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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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