1816: George Wren Le Grand’s views as a violin connoisseur.

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George Wren Le Grand was a frequent contributor to The Gentleman’s Magazine during the Regency period under the initials GWL. As a dilettante and virtuoso, his collection of objects of virtue filled an entire Sotheby’s catalogue upon his death in 1836. As a connoisseur and amateur player of violins, his published insights about instruments give us one of exceptionally few opinions about the violin market of the early nineteenth century.

(A version of this article first appeared in the British Violin Maker’s Association Newsletter, Summer, 2011).

The late-nineteenth-century witnessed a flourishing of works on the violin and its history in England, but prior to the 1860s few sources on the subject exist. William Sandys and Simon Andrew Forster’s The History of the Violin and other Instruments played on with the Bow from the Remotest Times to the Present, and the English translation of François-Joseph. Fétis’s Notice of Anthony Stradivarius, both published in 1864 mark the birth of an English literature on the violin. This is not to suggest that interest in connoisseurship didn’t exist beforehand: Sandys and Forster make repeated reference to a (now lost) manuscript kept by Henry Hill (probably Henry Lockey Hill, not the viola playing Henry Hill), and it seems that he might have aimed to become the first author on the subject in England. The works which developed from the 1860s are largely self-referencing, reinforcing a canon of opinion about violin history and the order of the great makers, and therefore it is interesting to see how views on these matters differed in the period beforehand.

In 1776 Sir John Hawkins had written his incredibly five volume history of music, barely concerned with violin makers per-se, but nonetheless providing a basic biography of the Cremonese dynasties of violin makers and their closest rivals, Stainer and Albani.


Sir John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1776 (page 384)

Sources on violin connoisseurship from this point are extremely rare, and most of our information about the relative ranks of makers are gleaned from auction catalogues and the types of instrument that auctioneers found worthy of advertising in newspaper adverts. However, on 6 March 1816 a writer who identified himself only as ‘SCRAPER’ corresponded with Sylvanus Urban, editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, with the question:

“Permit me to inquire of your Correspondents for some particulars of the most famous Violin-makers, Amati, Stainer, Straduarius ; and of the visible and audible characteristics of their instruments. Writers on musick have paid them but little attention”.

An answer to his question was forthcoming on 31 October, written by ‘G.W.L.’, now known to be George Wren Le Grand, providing the earliest critical account that I am aware of in the English language:

Mr. Urban, Oct 31.

Your Correspondent SCRAPER (Part 1. p. 605) has inquired “for some particulars of those famous Violin-makers, Amati, Stainer, Stradiuarius; and of the visible and audible characteristics of their instruments” and justly observes, that “writers on Musick have paid them but little attention.” Though it be the province of a professor, rather than that of an amateur, to satisfy his inquiry, yet as I find nothing has appeared in your pages on the subject, I will venture to communicate what little information I have collected. We cannot be surprised at the few particulars handed down to us of these celebrated makers of musical instruments, as their celebrity is owing in a great degree to Time. It is Time that brings their works to perfection, and time will, no doubt, stamp a greater value on the Violins of Betts and the Tenors of Forster.

Of the visible characteristics of these “admirable artisans” (justly termed so by Sir John Hawkins), the most prominent are these. The Stainer Violins, compared with the Amatis are high and narrow, and the box more confined: the sound-holes are cut more perpendicular, and are shorter ; there is also a kind of notch at the turn. The Stradiuarius Violins are of a larger pattern, particularly those of Antonius the son, and have a wider box than the Amatis, and longer sound-holes, which are cut at the ends very sharp and broad with a little hollow at that end which other makers cut flat. The varnishes of the Amatis and Stainers are yellow, as well as those of Stradiuarius the father; the son’s varnish is red. Of the audible characteristics surely of the most importance, thought too frequently a secondary consideration – generally speaking ; the Amatis have a mild and sweet tone; the Stainers, a sharp and piercing tone, and the Straduarius’s a rich full tone.

Having remarked that the technical phrase an Amati leads persons to suppose there was one maker only of that name, it may be useful information to add the four, viz, Andrew, the father, Jerome and Anthony his sons; and Nicholas, Antony’s son;  of which those instruments made by Jerome are reckoned the handsomest: – all these individuals, as well as the two Stradiuarius’s were of Cremona. – I am not aware of a more suitable conclusion than by enumerating a few names of other noted makers; viz. Andrew, Joseph, and Jasper Guarnerius, (Cremona); Guliano, (Naples); David Techler, (Rome); Grancigio. (Milan); Schorn (Inspruck); Matthew Albani, (Tyrol); – and of our English makers, Barak Norman, who lived in Bishopsgate-street; and Jacob Rayman in Southwark, whose Tenors are in great estimation. G.W.L.

Much of the letter is a repetition of the very fleeting observations taken from Sir John Hawkins’ A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, published in 1776. Hence, although it accurately reveals the high values applied to Barak Norman cellos during this period, the assertion that he worked in Bishopsgate-street simply repeats an opinion stated by Hawkins concerning his career before 1690, which remains uncorroborated by independent evidence. Likewise, Hawkins placed emphasis on Jacob Rayman, writing that he ‘dwelt in Bell-Yard, Southwark about the year 1650. The tenor violins made by him are greatly valued’. This was in response to his reproduction of the 1714 sale catalogue of the instruments and music of Thomas Britton that included four violins described as ‘an extraordinary Rayman’, but very little further real information appears in the nineteenth-century to support these claims, suggesting the reinforcement of a mythical reputation rather than anything that was sustained through surviving instruments.


Hawkins’ General History, page 784.

G.W.L. includes names of great Italian makers who offer little surprise to the modern day reader, but it is unexpected to see the Gagliano family held in such regard at such an early date, whilst the inclusion of Schorn seems somewhat whimsical (perhaps G.W.L. owned such a violin and was being opportunist). The inventive spellings of the names provide convincing evidence that G.W.L. was not an authority on violins, but someone recalling what he had been told by another. It is deliciously tempting to imagine that ‘Guliano’ and ‘Grancigio’ are the interpretations of an Italian tongue by an English ear. If this were the case, the number of connoisseurs in England who might have provided such information is considerable at this time Giovanni Baptista Viotti and Domenico Dragonetti being obvious candidates who owned and dealt in such instruments, as well as Joseph Panormo (Vincenzo had died in 1813). As musicians and as maker, each focussed on Stradivari violins of the golden-period, and this is implicitly the view communicated through this letter.

GWL echoes Hawkins in naming two violin makers from the Stradivari family, both named Antonio. Whilst we are now accustomed to understand that there are a few legitimate labels of Omobono and Francesco Stradivari that extend the family dynasty, the idea of two Antonios is something that had disappeared from connoisseurly literature by the 1850s. Nevertheless, it seems to be a strongly held and logical view and although the language is not quite how we would describe it today, the observations are clear, emphasising the squarish corners bolder edgework and soundhole shapes:

The Stradiuarius Violins are of a larger pattern, particularly those of Antonius the son, and have a wider box than the Amatis, and longer sound-holes, which are cut at the ends very sharp and broad with a little hollow at that end which other makers cut flat. The varnishes of the Amatis and Stainers are yellow, as well as those of Stradiuarius the father; the son’s varnish is red. 


Comparing Nicolo Amati’s 1649 ‘Alard’ to the Stradivari’s 1684 ‘Cipriani-Potter’ and 1716 ‘Messiah’ it is clear why both Hawkins and George Wren Le Grand separated Stradivari’s work into two distinct generations.

The idea of separating Stradivari’s work between two makers is a sensible one, echoed in the distinct “period’s” of his work that we recognise today. The red varnish appears first in 1690 making a natural barrier after his “Amatise period”, but the “Golden Period” starts around 1700. A better understanding of the long-period violins of the 1690s makes the transition from one phase to the next in Stradivari’s life much more logical, but it is not a surprise to discover that this was overlooked at a time that Stradivari’s instruments were less regarded. Mention of the Guarneri family amongst the other noted makers is also interesting, enumerating “Andrew, Joseph, and Jasper Guarnerius”. Observation of two Giuseppe’s as Joseph and Jasper must surely allude to, suggests that Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu and Giuseppe Guarneri filius Andrea were both highly regarded in London, at least by George Wren Le Grand.

Scant encounters with Stradivari and Guarneri are found in eighteenth-century English saleroom catalogues (the term ‘Cremona violin’ being the choice term for anything made there), but from the 1790s they become much more abundant. William Henry Ireland noted in 1814 in Chalcographimania, or the Portrait-Collector and Print Sellers Chronicle that  ‘Cremona, a town in Italy, was very famous for manufactuers of violins, the makers of which instruments were AmatiStraduarius, and Styner, and some of those have been frequently sold for two hundred guineas each.’ When George Wren Le Grand died in 1836 the catalogue of his own collection sold at Sotheby’s demonstrated his own wide ranging interests as a connoisseur:

Catalogue of the Collections of Milled Coins, Books, Books of Prints, and Prints, a Few Pictures, Autographs, Articles of Vertu, Cameo and Intaglio Rings, Antiquities, China, Capital Violins, &c.; the Propert of George Wren le Grand, Esq. 

This levels of awareness challenge our perceptions about the ways that violins were regarded in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-centuries. At a time where we generally blame Viotti for his celebration of Stradivari and anticipate Paganini’s championing of del Gesu in decades yet to come, further source which charmingly reinforces the ideologies promoted in violin making and connoisseurship. In 1807 John Belfour translated from the Spanish, Tomás de Iriarte’s Music, a didactic poem, in five cantos. The work (albeit directed more to a Spanish experience than an English one, but now directed to an English audience) contains a juxtaposition between modern making and the traditions that it mimicked. The source perhaps contains criticism of the ideas exemplified in Antonio Bagatella’s Regole per la costruzione de’violini viole violincelli e violini of 1782, and suggests that the Cremonese school were perceived as artistic by comparison to the fixed rules employed by modern craftsmen. At a time when Viotti was promoting the supremacy of Stradivari, it provides further evidence from an independent source of the growing passion for his works.

The just dimensions, form, proportion fine,
Of every instrument the ancients knew;
And all the moderns e’er produced to view.
Reduced to fixed principles and laws,
The art by which Guarnerius won applause’
Amati – wonder of the tuneful host,
And Straduarius! – great Cremona’s boast.


Joseph Panormo.

The Panormo family are amongst the most celebrated violin makers to ever have worked in London. Vincenzo, who came from Palermo in Sicily worked his way through Italy, Paris and Dublin to reach London. A violin by his Italian-born son Joseph reveals unexpectedly clear Neapolitan influence, and raises questions about the family’s identity as Italian violin makers in cosmopolitan London.

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Vincenzo Panormo and his violin making sons, Joseph, Louis and George are the most celebrated dynasty of violin makers in England around the 1800 period. They are also one of the most difficult to navigate, mostly because of the enormous influence that the had on London making as a whole. As a result, the generation of makers who grew up around the John Betts workshop increasingly emulated Vincenzo Panormo’s vision of Italianate workmanship. Makers such as William Taylor and Henry Lockey Hill show an extraordinary affinity to Panormo-family work, and makers who encountered Panormo in his Dublin period  – especially Richard Tobin produce violins directly influenced by the short visit of the great Italian maker. Meanwhile even English trade violins of makers such as Matthew Furber improved towards a more Italianate repertoire of models in response to a growing taste for Italian violins, if not as a direct response to Panormo’s influence. Elsewhere, Robert Poulter in Hull and Matthew Hardie show an extraordinary affinity to Panormos work, and amongst the Leeds makers of the early 19th century, Dearlove, Thomas Absam, and Handel Pickard fake Panormo labels become a hazard of the territory.

As a result there are endless instruments that sit close to Panormo’s work, and barely a month goes past without another Pah!-no-more (as I tend to call them) coming into the shop for assessment. I have a basic rule: If it leaps out as being quintessentially Italian, but ends up being English in the finer details and footnotes, it has a chance of being a Panormo. If it’s the kind of instrument that is obviously English, but it punches above it’s weight to the point it could even be Italian, then it is almost certainly not. After that the real thinking begins. I even question if I have ever seen a single genuine example of the famous Vincenzo Trusiano Panormo labels with the ‘Armi di Palermo’ that characterise so much of what we understand of Panormo’s work, although the design is so strikingly unique so if only for that reason it is unlikely that they emerged out of nowhere. For the most part, these are nothing more than optimistic relabelling of a variety of slightly Italian-looking English or French violins, but over the years I have seen everything from the Voller brothers reshaping the corners of an 1820s London violin to pass as a Panormo (it had a Voller neck, which is why we could point the blame), all the way through to George Wulme-Hudson’s most deceptive work producing full-on forgeries for sale to dollar-rich Americans in the 1940s. Occasionally I’ve seen a nice fake label sitting in the genuine thing.


A typical fake Panormo label with a typically implausible 1740s date.

Vincenzo’s instruments seem to be guided by a genuine and deep knowledge of the centuries of violin making before him, and he seems always to reach out to create characterful improvisations around an Italian ideal. The wood is invariably more interesting than others, either because it directly reflects a great Italian instrument, or because he revelled in the interest brought about by a non-standard billet. He is famously reputed to have wood salvaged from a billiard table in Dublin: The last remaining 17th century billiard table (at Knole House in Kent) reveals a bed of several levels of slab-cut staves of wood latticed over one and other to provide a stable and flat gaming surface: The violins from his Dublin period have wood that corresponds to the legend. He may simply have been obsessed with the perceived advantages of old wood to the point that he preferred aged timber over aesthetic beauty. Nevertheless, the effect, along with consciously large pins in the back of his instruments seems to distance his work from England of the decades around 1800 in time as much as geography, much more centred around the generality of violins produced in the mid-eighteenth century, and it may be for this reason that many misinformed and unscrupulous dealers in the past ascribed them to dates from the 1740s onwards.


The Knole House billiard table, made around 1670. It’s construction, in this case of oak, fits the legend that Vincenzo Panormo made his violins from such a source of maple.

Joseph Panormo’s (c.1763-1837) work is extremely rare. This is explained in large part because he was working for his father at least up until his late thirties, whereupon he established his own workshop in 1801 in New Compton Street. In reality, he was probably still intimately connected to his father’s workshop right up to Vincenzo’s death in 1813 when Joseph would have been about fifty, and his premises were only meters away from his brother Louis on Bloomsbury High Street, with whom he made guitars indicating a tight-knit family community. Several violins legitimately labelled and accepted as Vincenzo Panormo around the 1800 period are further signed or monogrammed ‘JP’ on the interior. The quality is to be expected for someone who had spent the best part of half a century at his father’s side, and the transition from the hand of the father to the hand of the son is a gradual one seen through Vincenzo Panormo’s later works. The same transition is mirrored in the emerging characteristics of any of the dynasties of violin making, and strong characteristics of a younger maker can begin to emerge years before they were making instruments in their own right.

From the back, Joseph’s violin of around 1820 has much of the quality expected of his father’s work. The choice of strongly grained maple is reminiscent of the Gaglianos particularly under the strong orange-yellow varnish which seems to quote them directly, and the slightly more constrained pins have a more specific relationship with classical Cremonese making than the ‘generally Italian’ look of his father’s work. Joseph’s observations go further, and he seems to be more concerned with the edgework and corners of the violin. The crisp chamfers of the edges separate his work from his father’s and the corners are much more squared than on other instruments, his awareness of the delicacy of these features appears in the very narrow and delicate purfling that he uses to attenuate these details. The slightly drooping corners are a deliciously Stradivarian touch. It may be wishful thinking to ascribe these traits to any particular Stradivari rather than an amalgam of observations, but it shows a heightened awareness of Stradivari’s characteristics at a time when more London makers – those in the Betts circle especially – were emulating his models to an unprecedented degree.

The same precision is revealed on the head, which comes from a common template used by father and son. In keeping with his looser hand and choices of wood, Vincenzo’s scrolls feel hastily made with a characteristic roughness revelling in the faults of the wood. Crisp and clean scrolls appear throughout Vincenzo’s recognised work, which can possibly all be ascribed as Joseph’s hand. The belly of the instrument shares the edgework detail of the back (although it is now slightly worn and less distinctive) but his interest in following a Stradivarian ideal finds it’s limits. The soundholes are rather broad and very upright following a pattern that emerges in Panormo’s work in the earliest Stradivari-pattern violins made by Vincenzo in Paris, and that emerges over and over again, but the placement of them and their scale repeatedly fits rather awkwardly from the perspective of an eye trained in seeing Stradivari’s work. The result is a weakness in that they dominate the view of the violin. Knowing that the violin is by Panormo, it’s difficult not to blame this kind of fault on as an ‘English’ feature, but this would be wrong and in reality soundholes are one of the easiest details to get (mostly) right, and most English violins of the period tend to achieve that much precision, even if the rest of the instrument is entirely devoid of Italian characteristics. Instead, the better comparables lie in the later examples of Neapolitan workmanship by the Gagliano family in which these awkwardly positioned, wide, upright, faintly Stradivarian soundholes feature fairly routinely.

Joseph’s brother Louis was acutely aware of the importance of promoting instruments made in a foreign manner, consciously styling himself as ‘The only maker of Guitars in the Spanish Style’, whilst many of Vincenzo’s genuine labels make direct allusions to his status as an Italian in London. It seems that Joseph also felt that he occupied that special status continuing in his father’s place. Whilst the conservative wood choice of his violin inevitably draws the eye to it being an English instrument and perhaps some elements of Stradivarian flair demonstrate further obsessions that were absent from 1800-period of Italian making, the violin seems overall to be a clear reaction to the best Neapolitan violins reaching England at the time (‘Giuliano’ of Naples is listed amongst the ‘noted’ Italian makers in at least one London source from 1816). This brings us back to one of the great legends of Panormo’s original training. It seems highly unlikely that Vincenzo worked with the Gaglianos when he left Sicily, and there is no evidence for this in his early work. Instead it seems that the more Neapolitan a Panormo violin is, the later it is likely to be. In sum, Joseph’s violin seems compellingly set around a Gagliano ideal showing the same bold understanding of Italian arching that makes his father’s instruments so sought after. The almost clinical edgework, scroll and the pins in the back all point towards Cremonese influcence, and the mixture of the two schools of influence gives the violin it’s unique and identifiable appearance. Perhaps Joseph who was also born in Italy expressed self-conscious affinity to those makers working closest to the family’s celebrated origins across the Straits of Messina from Naples, in Palermo in Sicily. The comparison of his violin to those of Nicolo Gagliano at least, draws compelling similarities.


Joseph Panormo’s Neapolitan influence probably comes second-hand from Italian violins that he witnessed in London rather than any direct relationship but comparison against Nicolo Gagliano’s work from the 1760s draws compelling similarities.

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to endless discussions about Panormo and other English makers with Andrew Fairfax. By good fortune, this violin came to me days before the PANORMO exhibition hosted in London by Tarisio in October 2016.




1998: A Tribute to Neil Ertz

neil_ertzNeil Értz (1966-2016) was one of Britain’s best loved violin makers. I had the pleasure of selling a few of his instruments and chatting to him frequently about the new instruments that he was making, and the greater pleasure of counting him amongst my friends. A 1998 copy of Guarneri’s 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ allows a moment of reflection about the tremendous contribution he made to violin making across the world. 

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1744 ‘Ole Bull’ once considered by many to be too outlandish to be part of the Cremonese tradition

Looking back with what I know now, 1998 was one of the great turning points in modern violin making. I was a student learning instrument making at the time, so even if I had made it to New York for the Guarneri Exhibition, I don’t think I knew enough for it to make any profound impact on me. In the workshop we talked about Guarneri being a rougher kind of Strad, laughed at his anomalies and there the conversation stopped. If we were a little more informed we would have commented upon the elements that contrasted against our expected idea of Stradivari and the other Cremonese makers, but the very limited conversation that we enjoyed was one that echoed across the world of violin making. From Vuillaume up to the modern time, people tried to tidy up del Gesu’s work, applying his design forms within a framework that spoke as much for 20th century ideals of ‘honest craftsmanship’ as it did for an awareness of the more refined masterpieces of the past. Understanding of Guarneri’s masterpieces was so much in it’s infancy 30 years ago that at the time, the 1744 Ole Bull violin by del Gesu was still regarded by many as a fake, being too provocatively preposterous to conceivably exist within the spectrum of Classical Cremonese work. It is now one of the most celebrated examples in the world. Clean copies by makers such as William Luff or David Rubio that were once much respected in the top rank of English making now feel lacklustre and stilted by comparison to a better understanding of what del Gesu’s work really looks like, and the liberties which that gives to looking back on Stradivari and understanding the imperfections that give his violins their character.

Aside from the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the catalogue that followed can be counted as the most important book ever written on violin making. For the first time it included precise technical drawings of all of the instruments in the exhibition along with full-sized and painstakingly accurate colour photographs by Stewart Pollens. Whilst many more recent books have photographs of rival quality to these, they broke new ground, and later books lack the technical detail of technical drawings and measurements vital for violin making. Meanwhile, the collection of essays that filled the catalogue were the fruits of years of experimenting, analysis and research that finally gave us a profound insight into the Cremonese system of making. Roger Hargrave’s analysis was unrivalled in detail and insight. It allowed us to rethink the observations made in Simone Sacconi’s Secrets of Stradivari, going wider and further in its compelling arguments for how the great makers of the past made their instruments. It didn’t answer every question, but where it didn’t, it can be clearly seen as the springboard to further research and one of the most significant waypoints in the process of reclaiming the Cremonese tradition after many centuries of loss. Roger is quite adamant about one thing though. He couldn’t have achieved all that without the help of an unsung hero of the del Gesu story. The endless enthusiasm of the cheeky young Scot who came to work with him, Neil Értz.


Neil’s 1998 copy of Yehudi Menuhin’s 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ epitomises the renaissance in violin making that was taking place. Two years before he had been on a secret mission with a couple of colleagues (he told me it was secret, so it must have been) [Editor’s note: He told everyone it was secret, so it really was] to take plaster casts off this iconic instrument. At the time he didn’t care so much for the varnish, resulting in a good antiqued finish rather than a full-blown bench copy, but the woodwork beneath is startling: In the light of the research that he was working on with Roger for the 1998 exhibition, his violin is one of the most compelling and absorbing Guarneri copies I have seen.

I rarely get to see Guarneri copies that are as good. It takes a lot of experience of looking at del Gesu’s work, and reaching out further to his predecessors in the Guarneri family to understand how a consistent approach to making evolved in the workshop of Andrea Guarneri by the 1660s that developed a distinctive look separate from the Amatis and other dynasties of making. Yet beyond the varnish, it has it’s own irreverence. If Guarneri made a second instrument on the same form as the Lord Wilton at the same time, this is perhaps what Neil’s would be, with enough independence to let it stand out on it’s own without falling outside of the standards of the 1742 original. This was entirely Neil’s intention as with all his instruments: He was much more interested in calling it a violin ‘in the manner of Guarneri del Gesu, c.1742’, than acknowledging the a single prototype from which it was created.

It’s worth contrasting Neil’s violin with another from the same year by  Andreas Hellinge, which passed through our hands recently was a full bench copy, made when the original del Gesu was for sale in Zurich, with the intention of providing Menuhin with a memento of his last great violin. The philosophy of the precise copy is fundamentally different from Neil’s confidence in understanding del Gesu’s intentions to the point of producing a free interpretation. It is difficult to judge between the two, but the comparative outcomes prove to be totally fascinating in terms of beginning to understand and interpret masterpieces of the past.

Many times, I see violins by makers who are impressed by the aesthetic dynamism of a real del Gesu (or a photograph of one) and impose it on their Stradivarian ideals, producing a kind of hybrid instrument that is particular to violin making in our present generation, but even if they see a difference, they are seldom brave enough to go the full mile. When (you think) you know del Gesu’s works superficially, it’s all too easy to dismiss deep channelling in the corners as an exception amongst an inconsistent body of work. The hybrids that seem to be the majority of contemporary del Gesu copies that I see are sweet instruments, sometimes very beautiful indeed, but they have nothing of the sound qualities that differentiate a great del Gesu from a great Strad. It makes it all the more exciting when I see something so close to what the original should be.

ertz1998-detailNeil was always generous with his time and his knowledge. His constant posts on Maestronet were just one of the ways that he communicated far and wide about his continual developments about the violin, and after he passed away few of us could understand how he had made over 200 violins when he seemed to be always on the phone laughing and sharing with so many of his colleagues. He was always proud of this particular instrument and called this one a ‘really cool fiddle’ when I spoke to him about it on the Sunday before he died, and even though he also thought that he had come a long way over twenty years it was still one of the violins he was proud to have photographed on his website. It is just one example of very compelling contemporary making, and there is a good community of makers, many of whom have been inspired by Neil’s work, who have been making to this level over the last twenty years. Yet, because of the circumstances of it’s date, it epitomises this crucial moment in the modern history of violin making. I hope that Neil continues to inspire new generations of makers to look closer and revisit the old masters as he did in 1998.

In memoriam.



My Fiddle: British Pathé 1935

Instrument making in London celebrates a centenary since the National School for the Music Trades was first established. A film by British Pathé sheds light on what the extraordinary institution once was.  

The National School for the Music Trades was established in 1916 at the Polytechnic Institute of North London, and survives today after a succession of institutional changes existing at one time or another as it moved to the East End to become part of the London College of Furniture, City Polytechnic, London Guildhall University, and most recently as part of the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design of London Metropolitan University. It’s fortunes have been mixed over the years, but an astonishing number of violin makers and restorers from around the world trained there at one time or another, and as a centre for learning to make instruments, it has been an extraordinary jewel in our cultural landscape.

British Pathé’s visit to the school in 1935 provides a charmingly nostalgic vignette of the violin workshop that would have been played in cinemas across the country. A beautiful moment worth sharing. The photograph (above) is of the violin workshop in the 1950s with William Luff as the teacher. The place has a special place in my heart – I spent three happy years training there and another three teaching part time.

Andrew Brown, a violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra could have probably done with a few lessons from there. It’s a wonder to think that a generation before the Voller brothers were living in Streatham producing extraordinarily sought-after violins:

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage - Italy exhibited 1832 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Harold In Italy: Berlioz, Paganini and Henry Hill’s “incomparable” Barak Norman viola.

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For lucky owners of Barak Norman’s violas there is the tantalising possibility that theirs was the one celebrated by Berlioz after the first London performance of Harold in Italy. One instrument in particular may shed light on Henry Hill’s fabled 1848 performance. 


Thomas Phillips 1813 portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian dress following after Canto II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Harold in Italy has spiritual connections with England because  it is based on a set of poems by Lord Byron published between 1812 and 1818 that was well within the zeitgeist of 1830s London, and for Nicolo Paganini the identity of the wandering poet who had died in 1824 was already strongly inferred. In 1829, the reviewer of the Frankfurter Oberpostamtszeitung remarked that, “All of his compositions are possessed of an enraptured basis, that lends them an endlessly touching and artistic nature. We must say that these beg comparison with the memory of the poetic creations of the immortal Byron, where likewise in every line is expressed the pain of a wounded spirit.” Hence, by this time at least, Paganini had been cast as Byron’s spiritual successor.

In England, where Paganini arrived in 1831, Byron’s legacy was still strongly felt in cultured society. At the Royal Academy the following year, J.M.W. Turner exhibited his painterly interpretation of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy to enormous acclaim (now in Tate Britain). The sculptor, Richard Westmacott spoke of how the painting, Turner’s “Italy” is the most magnificent piece of landscape poetry that was ever conceived. It is like nothing but itself, so I cannot compare it with Claude or any other painter, to help your notion of it. To admirers of Paganini it would have been easy to see his wandering life as a comparison to the ‘Childe Harold’ on his pilgrimage through Europe in search of distraction after becoming disillusioned with his life of revelry and frivolity.


The preparatory study from life of George Patten’s celebrated portrait of Paganini exhibited at the R.A. in 1832. (From our private collection)

As Turner’s painting hung in the Royal Academy in 1832 Paganini was sitting for George Patten’s portrait, a dark and gothic portrayal of the violinist that became another celebrated painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the following year. (Patten kept the original until his death refusing to part with it, but painted a copy for Paganini in 1834). One further event for the year 1832 was Paganini’s purchase of a 1731 Stradivari viola from the dealer George Corsby in Leicester Square. This acquisition led directly to his invitation to Berlioz: “But I have no suitable music” he wrote. “Would you like to write a solo for viola? You are the only one I can trust for this task”.

Paganini undoubtedly had in mind a show-stopping exposition of solo virtuosity along the lines of his own caprices for the violin. Berlioz had different ideas for his piece, “by writing a solo for viola, but one which involved the orchestra in such a way as not to reduce the effectiveness of the orchestral contribution” he was able to produce a piece of music that was more within his own concept of orchestral music – the ideology that had driven his composition of Symphonie Fantastic in 1833 exploring the virtuosic depth and richness of the whole ensemble and consistent with the values expressed in his Grand traite d’instruments et d’orchestration modernes which he eventually published in 1843.


Paganini bowing before Berlioz, a posthumous painting by Adolphe Yvon from 1884.

This being completely contrary to Paganini’s ideas of virtuoso self-promotion, the pair parted ways. Harold In Italy  was first performed on 23 November 1834 with the Orchestra de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire with Chrétien Urhan taking the viola solo.  A piano transcription with viola accompaniment was written by Franz Listz in 1836 but it was not for another couple of years that Paganini finally heard the work on 16 December 1838. On the occasion, he was so overwhelmed by it that following the performance, he dragged Berlioz onto the stage, and there knelt and kissed his hand before a wildly cheering audience and applauding musician. Days later he sent Berlioz a letter of congratulations, enclosing a bank draft for 20,000 francs.

It is without question that Paganini’s purchase of a Stradivari viola was central to his inspiration to commission Harold in Italy, and it was upon this instrument that Urhan performed it’s premiere, but the whole story of Paganini’s infatuation with the viola and his quest for a distinctive sound goes further back. In 1832 before he came to London when he was writing his 24 Caprices for the violin, he had engaged  Francesco Borghi to produce a large instrument that became known as the ‘Controviola Paganini’, equipped with a fifth string in order to help accommodate it’s size. The implication of Paganini’s experiment (the instrument does not survive, and violin experts have long puzzled about who exactly Francesco Borghi liautio di Forlì really was) is that Paganini was exploring the possibilities of a larger-than-normal viola capable of producing virtuosic music with a distinctive sound quality that was separate from either the violin or the violoncello.

Paganini’s purchase of his gran viola (and the creativity that led to it’s commission) come from the months before his purchase of the Stradivari, and provide a narrative of his searching for an ideal of what the viola should be. Whilst the Stradivari viola had obvious prestige, it seems that it still left problems unresolved, for when he returned to England in 1834, it was the gran viola that was impounded by British customs (according to his letters to Luigi Germi his lawyer and confidant in Paris). With the full irony of so many unintentional viola jokes, he wrote “At last I have retrieved the gran viola which I have believed had been lost by the London Customs officials…I got it back on the 1st of April…”. This led to the completion of his Sonate per il gran viola which he performed on the 28th April, or as The Times reported: “Last night Signor Paganini introduced a performance on the viola, which was the first time he played this instrument in public.” The evidence suggests that although Harold in Italy had been inspired by his acquisition of his Stradivari viola, nonetheless, he was more attracted to his ideas of the ‘Controviola Paganini’ and was actively exploring these through his own composition experiments in London. Had he performed Harold in Italy himself when Berlioz finished it in the same year, it is uncertain whether he would have considered performing on his Stradivari or on the entirely different tonal properties of his ‘gran viola’.

Back in Paris, Berlioz was equally disenchanted with modern standards of the viola and was also seeking new colours of sound for the orchestra. In his  Grand traite d’instruments et d’orchestration modernes he railed against the status quo, seeking better alternatives:
“Here it must be said that most of the violas at present in our French orchestras have not the necessary dimensions. They have neither size, nor as natural consequence the tone power, of a real violas; they are mostly violins strung with viola strings. These Musical Directors should absolutely forbid the use of these bastard instruments, whose tone deprives one of the most interesting parts in an orchestra of its proper colour, robbing it of all its power, especially in the lower registers.”  


Thomas Zach’s 1873 Viola Arpa was developed under the scientific direction of Prince Stourdza and was based on Chaldny’s work on plate vibrations (Musée de la Musique, Paris, E.668)

Between Paganini, Berlioz and the violin maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume the continued interest in the idea of a fulfilling the missing elements of the full string orchestra, spawning a series of ideals and interpretations on the theme. Vuillaume was looking further than most, and his most remarkable experiment was the legendary sub-acoustic Octobass (tuned an octave below the double bass) that he invented in time for the World’s Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. A second example made of the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1855 is called for in Charles Gounod’s mass for St Cecilia written that year, but as an instrument to reinforce the double basses of the orchestra there is little specific writing for it – it was nonetheless praised by composers of the period from Berlioz to Richard Wagner (Berlioz suggested all orchestras should have three of them). On this wave of inventions that directly responding to Berlioz’s demands for the orchestra came Vuillaume’s own ‘contralto viola’, curiously rejecting the large Italian contralto designs of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries in favour of a shorter body length, deeper ribs and a wider body: Three such instruments made around the period of the 1855 Exposition Universelle survive. These appear to precipitate a Europe-wide interest in creating a distinctive large viola, along side his equally experimental soprano violon de Jullien comprising a similar body shape. Hermann Ritter in Berlin designed a viola alta which Richard Wagner specified for his orchestra at Bayreuth (which like the Contralto Paganini eventually ended up with a fifth string to ease playing the higher registers on so big an instrument). Alfred Stelzner and Thomas Zach also explored mathematical and scientific principles to create a distinctive viola with deeper and richer sounds.

Given  this background some significant questions arise about the instruments that Berlioz had in mind through the 1830s and 1840s including what he really intended for Harold in Italy. Paganini had already established the principle of a ‘gran viola’ before Harold in Italy was written, and an interest in a distinctive acoustic carried on throughout that period of the nineteenth century. Berlioz was not a particular connoisseur of old instruments in the way that Paganini was, and his interest – leading to his Traite d’instruments was almost purely that of a technologist. Hence, when he wrote Evenings in the Orchestra, describing “Mr Hill, … an Englishman, one of the first viola-players in Europe, owning an incomparable instrument” it is likely to be commentary on it’s design rather than it’s rarified connoisseurly value: Berlioz has no reputation for making judgements about one Stradivari over another Guarneri, but the use of the word ‘incomparable’ sits comfortably within his zeal for technological innovation and novelty, as for example, he described the Saxophone when it was first exposed as an invention in the Journal des Débats in 1842  “… of such rare quality that, to my knowledge, there is not a bass instrument in use nowadays that could be compared to the saxophone”… whose “character is absolutely new, and does not resemble any of the timbres heard up till now in our orchestras…”.

It was Henry Hill who gave the first London performance of Harold in Italy  under Berlioz’s Baton on 7 February 1848 at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Family folklore cited by the Hill brothers in their monologue on Stradivari claims that both he performed on the Paganini viola, as Urhan had at the Paris premiere, though this is countered by Berlioz’s fascination with the incomparable nature of his own instrument. But we know from the recollections of H.R. Haweis, who was also in attendance at the premier, that his memorable instrument was a Barak Norman, as he wrote in Old Violins and Violin Lore (1898):

Henry distinguished himself as an admirable quartet player, and well do I remember the splendid tone of his Barak Norman tenor at Willis’s Rooms far back as I think 1848, when Sainton, Piatti and Cooper – one of the best, as it was almost the earliest string quartet cast in London … Berlioz always spoke of Henry Hill in terms of the highest praise; he even went so far as to say that he considered him one of the first performers in Europe… It is seldom that a tenor player ever comes in for direct commendation. He acts as a sort of go-between to violoncello and violin’. 

London ill news

Henri Vieuxtemps, Adolphe Deloffre, Henry Hill and Alfredo Piatti with the Duke of Cambridge and John Ella in attendance at the Musical Union in 1846

Of the few Barak Norman violas that survive, there is  nothing particularly out of the ordinary about any of them, except for one as we shall see. His work is towards the Italian end of English making around the 1700 period and he certainly had direct connection with Daniel Parker, for even violins with Norman’s authentic original label in them have from time to time proven to be mostly of Parker’s hand and some of these are amongst the finest sounding instruments made in England. Yet for Berlioz to term such an instrument as ‘incomparable’ seems an unlikely turn of phrase when compared to Cremonese masterpieces such as Paganini’s own Stradivari viola. More to the point, it seems curious that H.R. Haweis should have singled out Henry Hill’s viola – irrespective of who made it, in the context of a quartet in which Alfredo Piatti was playing his Stradivari cello of 1717, and Prosper Sainton’s Guarneri of 1744 – or indeed that the son of one of London’s most successful violin dealers should have fixed with a Barak Norman when a prestigious Cremonese instrument might have been at easy reach.


Jean Baptiste Vuillaume’s contralto viola made in 1855. One of several experiments that he made to provide the ‘proper colour’ in the orchestra that Berlioz called for. (Muziekinstrumentenmuseum Brussels, Inv. No. 0235)

Within this context the large sized viola by Barak Norman is a good candidate for the term ‘incomparable’ to be applied to it’s sound and it’s design. At a colossal 17 3/4 inches it is around the size of the large Cremonese tenore instruments of Andrea Guarneri and Stradivari, but the ribs are proportioned like a cello, giving it an very deep and unusual quality of sound. Despite the enormous dimensions of the viola, the folds in the back make it a surprisingly playable instrument beneath the chin. With Paganini’s initial concept for his sonata per il gran viola in mind, the viola sits convincingly amongst the the continued experiments of Vuillaume, Ritter, Stenzer and Zach to provide instruments of greater volume, and responds equally to Berlioz’s damnation of viola design of the time. It not only appears that the instrument was perfectly suited to the kind of ideas emerging in the 1830s as Harold in Italy was composed, but it is plausible that Henry Hill could have identified the instrument as corresponding to his own understanding of Paganini’s conceptual gran viola choosing to use it for Harold in Italy, and perhaps more widely because of the allusions it provided to Paganini’s influence. Whether he had met Paganini in 1833-34 or not, his colleagues in the Musical Union were eyewitnesses to Paganini’s experiments.

An ‘incomparable’ viola. 

The 1690s and early 1700s were a period of tremendous experimentation amongst the leading London makers, and whilst on one level there was an increasing awareness of Cremonese standards of instrument makers, concepts in design varied radically. Interpretations of the newly emerging violoncello range from ‘piccolo’ sizes up to those approximating the over-sized Venetian bass violin, all being produced within a small community of makers around St Paul’s Churchyard out of which Barak Norman was a leading member.

1607 Amati

This 1607 instrument by Girolamo Amati probably began life as a treble viol

Throughout the seventeenth-century, Northern Italian makers had produced at least two standards of viola, ‘contralto’ and the larger ‘tenore’, but other instruments existed as well: From the 1590s the brothers Amati had explored possibilities of viol making. One surviving bass viol from 1611 is in the Ashmolean Museum (with a similar instrument at the Smithsonian Institution and various others converted into cellos), a tenor is in the Russian State Collection, and at Hamamatsu City in Japan, a 1607 viola-sized instrument by Girolamo Amati with corresponding deep ribs also survives – presumably a ‘treble’ (though Réne Morel gave it a new neck to turn it into a kind of lira da braccio). Whether such instruments directly influenced English makers of the 1700s is uncertain: The Carbonelli Inventory intriguingly refers to ‘English’ viols made by Nicolo Amati perhaps describing this model. Although the semi-carved folded back of the viola  is an Amati precedent (from the basses and tenor) that found its way into other English violas by makers in Barak Norman’s close circle – Daniel Parker and Robert Thompson. Nevertheless, the deep ribs may equally have arisen from Norman’s experience as a leading English viol maker of the day.

Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell by John Closterman probably around 1695 (NPG 4994) It is unlikely that Barak Norman had built this viola by the time Purcell died, so there is no direct link

The outline and general scale of the instrument does point to more direct Cremonese influence. Although the precise outline is Norman’s own, the gross dimensions have a good deal in common with Andrea Guarneri’s 1664 tenore, or the 1690 Stradivari made for the Medici court in Florence. An alternative influence may, however, come from the French court from the 1650s where the five-part violin bands existed with a larger (probably five string) Quintes des violon serving as a second viola part. No such instruments survive from seventeenth-century France despite firm musicological evidence for them – seventeenth-century French instruments of the violin family are vanishingly rare – but the requirement for such an orchestration would have reached England after the Restoration of King Charles II and specifically after John Bannister returned from Paris in 1662 where he had been sent to train under J.B. Lully. Henry Purcell’s Fantazias for a violin consort all predate the likely period when this instrument was made, although it fits logically as the instrument for the lower-register viola part (where the hardness of a normal viola c-string interrupts the delicate harmonic balances within the music). These relate to a genre of ‘theatre music’ tied to Restoration fashion for plays, which followed on from a prototype derived from French opera under Purcell, John Blow and a plethora of lesser known English composers, for which a similar instrumentation is pertinent, which lasted up until the 1720s when George Frederick Handel established the Royal Academy of Music (not the conservatoire, but an opera company), transforming English taste towards Italian opera.

Whether the instrument had further uses is impossible to tell. The tonal qualities work well against a tenor human voice, and as a result the instrument fits naturally towards an obligato strong accompaniment to song – as pertinent to a harking back to the Renaissance lira da braccio, as it is to looking forward to Brahms’ songs for alto, viola and piano. The possibility of a purpose as accompaniment in song repertoire of it’s time should be taken seriously, although finding specific evidence to argue for that idea is beyond the nature of musicological documents. It may also have had a use as a tenor part in a period when antiquarian viol consort music seems to have been increasingly played in violin ensembles, leading to the conversion of tenor and treble viols to a ‘violin-like’ state with reduced numbers of strings and folded backs (or lowered ribs) to allow playing beneath the chin.

Several instruments from the first half  of the eighteenth century exist with similar dimensions, Egidius Snoeck in Brussels made one in 1714 for example, and later Johann Christian Hoffmans in Leipzig produced instruments of this sort, but without exception these – identified as viola pomposa, or viola da spalla, are made entirely like small cellos, meaning that the a player would be incapable of holding them under the chin: Barak Norman’s example is unique for this variation.

medina cabal

Charles II’s “Private Musick” by J.B. Medina, circa 1662 seems to show either an abnormally small bass violin or a viola comparable to the French Quint de violon although the image may be deceptive.

Barak Norman’s viola is not labelled, but he lived from 1651 to 1724, appearing as a journeyman in 1688 and establishing his shop at the sign of the Bass Viol in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1690. It is decorated with his monogram which does not appear on viols before about 1695, and is stamped ‘NORMAN’ in several places on the inside. It is, in fact, the only time that I have seen a smaller variant of his monogram, which I previously thought to be impossible for genuine examples. The purfling, varnish, soundholes and scroll are all very typical of his work, and although it seems to fit closer to the 1710-1720s, in terms of a likely period when it was made, the later it is dated the more anomalous it seems to be. It is unlikely that many more such instruments were ever made, let alone have survived – I certainly know of no further examples, I don’t know what it would have been called when it was made, and I am not one-hundred percent certain of the reasons for which it was made. Nevertheless, it has a lot to say about the viola throughout it’s history, and if it really does have something to do with Henry Hill (at least, if it is reflective of his concept of Paganini’s gran viola), it has the basis of a great conversation piece.

Barak Norman’s Tenore viola of circa 1700


I am very grateful to Peter Sheppard-Skaerved for sharing various observations about Paganini and particularly correspondence about the gran viola, and to Emma Alter for her observations about the use of instruments of this sort in the time of Purcell.



Vintage chin rests by W.E. Hill & Sons

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Expert, dealer and consultant for fine stringed instruments

The W.E. Hill & Sons workshop produced an enormous array of accessories for stringed instruments. As the twentieth century progressed they were at the vanguard of research and development into the chin rest as it became an indispensable part of violin playing. Many of their designs take the names of leading proponents of particular designs including such names as Karl Flesch, Fritz Kreisler and Bronislav Huberman. 

We found a very rare copy of W.E. Hill & Sons catalogue of chin rests, probably printed in the 1950s (we’ll update when we have a better idea). The publication is now so scarce that our copy will be making it’s way to Oxford’s Bate Collection as part of the Fiddle Sticks exhibition celebrating the Hill’s tradition of bow making, but some of us might find an online reference useful.

Many of these designs are still handmade in England, and can be bought from Alexander Accessories. We try to keep a variety of their more popular models in stock in London.

We’ll try to update the blog as examples turn up. In the meantime, here’s the catalogue.




Matthew Hardie and the Alday Strad.

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Experts, dealers and consultants for fine stringed instruments.

Paul Alday’s reputation as one of the most influential violinists of the late Eighteenth-century is all but forgotten, as is the Stradivari violin that he played. An important rediscovery of a violin by Matthew Hardie ‘the Scottish Stradivari’ sheds new light on the identity of the missing Alday Strad.  


Sir William Allen’s portrait of Matthew Hardie painted in about 1822 (National Galleries, Scotland PG1955)

Matthew Hardie’s reputation as the ‘Scottish Stradivari’ is often difficult to reconcile with his output. It is true that he is about the earliest Scottish maker for whom a consistent body of instruments survive, and that his career influenced numerous followers in the generation after, more or less dominating the fine craft of violin making in Scotland, and it is true that few other Scottish violins of the period are quite as fine as those made by Hardie. Calling him the ‘father’ of the Edinburgh tradition of violin making would be a fairly accurate way to describe him, and it is without argument that the many of the best violins made in Scotland were made by him, but overall the reputation as the ‘Scottish Stradivari’ seems generous. That is, until you see his very best work.

Hardie’s own life could be the subject of a romantic novel, pitching from success and fame to poverty, a debtor’s prison and a pauper’s grave, and his instruments reflect his varied fortunes. He also worked at a time when there was small supply of imported low-end instruments, pitched against a relatively high demand for the violin from all over Scotland. Makers from across the country produced relatively rough violins, with a strong tradition for local and cheap making persevering long after inexpensive factory violins became available across the British Isles from imported sources. Instead, viewing this end of the market as a ready way of making money, Hardie evidently saw good business sense in making a few speedy instruments each year that he could sell cheaply and fasts. Quaintly (and erroneously) termed ‘debtor’s prison’ violins, it is possible to find these instruments made from very basic materials, yet the spirit of a good craftsman means that beyond the visual aesthetics, it is difficult to produce a lower quality of sound and these instruments can punch heavily above their weight.

Hardie’s cheaper instruments are romantically linked to his time in a debtor’s prison, but they were probably made each year to satisfy the lower end of the market. The varnish is very basic, and the inked-purfling is typical. The native woods include old spruce that has worm repairs from before it was made into a violin.

His better output demonstrates a good relationship with the London trade, earning the same reputation as London’s leading makers of the period, with high demand for them amongst modern professional players. These instruments mirror the designs and ideas of the Betts workshop and the many middle range instruments being made in London by families such as Furber and Kennedy: Instruments invariably based on broadly Stradivarian ideas that were easy to produce at a high quality with a good deal of individuality. Hardie occasionally went out of his way to produce something more substantial. These violins are rare, with perhaps a dozen only that exist from a total output of some hundreds, but they establish him as one of the earliest British makers to consciously copy Stradivari’s work.


Hardie’s ‘long pattern’. 

Charles Harris was making Long Pattern violins in Adderbury, Oxfordshire in the 1820s. One of exceptionally few makers to adopt this form.

Hardie’s masterpieces are copies of an early-1690s ‘Long Pattern’ Stradivari violin – a highly unusual choice for violin for British violin making, going against the general trends of violin making across Europe. The same model would continue to figure prominently in Edinburgh violin making of Thomas Hardie and David Stirrat into the 1840s whilst elongated forms observed from the ‘Long Pattern’ appeared in hand of William Ferguson and other contemporaneous makers suggesting a much looser, but nevertheless significant influence on Scottish making. The ‘Long Pattern’ it should be noted, was hardly used as a pattern in Britain. Apart from Daniel Parker’s invariably original interpretations in the early 1700s, William Prior in Newcastle in the 1720s and Richard Duke’s copies of the ‘Falmouth’ Stradivari around the 1770s were really the only precedents excepting Stradivari himself. Outside of Scotland during Hardie’s lifetime, Charles Harris in Oxfordshire appears to have been the only other violin maker to regularly use this form.

A receipt for a violin sold in 1803 in the archives of the Edinburgh Musical Society gives us greater insight into the reasons for using this particular form, and identifies an important influence on Hardie’s developing career.

Matthew Hardie’s receipt of 9 February 1803 with annotations by Gilbert Innes. National Archive of Scotland GD113/5/357 reproduced with permission from David Rattray’s Violin Making In Scotland 1750-1950.



Gilbert Innes of Stow, a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland from 1794 to 1832 he was a significant patron of music and the arts though upon his death in 1839 claims emerged that he had fathered 67 illegitimate children.

Edin 9 Feb. 1803 Received by Gilbert Innes Esq. – Six Guineas being in full for a violin now sold him & all demands prior to this date.
Matthew Hardie

Later – it is not certain how much later – Gilbert Innes, to whom the receipt was written added the following annotation to the receipt:

This violin was made by Hardie after the exact pattern and shape of Alday’s Stradivarius – the wood of this violin was imported from Hamburg & is prepared in a Particular way. Thos Trotter Esq. assures me it is superior in tone to any of his violins & to any that ever Hardie made and, he alleges, far superior to Alday’s violin – it is a brownish-yellow colour & has a small bit of wood three quarters of an inch long indented on the belly near the fingerboard. Thomas Trotter tells me that he knows a man who saw the wood of which the fiddle is made, lying cut in the Black Forest in Germany & the the wood has been prepared by a late invention of Mat Hardies as to give the effect of age to new wood. 

Gilbert Innes was a leading figure in Edinburgh musical circles and the closest thing Hardie had to a ‘patron’. His statement naming Alday as the owner of a Stradivari is significant, and his detail about the particular accuracy of the copies only relates to Hardie’s ‘Long Pattern’ copies, so there is a simple conclusion, that in the absence of other kinds of Stradivari copies the Long Pattern copies must all have been based on Alday’s Stradivari.


Paul Alday’s significance.

The Palaise de Tuilieres in Paris where the Concert Spirituel met in the years before the French Revolution

The significance of Alday’s Stradivari lies in his own identity, as not only the most celebrated violinist in Edinburgh during the period of the Scottish Enlightenment, but as a violinist whose fame was eclipsed only by Giovanni Baptista Viotti in the public eye during the decade before the French Revolution. In 1782 Paul Alday and Viotti had both made their Paris debut at the Concert Spirituele. Alday performed his violin concerto, published in 1780 that was already established as a favourite of virtuosos in France, but the reception that he gained in Paris was immediately overshadowed by Viotti’s staggering rise to fame. The two violinists shared a friendship and mutual respect of each other’s playing, such that when Viotti suddenly retired from public performance, it was Alday who took his place, becoming the leading performer of Viotti’s concertos to the public at the Concert Spirituele and at Viotti’s Théâtre Feydeau, making him an integral figure in keeping Viotti’s music in the consciousness of Paris audiences. This was a role that differed significantly from that of Viotti’s younger ‘disciples’, Kreutzer, Baillot and Rode who later became the founding professors of the Paris Conservatoire.

The Montgolfier brothers outside the venue of the Concert Spirituel.

Alday gave his last performance at the Concert Spirituel in April 1792 before fleeing the French Revolution. By March 1793 he gave three performances of his own concerto at the ‘Oratorios’ at the Haymarket Theatre, the most prestigious music venue in London. It was here that he is said to have insulted the audiences with his variations on God Save the King which went on forever owing to a misunderstanding about how the English appreciated their national anthem, whereupon he took to travelling around the United Kingdom. At Oxford he found a career as leader of the Oxford Music Room, publishing a rather more successful version of his variations for two violins and it was likely that even this led him to travel from one city to another. By 1803 and perhaps as early as 1799 he moved to Edinburgh, but seems to have had trouble settling. In 1804 he performed in Dublin and Cork, and again came to Dublin in 1805 to give a series of twelve concerts. He was a director and teacher in Edinburgh again in 1806, and in 1809 he moved to Dublin permanently.

15035 Pique 1804  double

François Pique’s interpretation of Stradivari from 1804 typifies the very best of Parisian workmanship from this period.

Gilbert Innes’ claims about Alday’s Stradivari infer that the violin, and not just it’s player held a certain celebrity status within Scottish musical society since it was important to him that Hardie had copied it so well – just as Viotti had centred his own reputation around championing the Stradivari violin that he performed upon, leading directly in France to the careful Stradivarian copies of Nicolas Lupot and the eventual rise of the 19th-century Paris school of Aldric, Chanot and Pique. Whatever Stradivari belonged to Paul Alday, it was presumably one that had met the approval of Viotti, and was – following in Viotti’s legend – a violin of almost equal importance to Viotti’s own in influencing the French public of the 1780s. Nonetheless, beyond the observation that Hardie copied a Long Pattern Stradivari of the early 1690s, and the deduction that this must have been Alday’s any knowledge of which particular instrument it was has been lost.



Understanding Hardie’s violin.  

The small handful of Hardie’s Long Pattern Stradivari copies that have been known until now were made as new, and the methodology for antiquing is generally not considered to have evolved in Britain until sometime close to 1820 around the time that Viotti notoriously instructed John Betts to make a perfect reproduction of a pupil’s Stradivari, reproducing every crack and blemish (click here for the 1839 account of Viotti, Old Betts, and the  Stradivarius). Likewise it was after 1820 that Vuillaume famously fooled Paganini with an exact copy of his Guarneri violin, indicating how uninitiated violin makers and violinists alike were to the idea of the exact replica or forgery. Nevertheless the ‘exact shape and pattern’ described by Gilbert Innes and the preparation ‘by a late invention of Mat Hardies as to give the effect of age to new wood’ in 1803 both suggest a consciously antiqued and aged violin.


Hardie’s more extraordinary work includes this viola, built from parts of an old bass viol on an enlarged version of the Alday Stradivari pattern sometime around 1820. We like to think this was the instrument made for George IV.

For some years we have been conscious of Hardie’s ability to antique instruments thanks to an unusual viola that he fashioned from a seventeenth-century bass viol. This is one of two such examples that have survived, one of which was commissioned by Innes as the gift of the Edinburgh Music Society to King George IV on the occasion of his State Visit to Scotland. The final shape of this particular viola is an enlarged 15 1/2 inch interpretation of the Alday long pattern. Despite being a mindbogglingly complex recycling of an earlier instrument, it retains Hardie’s original neck from around 1820, and the finished product as Hardie knew it remains remarkably pure. As a result, when a Hardie violin turned up with the same techniques of antiquing,  the two instruments clearly corroborated each other as being in a very pure condition close to how they left the maker’s hands, the violin seemingly both ‘the exact shape and pattern‘ as Alday’s Stradivarius.

The violin was of further interest because of the unusual ‘brownish-yellow’ colour which is typical of nitric acid being used to ‘give the effect of age to new wood’, a characteristic that appears to be particular to this instrument alone. As with many other of Hardie’s instruments, he doesn’t seem to have let a blemish in the wood prevent it’s use if it was good enough for him.  Remarkably, Innes noted that the exact copy ‘superior in tone’ to ‘any that Hardie ever made’ had ‘a small bit of wood three quarters of an inch long indented on the belly near the fingerboard’. Given the whimsical nature of old Scot’s dialect there is a level of interpretation needed to understand what the sentence meant, but the operative word seems to be ‘indented’ suggesting that there was a part of the wood with an indentation in it, rather than a piece of wood fitted into the belly. Such an indentation, (albeit only half an inch long) is clearly visible near the bass side of the fingerboard. It seemed inconceivable to think of such an accomplished antiqued copy of a Stradivari to come from so early a period, yet the documentation and evidence from the violin itself proved clear enough to revisit our preconceptions of British, and in particular Scottish making around 1803. Whether it proved to be a ‘bench copy’ or just an antiqued copy, the nature of this violin demanded significant revisions to our perception of the history of violin making.

The Alday Stradivari, a rediscovery. 


Photographing Paul Alday’s 1692 Stradivari with Hardie’s 1803 copy at the Musée de la Musique in Paris with Jean-Philippe Echard.

The final triumph of Hardie’s instrument would come from marrying it up with the original from which it was copied if the violin survived and was in good enough condition for a comparison to be made. Potentially this could run to nothing at all if the original was lost or transformed beyond recognition, or if Hardie had simply produced an antique look to his instrument with no particular care for precise detail. This was not what the Innes letter suggested, but at a time when the concept of precise copying was embryonic, there was no guarantee of Hardie’s work being to the same exacting standards of the modern-day copyist. Nevertheless, the possibility remained to examine how precisely Hardie took the copying and antiquing process, and potentially to assess how much the original had changed in the years after 1803. Most importantly, if the violin could possibly be identified, it would provide the opportunity to readdress it’s provenance, as now one of the key Stradivari violins of the Viotti period. Luckily, as a long pattern, there were relatively few surviving instruments that could be contenders, and as fortune would have it, the violin turned out to be relatively unchanged since 1803. Fatefully for a Stradivari with iconic importance for France, it had been sitting quietly in the national collections since it had been gifted to the Paris Conservatoire by Auguste-Henry-Edouard, marquis de Queux de St Hilare in 1890.


Jan Röhrmann’s photographs of the 1692 ‘Longuet’ in the Stradivari Varnish book are the best source of photographic study for this.

The 1692 ‘Longuet’ as it is generally known is now in the Musee de la Musique where it is on display, and it is featured in Brigitte Brandmair and Stefan Peter Greiner’s book on Stradivari Varnish. The Marquis de Queue de St Hilare was an antiquarian musical amateur who corresponded with Delphin Alard, and amongst whose other musical possessions that he left to the conservatoire was a viola by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume made in 1826. It is not known when the marquis acquired the violin, nor from where, but the thick sooty accretions around the bridge area of the belly are artificial of the sort that Vuillaume and his Parisian contemporaries applied to new and old instruments alike from about the 1840s, indicating that it had spent most of the nineteenth-century back in France after Alday’s death in Dublin in 1835.


Front crop

Hardie’s 1803 copy of Alday’s Stradivari gives an impression of what the violin looked like when it was just a hundred years old. The darkening around the bridge and soundholes were applied by Vuillaume or one of his contemporaries following a French fashion of the mid-nineteenth-century.

The artificial blacking, and subsequent buildup of rosin makes Stradivari’s original the dirtier of the two, and it has remained in an uncleaned and unpolished state throughout the twentieth century making the ‘moustache’ an increasingly rare document (on a Stradivari) of mid-nineteenth-century aesthetic practice applied to instruments that didn’t look old enough to have an immediate antique appeal. Overall, the belly of Hardie’s instrument depicts the varnish in slightly better condition than the Stradivari. The tongue of varnish that follows the purfling up the bass side of the upper bouts has worn away on Stradivari’s example, but is still visible as an uneroded white layer in ultraviolet photographs, and in similar areas where Hardie left more varnish on the instrument ultraviolet investigation emphasises the accuracy with which he copied the look of the Stradivari in 1803.
Hardie Strad

Several early-1690s Stradivari violins show signs of extreme varnish loss early in their use, and the hard chipped edges of the red varnish on the ‘Longuet’ are typical. Hardie was unwilling to antique his copy to the same extreme, but elements of the outline seem to have guided his eye. Perhaps this was for the simple self-respect of a violin maker unwilling to go to the necessary extremes, or this possibly indicates his caution fearful of being mistaken as a forger.

Alday’s travels from Edinburgh to Dublin may account for some of the discrepancies in the instruments. It is unlikely that the market in fakes was developed enough in 1803 for some of the differences to mean much. Hardie used a slab-cut one piece back to differentiate his instrument from the original, there are no Cremonese pins in the back as he may not have thought these particularly relevant to the process of making a violin, and the greatest difference between the two violins is in the varnish on the back. The sharp and chippy edges of the varnish on Stradivari’s 1692 original are typical of varnish that fell away from the violin early in it’s life, and despite a 90% varnish loss to the instrument, the evidence is that this happened in it’s first few years, without a great deal of playing wear. It’s unlikely that Hardie’s dignity could accept the level of varnish loss necessary to make an absolute copy of Stradivari’s original, and if the two violins were compared to one and other whilst resting on their backs, they would appear as identical in the parts that were visible. Hence he has moderated the wear patterns, although even in this element of artistic license, he has followed the general pattern of wear with strong observation. The ribs seem a little raw in their antiquing, with a sharp contrast between browns and reddish colouring, but comparison under good light conditions shows that these are also cleverly observed from the original.

Alday scrolls

The scroll of the 1692 ‘Longuet’ made in Stradivari’s 1665-1670 period compared to Hardie’s work. The broad chamfers are out of keeping with Stradivari’s style and give the work an unfamiliar appearance, but the dimensions are remarkably close.

The most complex area of the copy is the scroll, which seems at first glance to be very typically Hardie’s work, as if he was disinterested in copying Stradivari’s work beyond getting the body right. Other ‘Alday’ copies have far more accomplished Stradivarian scrolls, so perhaps this is an indication of his caution, leaving deliberate signatures within the work so he couldn’t be accused of deception. Whilst at first the scroll has little to do with Stradivari, I was surprised on seeing the ‘Longuet’ to discover that it too has an anomalous head, dating from Stradivari’s first period around 1665-70, although the red varnish matched the body indicating that it originally belonged to this violin. Reappraising Hardie’s scroll with this in mind did not excuse the broad chamfers and depth of undercutting that all seemed removed from any Stradivarian intention. When Anne Houssay of the Musee de la Musique put a fresh pair of eyes on the problem, she discovered from calliper measurements that the two scrolls had near identical dimensions despite their differences, and however clumsy Hardie’s work looked against the original, overwhelming evidence showed that it had been derived from measuring that Stradivari’s particular original scroll.

Hardie’s one deviation from Stradivari is in the location of the soundholes, which are located a fraction higher up the body than in Stradivari’s own work. In fact, the placement with the soundholes close to the edge of the c-bouts is consistent with other violins of other patterns by Hardie, and contribute to a shorter stop length, consistent with a normal sized violin. This inconsistency could simply occur by using a sound hole template located on the belly from the centreline using the stop length as a reference measurement, and could have occurred unnoticed on Hardie’s work. It is seen throughout Edinburgh long-pattern violins, which all have a regular stop indicating that it was Hardie’s initial impressions of Alday’s Stradivari that influenced Scottish making, rather than repeated access to the original instrument. For the most part it is certain that Hardie had enough contact time with the ‘Longuet’ to almost entirely make a ‘bench copy’ making it one of the earliest examples of this kind of work on record, and placing Hardie generations ahead of his time, comparable to John Lott, or the best ‘exact copies’ made by the Voller Brothers for Hart & Sons. A pin passing through the button into the neck of both instruments may suggest that Hardie had repaired the neck of Alday’s Stradivari allowing him to come into extended contact with it. Nevertheless, the loss of accuracy in different elements from the scroll to the position of the soundholes throw up other questions. Was he largely working from drawings and watercolour paintings of the ‘pattern’ of antiquing, with the original absent at crucial moments in the making process, or was he simply conscious of the perils of making too good a copy? Whichever the case may be, the violin is a remarkable survival from the period of the Scottish Enlightenment, it substantially rewrites our perception of the history of copying throughout Europe, and more than substantiates his reputation as the ‘Scottish Stradivari’.




David Rattray’s Violin Making in Scotland 1750-1950 without which it would have been impossible to write this article.

I am indebted to Jean-Philippe Echard and Anne Houssay at the Musée de la Music in Paris for their assistance and enthusiasm in allowing Hardie’s violin to be compared to the ‘Longuet’. Their collaboration in a shared project certainly enriched the learning experience from seeing the instruments together for two days in Paris. I am particularly grateful to Jean-Phillippe for his assistance with photography of the two violins, and especially for enabling the two instruments to be shot in the same frame as part of a detailed forensic comparative investigation. Jonathan Frohnen has sent me facsimiles of Alday’s delightful variations on God Save the King for two violins published which are included above. David Rattray’s excellent book on Violin Making in Scotland 1750-1950 (BVMA Publications, 2006) has shone enormous light on the  traditions of Scottish making, and it is certain that this article would not have been able to take shape without the guidance that his book gives or the various long discussions that we have enjoyed over the years. A version of this article appears in the June 2016 edition of the British Violin Maker’s Association Newsletter.

The photographs below of the ‘Longuet’ and Hardie’s 1803 violin shot in the same frame at the laboratory of the Musée de la Musique.