A Grand Experiment: Childe Harolde’s Tenore and a 170th Anniversary Concert

On 27 January 2018, the Royal Orchestral Society celebrate the 170th anniversary of the London premiere of Harold in Italy, performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane under the Baton of Berlioz himself. Memoirs recalling the performance praised Henry Hill, one of the foremost viola players in Europe and brought attention to his Barak Norman viola which Berlioz himself praised as “incomparable”. A recent discovery sheds light on the 1848 performance, and the instrument that Hill played. Benjamin Hebbert and soloist, Peter Sheppard Skærved embarked on voyage of discovery culminating in the forthcoming full concert performance.

Watch the video documentary here: 


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The Royal Orchestral Society will be performing Harold in Italy with Peter Sheppard Skærved on the ‘gran viola’ on 27 January 2018 at St John Smith Square. Tickets available here

Almost three years ago I received a message from a client who had an unusual instrument for sale and knew I would be interested. A ‘large’ inch viola made by the famous London maker, Barak Norman made around the period 1700-1710. When it arrived by parcel-force in a battered case it turned out to be much larger than I would have possibly imagined at a staggering 18 3/4 inch body length (a professional viola is rarely more than 16 1/2 inches). The overall size was consistent with the very rare Cremonese ‘tenore’ violas from the seventeenth century and earlier that survive, but just a little bigger. The ribs, however put it in a completely new sphere,  in proportion to a cello much like the viola da spalla that early music performers consider as an alternative for the Bach cello suites. Folds on the back, original to its making facilitated playing under the chin, though at such an enormous size it still proved a considerable challenge, and as an instrument provably played under the chin it may well take the world record as the largest proper viola. The instrument was a fabulous curiosity from the past with an enviable sound: The uniquely deep ribs and overall scale of this viola give it an almost vocal depth to the sound that comes purely from the physics of the instrument, providing an unusually ‘human’ sound that doesn’t exist in more conventional instruments of the violin family.

Berlioz famously praised Henry Hills Barak Norman viola as “incomparable” when he performed the London premiere of Harold in Italy. There are several ordinary-sized Norman violas and for every owner of such an instrument there is the tantalising possibility that they could own the very same one. Berlioz took no interest in the Stradivari and Guarneri violins that were played by the leading musicians in his circle. His only substantial commentary about violin family instruments centred on his rage against the small violas common in French orchestras for leaving a vacuum in the harmonic richness of the symphony orchestra. Instead, his use of the term “incomparable” is parallel to his excitement for the musical  possibilities offered by such innovations such as the Saxophone and Octobass that offered exciting new musical potential to the orchestra. This alone is enough to speculate that Berlioz was enraptured by an instrument that was physically different from the expected instruments of the symphony orchestra, enough in of itself to speculate on the nature of this enormous ‘tenor’ viola.

Harold in Italy was a celebration of Nicolo Paganini who had commissioned it back in 1834 from  Berlioz on his return to Paris from his final visit to London. It was here on 28 April 1834 that he had performed on the viola for the very first time in public having completed his Sonata per il gran viola, the culmination of his own obsession for a tenor-voiced instrument that fulfilled his requirements: In 1832 whilst in Italy completing his 24 Caprices, he had experimented with Francesco Borghi to create the instrument that he called a ‘Gran viola’, and it was his performance on this instrument in London that would have stuck in the minds of London musical society in the years after his departure from the city.    

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The enormous tenore viola made by Barak Norman around the period 1700-1710, conforming to Paganini’s ideas of the “Gran viola”.

Paganini’s own ‘gran viola’ made in 1832 by Francesco Borghi does not survive, but the concept and description of it is remarkably consistent to the 18 3/4 inch Barak Norman tenor viola. This was already an antique instrument, having been made around 1700-1710, and at the time was probably just as unique and experimental. It seems that the similarities were entirely coincidental, but for Henry Hill, desiring to make a Paganiniesque gesture that followed the London memory of his Sonata per il gran viola the instrument was a perfect match. The London audience would not have known of Paganini’s purchase in 1834 of a Stradivari viola that had inspired the commission of Harold, nor would they have been concerned about it’s use by Chrétien Urhan at the Paris Premiere. Hill himself was not short of possibilities of instruments to play. Amongst his quartet partners were Henri Vieuxtemps, Prosper Sainton, Alfredo Piatti, all musicians associated with the greatest of all Cremonese instruments. Meanwhile as the brother of William Ebsworth Hill he belonged to one of the greatest families of violin dealers in nineteenth century London, giving him the cream of the crop of instruments coming through the London trade. Barak Norman’s more conventionally sized violas are sublime – some of the very best made outside of Italy – but they are not “incomparable”. If Henry Hill chose the 18 3/4 inch Barak Norman to play under Berlioz’s baton, it was as a determined and uniquely Paganiniesque gesture that would have been as obvious to Berlioz as it was to the orchestra and audience. Berlioz’s special praise of the concert and the instrument would seem to come full circle, and perhaps Henry Hill’s performance on what was essentially a ‘gran viola’ fulfilled the concept of Harold in Italy in a manner that Urhan had been unable to achieve with his Paganini’s own Stradivari.

When we started to put the facts together the evidence seemed very strong to support this idea to the point that pursuing the idea of a full orchestral performance wasn’t a silly thing to do. It could inform us about the sound world of Paganini and Berlioz, even if questions remained. Curiously the setup including a new neck, varnished all over and still rather thick, the Romberg fingerboard and early form of tailpiece are all completely in keeping with an 1830s-1840s to suggest that it was worked on around the time of the London premier. The instrument is so radically experimental for its time that it is quite possibly unique. Short of another identical instrument by Barak Norman emerging, we are edging closer and closer to a certainty that this was the Henry Hill’s fabled viola. To me, at least, it’s become affectionately known as Childe Harold’s Tenore – and why not?


The Royal Orchestral Society… yours truly somewhere amongst the fiddles.

Any project had considerable risks. The instrument is so huge that a question mark hung over whether it would be possible to perform Harold in Italy on it. On the other hand, the project wouldn’t be much fun without aspiring to a full orchestral performance – a risk arguably too great for a professional orchestra, and even a conservatoire would have to find space in their scheduling to enable it, putting it back years. In late 2016 I approached the Royal Orchestral Society, a remarkable amateur orchestra founded in 1872, whose conductors have included Sir Arthur Sullivan, Henry Wood and latterly Orlando Jopling with the idea of mounting an experimental performance. (And my regular orchestra for years). Finding a viola player for the solo proved interesting, as it became difficult to tell artists that we weren’t particularly interested in ‘them’ so much as whether they could play instrument itself. I can’t think of another time such an odd request has been asked of a soloist, and even asking someone to specifically play a Strad or something of that ilk doesn’t require asking them to revise their entire musical approach. In the end though, having explored the possibility with a number of established top-rate viola players we got nowhere, the instrument proved too large and quirky for standard viola technique: The skills that made these musicians outstanding artists were the reasons why the challenge proved impossible, and potentially dangerous to every single one of them.

Fortunately I had been working with Peter Sheppard Skærved at violinist and lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music on a series of other projects on period performance, and the viola was at the centre of his mind. After some weeks of trialling, he figured out a way to approach the virtuosic leaps required for Harold in Italy, allowing the hand to arc from note to note much like cello technique rather than the violin or the viola. We had over a year to go, and could always go to Plan B if need be: Even if we were one-hundred-percent on the right track, it was possible in the end that Henry Hill’s performance was so extravagant a Paganiniesque gesture that it may have lacked the absolute soloist integrity expected of a modern concerto performance. Everything was in the air.


Peter Sheppard Skærved and Barak Norman’s “Gran viola” in practice.

Peter tells me that he has had to take up rock climbing to strengthen his hands for the work. Writing as I am today, the concert is on 27 January 2018 at St John Smith Square. Tickets can be bought here. I’ll update this blog after the concert, hopefully with a full recording… To be continued…


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.



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’. 

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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 18 3/4 inches (475mm) 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.


Matthew Hardie and the Alday Strad.

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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.

Thomas Urquhart, a label with more than meets the eye…


The years surrounding the English Civil War, Interregnum and the Restoration of King Charles II are crucial in the development of English musical taste. Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of King Charles I) returned to France in 1646 and established a royalist-court-in-exile based around the Louvre in Paris. Prince Charles, her son followed her into exile in 1651, and for the next nine years he maintained strong connections to the French court, whilst his court-in-exile shifted from France and the Dutch Republic to the Spanish Netherlands as successive nations concluded treaties with the English Parliament. When Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate over England came to an end, the new King Charles II returned to the English throne having witnessed more of culture outside of England with his own eyes and ears than any other monarch before.

Jean-Baptiste_Lully_Nicolas_MignardWith the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came the re-establishment of royal musicians, whose English styles of playing were hopelessly outdated by comparison to the musical achievements of French court and it’s quatre-vingt violons du Roi under the baton of J.B. Lully (right) became the model most admired by the Restoration court (that is, until he struck himself in the foot with it, and died of gangrene in 1687). As Charles II reformed the royal musical establishment, the creation of his own band of four-and-twenty fiddlers became central to emulating the admired aspects of the French royal court. Hence, whilst the crown was quick to employ London’s finest violinists of the day, Thomas Baltzar and Davis Mell, the priority for developing the French taste in music led to John Bannister being sent to Paris in 1661 on the King’s command to attend Lully as his pupil. When he returned in 1662 he became leader of the royal band, establishing the foundations for royal music that survived of roughly half-a-century. Bannister’s own instruments were Cremonese violins which he paid forty pounds for during his time at the French court – a significant sum of roughly double the normal expenditure of an English court musician for a Cremonese violin. The warrant for his payment on 24 October 1662 survives in the Lord Chamberlain’s account books:

Warrant to pay £40 to John Bannister for two Cremona violins bought by him for His Majesty’s service, and £10 for strings for two whole years ending 24 June 1662.

Bannister may be the violinist in the foreground on the left of J.B. Medina’s Cabal painted in the early 1660s (below). For certain, the lanky and unkempt violinist to the right seems to correspond to descriptions of Thomas Baltzar, the Incomparable Lubicer who had arrived in England from Lubeck in 1656 and was replaced by Bannister as leader of the King’s private musicke in 1663. His reputation, like a proto-Paganini, was recorded by John Evelyn in 1656.

John Evelyn, Diary, 4 March 1656: This night I was invited by Mr. Rog: L’Estrange to heare the incomperable Lubicer on the Violin, his variety upon a few notes & plaine ground with that wonderfull dexterity, as was admirable, & though a very young man, yet so perfect & skillful as there was nothing so crosse & perplext, which being by our Artists, brought to him, which he did not at first sight, with ravishing sweetenesse & improvements, play off, to the astonishment of our best Masters: In Summ, he plaid on that single Instrument a full Consort, so as the rest, flung-downe their Instruments, as acknowledging a victor.

UrquhartThese circumstances give context to one of my favourite early English makers, Thomas Urquhart. Although his work is extraordinarily rare, I’ve been lucky to have several examples pass through my hands. The latest of these isn’t anything more than an original back and front, both of which have been ravaged by woodworm and are now coated with an opaque red varnish to helphide the nineteenth-century restorations. Yet, with a genuine label for 1663, it is the earliest dateable example that I have come across.

Thomas Urquhart is, in fact, one of the more famous early English makers. I think that his importance as one of the father-figures of English violin making is somewhat inaccurate. I’ll even go further and suggest that when William Sandys and Simon-Andrew Forster wrote the first comprehensive history of the violin in 1864, the idea of a Scottish-named violin maker holding such an important role appealed to the Forster family’s own sense of heritage: Having come from Brampton on the Scottish border to become an London’s most prestigious and influential dynasty of violin makers in the late-eighteenth-century, it was natural for them to promote a spiritual forbearer from a century before. Nevertheless, the violins by Urquhart that I have seem seem to constantly surprise me for their quality.

They are frequently a centimetre shorter than a modern violin, although the low-set bridge position means that they were intended to have a regular string length, and never feel like you are playing a fractional-sized violin. What astounds me most about his instruments are that despite an unashamedly vernacular outline, and distinctive soundholes, each instrument that I have seen seems to be an extraordinarily considered interpretation of earlier Cremonese instruments. The violin above which I sold last year (with an indistinct manuscript label) was immediately reminiscent of the 1574 Andrea Amati violin in the National Music Museum in South Dakota.

By contrast the 1663 violin has the kind of ‘pinched’ arching with markedly hollowed margins and a very pronounced rise of the belly. Once again this is completely characteristic of Cremonese violin making by the Amati family, but in this case very typical of Nicole Amati’s work from the 1640s and 1650s, suggesting that Urquhart was taking a relatively new Amati violin as his inspiration. In fact, the 1662 Nicolo Amati violin in the Royal Academy of Music collection provides a completely contemporaneous example of this kind.

There has been some discussion about the printed labels in Urquhart’s instruments, and some while ago it was noticed that in some examples a second line of text was just about visible, leading to the idea that these were fake labels, perhaps cut from a seventeenth-century book. This seemed all the more plausible since a famous Scottish writer and translator Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660), provided at least the potential to find this name printed in seventeenth-century type. To add to the level of doubt, labels as brief in their content as “Tho. Urquhart 1663″ seem to be suspiciously short by comparison to other makers of the period. Moreover, given the complexity of early English violins as well as there rarity, up until a decade ago I was more or less willing to wager that Urquhart was a complete invention of the Forster family.

urquhart labelsI’ve now seen three identical labels for 1663, 1665 and another that seems to have been re-dated several times over in the 1660s (6, 7 and 9 perhaps?) which all have the same characteristics, including identical fragments of the bottom line. The identical pattern of letters mean that it is implausible that these were cut from a book, as if it were the case, each of the three labels would have had to be cut from the same page of a different copy of the same book, and there is no evidence of ink seeping through from the other side of the page. Instead the pattern makes clear sense, with pattern “i_W_ft_i_ft__” for which the only possible reading would be “in Weftminfter” showing that Urquhart was active in Westminster when he labelled these instruments, perhaps the only violin maker working so close to the Chapel Royal in close communication with the royal musicians.

Why did Urquhart cut his labels in two? The most likely answer is that he provided some of his instruments for retail by other sellers in London and elsewhere. He was an important enough maker that there was reason for him to put his name on his labels. However, leaving his address on them would have put him in direct competition with the people trying to sell instruments on his behalf. Nevertheless, there is a peculiarity with these labels that in every example I have seen, the label is consistently cut just below the tips of the serifs. Just as it is possible to reconstruct the second line of text today, perhaps the rebellious element in Urquhart’s character is witnessed in leaving just enough evidence that an intelligent and observant customer could track him down.

PurcellHenry Purcell was born in Westminster in 1659, joined the chapel Royal in 1664, and when his voice broke in 1673 he was employed by John Hingeston within the royal court to assist him as “keeper, maker, mender repairer and tuner of regals, virginals, flutes and recorders and all other kind of wind instruments whatsoever”. Urquhart’s labels reportedly date to as late as 1681, so that the timelines of both are easily compatible. In the 1660s Urquhart’s geography and preponderance to copy Cremonese instruments places him close to the English royal court, making it highly likely that the two figures had some connection. Tantalisingly, given Purcell’s responsibility for recorders, a treble recorder survives in the Bate Collection at Oxford University that is entirely in the late-seventeenth-century style associated with Pierre Bressan who came to London in 1688. It is stamped “URQUHART”. Hence if any maker can be associated directly with Purcell, the circumstantial evidence sits wonderfully in Urquhart’s favour.

Charles François Langonet, W.E. Hill & Sons and the Tuscan Strad.

Towards the end of the nineteenth-century the 1690 Tuscan Stradivari made for Cosimo III de Medici was the most famous violin in the world. Now an all but forgotten instrument, Benjamin Hebbert looks at it’s importance and some of the extraordinary copies made of it in by C.F. Langonet in the workshop of W.E. Hill & Sons. 

W.E. Hill & Sons shop at 140 New Bond Street, immediately across the road from Sotheby's.

W.E. Hill & Sons shop at 140 New Bond Street, immediately across the road from Sotheby’s.

The company of W.E. Hill & Sons started life in Wardour Street, London in 1880, taking secondary premises at 38 New Bond Street in 1882 and new purpose-built premises at 140 New Bond Street in 1895 where they established themselves as pre-eminent amongst all of the violin dealers in London. Location was everything for the Hills and in 140 New Bond Street; they had made a substantial coup, occupying the shop (now familiar as Zilli) directly opposite the front door of auctioneers, Sotheby’s. From this moment onwards, anybody connected to the art and antique trade had immediate access to a prestigious London violin-dealer. The bowed glass shop front gave space to more of a museum of instruments than a violin dealer plying their trade, all with the intention of making the Hill name known to the kind of people who may have an ‘old Cremona’ in the attic. This was the period of the ‘country-house Strad’ as traditional landed wealth gave way to new industrial wealth and bankrupt aristocrats began selling the treasures that had been amassed by their ancestors on the Grand Tour.

Stradivari’s 1716 Messie photographed in Vuillaume’s ownership at the South Kensington Exhibition of 1872.

Throughout the early history of W.E. Hill & Sons, the firm had paid enormous deference to Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in Paris in a relationship that would eventually lead to their inheritance of the prime position in European violin dealing. This relationship meant that well into the 20th century they openly used the legacy of their relationship to enhance their own reputation, allowing it to become so strong an element of their own legendary position in the market that even in 1972 they were still hanging to the coat-tails of the legacy with their publication of Roger Milliant’s Jean-Baptiste Vuilllaume, sa vie et son oeuvre. As far back as 1862, William Ebsworth Hill had exhibited a quartet of bows at the Crystal Palace Exhibition (even though the bows led to an irreconcilable falling out with James Tubbs who had actually made them) and it was Vuillaume’s praise which served as the highest commercial endorsement and accolade for the Hill bow when they went into production many decades later. Vuillaume was far more integrated with the London violin trade than is first assumed as a result of his success at the various international Industrial Exhibitions in London, where he had won medals or served as Juror. At the time of the Special Loan Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum in 1872 – one of the several times he brought the Messie to London – it was he rather than any British violin dealer who had curated the violins in the exhibition. With the continuing Franco-Prussian War, the exile of Napoleon III and the anarchy of the Paris Commune, Vuillaume increasingly looked to abandoning Paris completely in favour of becoming London’s leading violin dealer. The increasing economic stability in France led to Vuillaume’s return and his death in 1875.

Vuillaume’s demise left Paris and the rest of the world without a clear successor to clearing the way for William Ebsworth Hill to build a business that would eventually take the lead throughout Europe and into the burgeoning economies of the wider English-speaking world. In the 1880s, no matter how hard the Hills worked to fulfil every aspect of Vuillaume’s reputation, one essential element was tantalisingly out of their grasp. The Messie had first arrived in London in 1862 for the World’s Exhibition at Crystal Palace; valued at 15,000 francs it took centre stage in the 1872 South Kensington Exhibition. After Vuillaume’s death it passed to his heirs and may have seemed destined to take it’s place in the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire, a fate that overcame the 1742 Alard del Gesu in 1888. For the Hills, the answer to the ‘Messie’ was to create their own legend around a violin of their own. At the time, the idea of the Golden Period was still very much in flux and it was the French, particularly Vuillaume who had focussed on the first decade of the eighteenth-century as the zenith of Stradivari’s achievement. George Hart coined the term ‘Golden Period’, but in their 1901 monograph on Stradivari, Hills were openly scornful of what they referred to as ‘The So-Called Golden Period’ a concept that they accepted ‘but not without considerable reservation’. Charles Reade, an influential figure in London society placed the 1720s as Stradivari’s ‘grandest epoch’, and for the Hills the years of ‘The Perfect Craftsman’ came earlier:

1901‘Stradivari had now reached the plenitude of his powers as a craftsman, for it cannot be questioned that in point of sharpness, accuracy and beauty of finish some examples of the years 1686, 1687, 1688, 1689, and 1690 stand unsurpassable. This is natural, when we consider that he was now in the prime of life. The perfect skill with which he handled his knife is seen in the cutting of the “f ” holes, the insertion of the purfling, and the carving of the heads. The finish throughout marks him as having been one of the most dexterous craftsmen the world has ever known, and we emphatically assert that no violin-maker has ever surpassed and few have equalled him No more unique example of his unrivalled finish of work exists than the “Tuscan” violin, made in 1690. It stands alone. Others equally fine were made, but the vicissitudes of time have not spared them to us.”                                 W.E. Hill & Sons, Antonio Stradivari, 1901, p.42.

By focussing on pure craftsmanship and the logic that Stradivari was then in his prime of life, W. E. Hill & Sons were able to provide commentary that neatly placed the 1690 Tuscan as the greatest of all Stradivari violins. This contradicted the opinions of their nearest rivals – Hart, Vuillaume and Reade. This would change by 1901 when they wrote their monologue on Stradivari, but the fundamental respect for the period which produced the 1679 Hellier decorated violin and the 1690 Tuscan held a very special place for the Hills. Nevertheless as they came to dominate the market, they made efforts to retell history to rehabilitate Hart’s ‘Golden Period’ for their own commercial advantage without loosing the integrity of William Ebsworth Hill’s claims about the importance of violins made in Stradivari’s prime.

The Royal Albert Hall and International Exhibition Galleries as they looked in 1871

The Royal Albert Hall and International Exhibition Galleries as they looked in 1871

The Tuscan did not reach the serious attention of the Hills until 1888, but dramatic changes in the British musical landscape had been significant in the rise of W.E. Hill & Sons in the years preceding it’s acquisition. The move to Bond Street in 1882 had boldly separated W.E.Hill & Sons from the maze of violin dealers in and around Wardour Street, ensuring a new kind of market alongside dealers in the finest elements of grand aristocratic European culture from silversmiths to the dealers of old master paintings. Their shift in track was directly linked to the burgeoning popularity of amateur music making amongst London’s affluent society. The much awaited opening of the Royal Albert Hall, London’s first great concert hall for the masses took place in March 1871. From 1872 Sir Arthur Sullivan had conducted the Royal Orchestral Society, at the time London’s only standing orchestra apart from the Royal Philharmonic Society, but exclusively populated by amateurs led by it’s founder, the Duke of Edinburgh.

The opening concert of the Queen's Hall on 25 December 1893 given by the Royal Amateur Orchestral Society, with Tivadar Nachez as soloist. Arthur Sullivan was the first conductor of this entirely amateur orchestra, and the Duke of Edinburgh was it's leader.

The opening concert of the Queen’s Hall on 25 December 1893 given by the Royal Amateur Orchestral Society, with Tivadar Nachez as soloist. Arthur Sullivan was the first conductor of this entirely amateur orchestra, and the Duke of Edinburgh was it’s leader.

By 1880 the Royal Academy of Music had transformed from a fledgling organisation into an established teaching institution with more than 350 students. In South Kensington, the National Training School for Music was built alongside the Royal Albert Hall what is now the Royal College of Organists. As with the Royal Academy of Music it had categorically failed to differentiate between the needs of the scion of the rich industrialist family looking to perfect their social accomplishments in music from the requirements of professional training. Sir Arthur Sullivan resigned as it’s principal in 1882 and in the following year the Royal College of Music was formed under the directorship of Sir George Grove. The College still relied on 42 fee-paying places (largely string players, pianists and singers) to subsidise the fifty scholars (significantly wind and brass) elected by competition to become professional musicians. The ambitions of Hill & Sons directly followed the changing social climate of music during one of the most revolutionary points in the history of British music. They still didn’t own the Messie. As things looked in 1885 it was probably out of reach. However, W.E Hill & Sons fortunes changed favourable during 1888 with the opportunity to acquire the greatest Stradivari in the world, the near perfect example representing the most extraordinary period of the master’s workmanship and backed by a provenance that alone placed the Messie in the shadows. The peerless violin had not lain unplayed in the attic of a piedmontese tramp, as the Messie had done, neither did it have the dubious merit of being owned by the sometime-amateur-violin-playing aristocratic, horse-training great-great granddaughter of Lord Byron, Lady Blunt. Instead precisely the kind of ‘country-house Strad’ that the Hills had dreamed of came through their doors.

Angelica Kauffman, the Austrian-born portrait painter whose encouragement led David Ker to purchase the Tuscan Stradivari

Angelica Kauffman, the Swiss-born portrait painter whose encouragement led David Ker to purchase the Tuscan Stradivari

The violin had left Italy in 1793 in the hands of David Ker, an Irishman on the Grand Tour. Ker had little interest in violins, but clearly had more than an interest in the painter Angelica Kauffman, for whom he was sitting for a portrait. With her encouragement he bought the Stradivari for £24 from Giovanni Felice Mosell, a prominent composer and musician in the Tuscan court. He returned to Ireland with the violin and portrait alongside an art collection that included paintings by da Vinci and Raphael, acquired from the Pitti Palace. Once on home soil he put the violin safely aside and promptly forgot about it. With the passing of years Ker died, his house moved into other ownerships with only a family legend of a Stradivari lingering on. During ensuing years his family searched for the violin amongst the various houses that had belonged to them, eventually finding the violin in a house that was then owned by a book collector who, so engrossed in his hobby, was unaware of the instruments’ existence in the house.

Giovanni Felice Mosell's receipt of sale to David Ker in 1794 stating his belief that it had been made for the Court of Tuscany

Giovanni Felice Mosell’s receipt of sale to David Ker in 1794 stating his belief that it had been made for the Court of Tuscany (click to enlarge).

In 1845 the Stradivari was rescued from a fire, which destroyed the family’s seat at Portavo, and sold to a family friend, F. Ricardo. Under his care it was brought to Paris, where it was setup by Vuillaume. “Mr. Ricardo was at first puzzled by its fresh appearance, but lost no times in taking it to the celebrated Parisian maker, Vuillaume. His old foreman examined it carefully, but would give no opinion; but on Vuillaume’s entrance, held it up and said: “Here! Monsieur Vuillaume, here is a Stradivari,” to which Vuillaume, without approaching nearer, replied at once: “Oui, certainment.” Hills relate the story of another occasion when it was shown to Fendt, who was reported to have exclaimed, “If it is not a Strad it is something better”. From Ricardo it passed back into the family in 1875 for £240 and in 1888 it arrived at W E Hills & Sons shop where they acquired it for a four-figure sum.

For the Hills they suddenly had a violin of their own that could be compared to the Messie in terms of craftsmanship and preservation, but this Stradivari offered more to them than just that. The letter accompanying the violin from 1794 stated that the violin had been made for Cosimo III Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Moreover their knowledge of the 1684 letter between the Marquis Ariberti and Stradivari ordering the quintet of instruments for the Medici court and Dom Desiderio Arisi’s mention of the order in his biography of Stradivari provided the highest standard of provenance. In their own words, the violin was representative of Stradivari’s highest powers as a maker, and it had been made for the most famous patrons of the arts in Italian history. This was the masthead violin that W.E.Hill & Sons had been dreaming of, with a provenance comprehendible to any connoisseur of art, whether they knew about music or not. The acquisition prompted the first monograph to be published on a single violin, The “Tuscan”. A short account of a violin by Stradivari made for Cosimo Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, dated 1690. The violin became central in promoting themselves as the world’s greatest violin dealers.

Ever mindful of taking Vuillaume’s lead, the Hills looked beyond the simple matter of owning the world’s greatest Stradivari and sought to find ways of making it translate into a powerful tool for reinforcing sales and reputation at every level. Just as Vuillaume had made copies of the Messie copies of the Tuscan became an important symbol for the Hill shop.

The Marquis of Ariberti's letter to Stradivari in 1684 commissioning a 'concerto' of violins (click to enlarge)

The Marquis of Ariberti’s letter to Stradivari in 1684 commissioning a ‘concerto’ of violins for the Medici court (click to enlarge)


The copies:

Alfred Slocombe's 1889 chromolithographs of the Tuscan Stradivari printed for Hill's monograph on the violin.

Alfred Slocombe’s 1889 chromolithographs of the Tuscan Stradivari printed for Hill’s monograph on the violin.

John Askew’s Bronze Medal Diploma from the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition. W.E. Hill & Sons took gold medal for a quartet of instruments.

John Askew’s Bronze Medal Diploma from the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition. W.E. Hill & Sons took gold medal for a quartet of instruments.

The majority of W E Hill & Sons violins were made after 1900 and production increased more-or-less in parallel with their bow production. Before this point violins were produced in very small numbers, with the suggestion that they were more ‘exhibition pieces’ intended to demonstrate the universal expertise of the firm than instruments intended for sale. Industrial exhibitions of the kind typified by Crystal Palace held a very important place in raising awareness of a brand, and since they concentrated on modern manufactured goods, it was essential to produce new instruments for the purpose. In 1885 W E Hill & Sons won gold medal for a quartet of instruments entered in the International Inventions Exhibition against altogether dubious competition. In the medals for a single violin the Glasgow maker, George Duncan won gold and Szepessy Bela took silver, but bronze medals went to significantly lesser makers, John Askew and William Pearce. Likewise Hills had beaten Jeffrey Gilbert into silver medal for a quartet of instruments with Walter H. Mayson and Emmanuel Whitmarsh taking bronze. Over-reliance on the medal rankings would produce a woefully distorted picture of British violin making at the time.

Glasgow 1888These may be the very first instruments made by W.E. Hill & Sons. A handful of violins with the label “William E Hill & Sons, Makers, Wardour Street, London 1887” also survive and it seems more than plausible that these were intended for exhibition at the Glasgow International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art held in 1888, which was the greatest exhibition of it’s kind to be held outside of London and the most significant international exhibition in Britain of the decade. Hills were certainly upping their game at the time, and 1887 is the same year that they commissioned the 12 ‘Apostles’ violin cases, each intended to house a golden-period Stradivari violin. Whatever the circumstances of this early batch of violins, the workmanship is very precise and it is possible that they were made as a joint project between several members of the workshop.

The very fine workmanship that we associate with Charles François Langonet can be seen in the backs and scrolls but the fronts have a tendency towards more sterile Mirecourt workmanship, suggesting another hand. It appears that the workshop made quite a high number of instruments in the white, leaving them to be labelled and varnished when they were required because instruments of this kind seem to appear with later forms of varnish even as late as 1909. Surprisingly the majority of these early instruments are made to a 356mm Stradivari long-pattern, perhaps intended to consciously differentiate Hill’s finest work from the endless Messie-derived violins that came over from France. Just as there are no W.E. Hill & Sons violins known to me before 1887, 1888 also seems to be a vacant year. The earliest numbered W.E. Hill & Sons violin that I have encountered (with a 38 New Bond Street label) is 13, an exhibition copy of the decorated Hellier Stradivari violin (featured in The British Violin). These instruments are amongst the very finest that the Hills produced, and stand out from the more typical Hill violins of the early 20th century. However, the acquisition of the Tuscan in 1888 seems to have inspired the Hills to go one step further.

Charles François Langonet in the W.E. Hill & Sons workshop.

Charles François Langonet in the W.E. Hill & Sons workshop.

Amongst the violin makers who appeared in the Hill workshop from France in 1880, Joseph Prunier, Joseph Maurice Somney and Leon-August Delunet. Charles François Langonet, the workshop foreman has the most prodigious reputation as a violin maker. The majority of craftsmen in the workshop appear to have spent their time working on restorations, although some clever Voller-like violins by Delunet appear from time to time. Langonet, by contrast couldn’t have been older than fourteen when he was singled out as ‘a future Stradivarius’ by Vuillaume; he was just nineteen years old when he entered the Hill workshop and became its foreman. Langonet never signed his work when he was at Hills, although from time to time instruments appear with an oral attribution provided by the Hills when they were first sold. Somewhat perversely the Hills worked hard to sustain Langonet’s reputation as their finest craftsman whilst making it almost impossible to identify his hand.

Back in 1855 when Vuillaume had travelled to Turin to purchase the Messie, he instantly began to produce copies of his prized violin. Evidently taking their lead from Vuillaume, in 1889 the Hills set about producing a series of stunning copies of the Tuscan. Given the extraordinary quality of these instruments, logic alone dictates that they were made by the man that Vuillaume had singled out as ‘a future Stradivarius’. Almost painfully detailed scroll carving resolving in an undersized eye seems to be a constant feature of his work, and very precise rounded edgework is another element that singles him out from most Mirecourt-trained makers. What is clear is that one particular hand is seen in Hills finest work, and it fits the legend that they allowed to grow around him. The Hills seem to have been aware that the use of conventional wood for their instruments could draw comparison to good French work of the time, so that the major differentiation of the Tuscan copies (and some other violins made by them) is the use of almost slab-cut wood as opposed to more strongly flamed cuts. The wood is particular to Hill work of this period (and possibly exclusive to Langonet), and it is even arguable that they thought it more refined than the choices available to Stradivari. Nevertheless, the one piece back follows the same density of flame that exists in the original violin.

W. E. Hill & Sons violin number 15, one of Langonet's copies of the Tuscan Stradivari.

W. E. Hill & Sons violin number 15 made in 1889, one of Langonet’s copies of the Tuscan Stradivari.

Pins surprisingly are absent from the back. Once again at a time that understanding of Stradivari’s work was primitive, it is possible that the Hills considered them a blemish on Stradivari’s work that they could dispense with. In fact, the Tuscan is one of the few Stradivari violins where he too seems to have been conscious to keep them as discrete as possible. The top pin is completely hidden beneath the purfling and the lower pin is only slightly visible. Remembering that number 13 is a copy of the Hellier (and made in more the 1887 style), numbers 15, 16 and 18 are known to me and are all identical Tuscan copies, suggesting that maybe as few as five such instruments were ever made. These instruments come from a time when W.E. Hill & Sons seemed particularly self-conscious and anxious about the quality of workmanship, and there is much in this seemingly short-lived golden period that compares to their history of bow making, with the outstanding playing quality and technical perfection of Samuel Allen’s bows – essentially making more precise Tourte copies than Tourte ever made himself – finding itself absent from later generations of a more industrialised W.E Hill & Sons workshop at Hanwell.

The purpose of the 1889 Tuscan copies is also uncertain. The monologue about the Tuscan could only have been conceived of as a permanent calling card to demonstrate to achievement of Hills in bagging the greatest Stradivari the world had seen. It follows that Hills would have been happy to demonstrate their prowess as craftsmen through showing off their near-perfect copies alongside or in place of the original Stradivari violin. The uncompromisingly new appearance of the instruments, like that of the Tuscan itself, was out of keeping with most London instrument making of the period and would have probably resulted in a harder sale within a shop full of authentic and beautifully worn antique instruments. The answer to why they were made seems to be explained by William Ebsworth Hill’s commentary in the Tuscan monologue.

pIMs6QYOpW5uHA7U5HpMhtD1rRwSGR3G-FTUYWEg94YThis remarkable instrument, one of the finest examples of Stradivari’s work, is probably unique in the preservation, in every detail, of the original beauty of its form and workmanship. The violins of Stradivari, like most other old works of art, have almost all suffered from the accidents of time. Even in exceptionally well-preserved instruments, cracks have appeared in the soft wood of the belly, the sound holes have often lost some of their accuracy of outline, and the varnish has been rubbed off the parts most exposed to wear. It has consequently been difficult to realise, even from the best specimens, how a violin looked and spoke when fresh from the hands of Stradivari. But the condition, in which this instrument has been preserved, for nearly two hundred years, enables us to stand, in imagination, as contemporaries of the great master, and to see and handle a violin just as it left his workshop.

Just as Vuillaume could express his fundamental understanding of Stradivari through his obsession with copying the Messie, W E Hill & Sons could claim the same through the Tuscan. By 1895 numbers on Hill violins had reached only 85, indicating that little more than ten violins were made every year. Cellos appear to have been on a different numbering system, and a fine forma-B cello from 1893 is numbered 15. As early as 1893 the Hills experimented with artificial dyes in their varnish, with the result that some of the best work has discoloured to become particularly lurid salmon-pink, diminishing the appeal of what is otherwise much of the finest Hill work ever produced. The 1889 Tuscan copies contrastingly remain compellingly close to the varnish of the original Stradivari violin.

In 1890, despite what must have seemed the near-certainty that it would have been gifted to the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire, Vuillaume’s heirs put the Messie up for sale and it became the property of W.E. Hill & Sons. The following year they published The Salabue Stradivari: A History and Critical Description of the Famous Violin, Commonly Called “le Messie”. The Hills seemed far less concerned about copying the Messie, perhaps so that their own copies of the Tuscan could stand against Vuillaume’s of the Messie. Perhaps also because the Messie was so widely copied by that point finding reincarnations both in trade Mirecourt work, and in copies produced by some of their London rivals such as G.A. Chanot that it lacked the significant distinction that the Hills were looking for. With the onset of 20th Century the Hills were in a dominant position in the London and European violin trade. The expense of producing uncompromising works seemed to be less important than simply producing better products than their competition. Langonet’s hand in Hill violins became rarer, and Hill violins tended to look more like improved versions of Mirecourt work rather than masterly copies of a Cremonese original. The short-lived golden-period in W. E. Hill &Sons violin making was over.

After 1890 when the Hills had the Messie in their possession, they changed their tune ever so slightly about when Stradivari made his best works. Their observations about ‘The Perfect Craftsman’ in Stradivari’s 1680-1690s period is still as acute today as it was when they wrote it in 1901, but Stradivari’s constant experimenting with the long-pattern and other forms makes this the most inconsistent period of his entire career. By contrast the ‘golden-period’ from around 1700 to 1720, with 1716 at the zenith proves explicable for a far more consistent and numerous period in Stradivari’s career. As a firm with a commercial sense, once they owned the Messie, it was a matter of time before they came around to Vuillaume and Hart’s way of thinking.

What was once the most important Stradivari violin in the world was sold successively by Hills to a number of the most famous collectors of the day – R.E. Brandt (1890), Charles Oldham (1904), F.Smith (1908), Richard Bennett (1918) and G.Kemp (1933). They bought it back in 1940 and in 1953 it was sold to the Italian Government. Under the guardianship of the Accademia S.Cecilia in Rome it was played by Gioconda di Vito and Pina Carmirelli and although it featured in the 1987 Cremona exhibition, it had become an increasingly overlooked violin given its previous importance. Whilst the tenore viola and cello from the 1690 commission are preserved in Florence (and the contralto viola in the Library of Congress with the last violin of the quintet unidentified), the Tuscan is now in the academy’s museum. It is less well preserved than when the Hills knew it in 1888, but is still one of the most important Stradivari violins in existence, made when Antonio Stradivari was in his prime. It is potentially the single-most significant waypoint in his departure from the Amati traditions that continued to dominate Cremonese thinking past 1690, and sharing the same proportions as the 1714 Dolphin, is  one of the remarkable early violins (along with the 1679 Hellier) that anticipate many of the qualities that Stradivari would return to as consistent features in the best years of his Golden Period.


A violin for Sherlock Holmes..?

The world’s most famous detective was probably fiction’s most famous violinist, but a further look at the influences behind these timeless novels places the young George Wulme Hudson closer than expected to the influences of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

HoneymanSherlock Holmes aficionados have long speculated on the link between Conan-Doyle as a medical student in Edinburgh and the Scottish writer of police novels, James M’Govan (McGovan) who began publishing his work in 1881, a full six years before the first Sherlock Holmes episode went to print. In fact, M’Govan was a pen-name for the New Zealander, William Crawford Honeyman who became a well-known Edinburgh figure given to wearing velvet jackets and a black artistic beard. He was likely as obsessed by the violin as Sherlock Holmes turned out to be. Honeyman’s house was Cremona Villa, in Newport, Fife, and as a noted authority on the violin and violin playing. He collected violins, including a 1742 Del Gesu, and his published works on the violin, including The Violin: How to Choose One, are as numerous as his detective fiction.
Parallels between the genuine velvet-jacketed violin-playing Honeyman and the fictitious Holmes are striking. There is a more-than-plausible case that he was a model for some elements of Holmes’ character, and that references to the violin were a constant acknowledgement of Conan-Doyle’s debt to the novelist that inspired him. Sherlock Holmes retirement to Sussex to keep bees is just as likely a shrouded reference to Honeyman. Holmes’ own foray into writing, a Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen mentioned in His Last Bow serves as a parody of the titles of Honeyman’s own instructional books on violin playing. Conan Doyle’s method of creating the character of Sherlock Holmes depends on fleeting descriptions of the elements of his personality that make him more than just a detective. His addiction to opium, his near-non-existent love life and his obsession with violins are all dealt with through fleeting disinterested yet penetrating observation. He never engages in a first hand narrative of the actual events, but uses Watson’s experience in order to weave a more textured biography of the human being that exists beyond the immediate super-sleuth, but each time the effect is to convey an impressive depth of knowledge that the reader can take for granted. Take Study in Scarlet where the depth of Holmes’ knowledge is taken for granted. The tediousness of it, viewed through the long-suffering eyes of Dr Watson, is not.

Basil-Rathbones-Sherlock-Homes1It was a foggy, cloudy morning, and a dun-coloured veil hung over the house-tops, looking like the reflection of the mud-coloured streets beneath. My companion was in the best of spirits, and prattled away about Cremona fiddles, and the difference between a Stradivarius and an Amati. As for myself, I was silent, for the dull weather and the melancholy business upon which we were engaged, depressed my spirits. “You don’t seem to give much thought to the matter in hand,” I said at last, interrupting Holmes’ musical disquisition.

In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box written in 1892, we discover how Sherlock Holmes acquired his Stradivari: We had a pleasant little meal together, during which Holmes would talk about nothing but violins, narrating with great exultation how he had purchased his own Stradivarius, which was worth at least five hundred guineas, at a Jew broker’s in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings. This led him to Paganini, and we sat for an hour over a bottle of claret while he told me anecdote after anecdote of that extraordinary man.
anxious moment 1891Tottenham Court Road was already a well established area for the musical instrument trade, but then as in now it was predominantly a focus for lower end instruments, so the possibility of finding a fine Italian violin amongst the pawn shops and ancillary businesses in the area was not beyond the realm of fantasy when Conan-Doyle was writing, although nearby Wardour Street had become a thriving centre for the violin trade, making the possibility of a stray Stradivari seem more remote than in any other part of London. Pawn shops themselves were not always the shady and iniquitous dens that popular myth suggests. For sure, even in William Hogarth’s time, the last resort of pawning an inheritance becomes central to the moralistic tales of Beer Street and Gin Lane from 1751 (or Charlie Chaplin’s The Pawn Shop from 1916). However, in a time before easy access to money and credit, the cash advances offered through the pawn-broker system were a far more necessary and accepted evil of society. The ability to pledge goods against loans providing a vital service for the population at large and at the same time, pawn brokers developed into becoming hunting grounds for second hand goods of all sorts. Inevitably boundaries blurred between the ability of a pawn broker to provide access to cash, and the possibilities of serving a retail market. Pawn shops existed at all levels of society from the gentrified to the slums (even King Edward III and Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I pawned the crown jewels at one time or another). An edition of the London Illustrated News from December 1891 seemingly sums up the environment of bric-a-brac and curiosities in which a violin – possibly by Stradivari – could be found.

George Wulme Hudson

George Wulme Hudson

The real life circumstances of George Wulme Hudson counterpose Conan Doyle’s world of the violin, as he experienced it from Honeyman, and expressed through Dr Watson’s despairing comments. His writing comes at a time when a burgeoning literature demonstrated a fascination for the violin, and the activites of the trade revealed opportunities for increasing skulduggery. Hudson was born in 1862 making him only a few years younger than Conan Doyle. His father had been a freelance musician from the north of England who had settled in London before he was born. At the age of twelve he was put to work at a pawnbrokers shop in the Hackney Road as a ‘living in’ apprentice with his bed under the back counter. This gave him endless access to old musical instrument from penny whistles to violins, pledged by their owners. At the age of fourteen he was able to earn a few coppers a week by helping the junior assistant (aged sixteen) to make new violins look old by all sorts of devious means. Meanwhile his woodworking and carving skills were honed at the bench to repair objects brought into the shop and to make replacement parts as necessary.

A Wulme Hudson forgery claiming to be by G.B. Pallencia a pupil of the Gagliano family working in Milan. It combines characteristics of Nicolo Gagliano and G.B. Guadagnini. Pallencia never existed.

A Wulme Hudson forgery claiming to be by G.B. Pallencia a pupil of the Gagliano family working in Milan. It combines characteristics of Nicolo Gagliano and G.B. Guadagnini. Pallencia never existed.

The musical interests of the pawn shop evidently meant that they handled better instruments from time to time. One of his assignments was to a Edward John Payne, a respected expert and dealer, and father of Arthur Payne (onetime leader of the Proms Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood) who later gave violin lessons to Hudson at the Guildhall School of Music. By the 1890s Hudson had left the pawn shop and had become a freelance violinist and conductor. However, his experiences and training focussed his occupation towards violin making. By his own account, Hudson didn’t start violin making until 1897 – five years after Conan Doyle wrote of Holmes’ pawn shop triumph, but nobody in the violin world could have been better attuned to this part of the market. Immediately that Hudson became a violin maker, the old tricks of the trade that he was accustomed to played their part. It is rare to find a straightforward violin by Hudson and most of them are either copies of Italian instruments or Italian fantasy violins designed to fool an unsuspecting buyer. The more I get to see of Hudson’s work (I have six of them in the showroom as I write) the more I learn to appreciate his incredible sharpness and intelligence as a maker and as a rogue and his endless ability for reinvention and deception – without doubt a man that Holmes would have revelled in knowing, and perhaps the sort of man that Conan Doyle did. Postscript: It may seem beyond wildest imagination for a Stradivari violin to appear in a pawn shop in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings, but in 2010 almost exactly that happened. The day after Min-Jin Kym’s 1698 Stradivari violin was stolen from her at Euston Station, the two thieves went to an internet cafe in Tottenham Court Road to find out what it was worth. In the end they offered it for just £100 to another man in the cafe who turned it down because his daughter played the recorder, after which the case went cold for over a year. The criminal mastermind behind the heist, John Maughan had over 40 different aliases, 26 different dates of birth and over 65 convictions for theft. Not exactly Moriarty, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.