additionally, the fact that so few guitars likely built by Antoine have survived, suggests that he may have run a relatively small operation in Paris as compared to the multiple ateliers of the Fabricatores in Naples. Antoine’s limited output could either argue for or against outsourcing guitars from Mirecourt or employing luthiers in his Paris workshop.

Special thanks are due to Catherine Marlat and James Westbrook for providing expert insight and helping to correct the historical record. Catherine is working on a much-needed biography of the Pons family that will hopefully answer many of the questions posited in this paper.