When Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume visited London in 1872 he caused a considerable fracas amongst British dealers through his antics at the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments held at South Kensington. Benjamin Hebbert examines the circumstances of his visit, and reveals photographs taken of the ‘Messiah’ at the time of the exhibition whilst still in Vuillaume’s possession. First published in the March 2011 ‘Messiah’ issue of The Strad.
In the early 1870s a controversy erupted in the London violin world, and even the presence in the city of the most celebrated instrument of all could not reconcile those involved. The disagreement was caused by the French violin maker and dealer Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume whose behaviour in curating an 1872 exhibition of ancient instruments angered several leading figures in the violin trade. Among these was the English novelist and dealer Charles Reade, who was so enraged by Vuillaume’s ungentlemanly conduct that he openly attacked the Parisian in letters to the press. In this sulphurous atmosphere, not even the excitement of seeing the Frenchman’s prized Stradivari violin, the mint-condition ‘Messie’ could diminish the antipathy Reade felt towards its owner.
To commemorate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall in 1871, a committee was formed to secure the loan of specimens for the Special Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments, an event which was to be hosted at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, the following year. Vuillaume was appointed as part of a Paris-based sub-committee, and was given personal responsibility to ‘superintend the arrangement of the Italian Stringed Instruments’ for this exhibition. The Frenchman was well respected in England and had significant links to the London violin trade where he had bought and sold many antique instruments, and where there was a ready market for his new violins. His influence was felt strongly in the formation of the exhibition and his direct contribution was considerable, the Frenchman loaning four instruments of the highest quality – the ‘Violon du Diable’ by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gésu and, by Stradivari, the ‘Messie’ and ‘La Pucelle’ violins, as well as a 16th century Brescian cittern that he erroneously attributed to Stradivari.
Significantly, the exhibition committee did not include any British violin dealer or expert among its 45 members. Whatever reasons surrounded this snub to the British violin trade on it’s own soil, Vuillaume capitalised on it mercilessly in the exhibition catalogue, treating his rivals with appalling contempt. Read and his fellow British dealers John Hart and Georges Chanot each loaned fine instruments to the exhibition, yet Vuillaume described them in the catalogue with nothing more that ‘A VIOLIN, By Straduarius’. In other places he poured doubt on attributions of instruments belonging to rival London dealers, in order to diminish the reputation of the London trade. In one case he wrote acidly, ‘if we may rely on the label inside, by Gaspar di Salo’, and elsewhere ‘ascribed to Guarnerius, probably Storioni’. Simultaneously, he turned the catalogue into a brochure dedicated to his own commercial success, and he devoted detailed descriptions to those instruments in which he had a vested interest, including half a page – the longest description in the entire catalogue – to his beloved ‘Messiah’.
Charles Reade was justifiably enraged by Vuillaume’s behaviour. In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, published on 24 August 1872, he sought to belittle the Frenchman’s contribution by purposely underplaying examples of Stradivari’s golden period, writing simply that ‘for nearly twenty years Stradivari poured forth with unceasing fertility some admirable works, of which you have three fine examples, under average wear, hard wear, and no wear – 90, 92, 91. Please look at the three violins in this order to realised what I have indicated before – that time is no sure measure in this business.’ These numbers referred to ‘La Pucelle’, ‘A VIOLIN. By Straduarius, Lent by Mr. John Hart,’ and the ‘Le Messie’ placing focus on the instrument entirely dismissed by Vuillaume between his two treasures. To render his sabotage more effective, Reade confounded convention by stating that it was not the instruments of the golden period, by those of the 1720s that were of ‘the grandest epoch’.
On 5 June 1872 The Times had issued a report of the exhibition that focused chiefly on Vuillaume’s contribution and included a rare description of the sound of the ‘Messie’ from its owner: The exhibition is strong in violins, and the musical amateur has such an opportunity as will probably never come to him again of studying the fine lines, the flat surface, and the exquisite varnish and purfling of some of the most precious in Europe – notably M.Vuillaume’s Straduarius ‘La Pucelle,’ so named from its ‘parfait conservation’, and his ‘Le Messie,’ another instrument by the great maker, which has been scarcely played upon since first its strings were knotted in 1716, and still looks brand-new, having been venerated and cherished in glass cases by its successive owners for more than a century and a half. As its happy possessor proudly says, this instrument proves that long-playing is not the secret of the exquisite tones of a Straduarius; for though scarcely played since it left the hands of the great master, the notes of ‘Le Messie’ have all the golden qualities for which his best instruments are renowned – ‘force, moëlleux, rondeur, finess, vibration, facile, ton distinguée, noble, incisive’.
The attention Vuillaume received in the British press again raised Reade’s ire, and in his letter of 24 August he attacked the value of the Frenchman’s connoisseurship with regard to the ‘Violon du Diable’ Guarneri. And while he begrudgingly accepted the importance of the ‘Messiah’, his bitterness against Vuillaume wasn’t spared. ‘There is a beautiful and very perfect violin by Stradiuarius, which the Times, in an article on these instruments, calls Le Messie,’ he wrote. ‘These leading journalists have private information on every subject, even grammar. I prefer to call it – after the very intelligent man to who we owe sight of it – the Vuillaume Stradiuarius. Well, the Vuillaume Stradiuarius is worth, as times go, £600 at least’.
Unable to criticise the ‘Messiah’, Reade launched a thinly veiled attack on Vuillaume as a maker. ‘As further illustration that violins are heard by the eye,’ he wrote, ‘let me remind your readers of the high prices at which numberless copies of the old makers were sold in Paris for many years’. He elaborates on the chemical processes used to age the wood, concluding that ‘these processes kill the wood as a vehicle of sound; and those copies were, and are, the worst musical instruments Europe has created in this century; and, bad as they are at starting, they get worse every year of their untuneful existence; yet, because they flattered the eye with something like the light and shade and picturesqueness of the Cremona violin, these psuedo-antiquities, though illimitable in number, sold like wildfire, and hundreds of self-decievers heard them by the eye, and fancied these tinpots sounded divinely. the hideous red violins of Bernadel, Gand, and an English maker or two, are a reaction against those copies.’
Yet for all his posturing, Reade was bewitched by the ‘Messiah’; ‘If you could see the Vuillaume Straduarius at night and move it about in the light of a candle, you would be amazed at the fire of the foil and refraction of the light.
Postscript: Publishing this article in 2011 provided the first opportunity to put photographs into the public domain that were taken in London in 1872 during the exhibition. These show ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon Diable’ displayed together in front back and side views. Although these were originally published in a special exhibitors printing of the exhibition catalogue, copies are so rare that we believe these are likely to be the only copies surviving in the public domain. It is notable that no reference has been made to them in recent publications disputing the authenticity of the Messiah, and the ability to see the aged violin photographed in the same frame as two Cremonese instruments of undisputed provenance at the time that they belonged to Vuillaume gives us significant additional evidence that needs to be taken into consideration by those who dispute the authenticity and history of the Ashmolean Museum’s 1716 Stradivari. The violin remained the property of Vuillaume and after his death in 1875 it passed to his heirs who sold it to W.E. Hill & Sons in 1890.