Vintage chin rests by W.E. Hill & Sons

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Expert, dealer and consultant for fine stringed instruments

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

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

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

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



Matthew Hardie and the Alday Strad.

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Experts, dealers and consultants for fine stringed instruments.

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


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

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

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

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

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


Hardie’s ‘long pattern’. 

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


Paul Alday’s significance.

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

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

The Montgolfier brothers outside the venue of the Concert Spirituel.

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

15035 Pique 1804  double

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

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



Understanding Hardie’s violin.  

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


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

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

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

The Alday Stradivari, a rediscovery. 


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

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


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

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


Front crop

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

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

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

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

Alday scrolls

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

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

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




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

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

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

The Violin Maker of Cremona

MARY PICKFORD’S starring role in The Violin Maker of Cremona comes at a time in the development of the silent movies where film producers were finding their feet, and the American love-affair with rare Italian violins was just beginning.

We often blame the economic collapse of Europe following the first World War as the moment that the American market for fine violins emerged. To a point there is truth in this, as European financial desperation contrasted with the the burgeoning American economy of the interwar years. Even America’s great depression of the 1930s was a relatively short-term crisis especially for America’s wealthy, by comparison to Europe’s post-war financial strain, and the overall sustaining wealth of the American market drew fine instruments in ever greater numbers towards its shores. However violin-mania in America was rooted far further back. It is even alleged that the city of Pittsburgh was founded on land that was swapped in exchange for a Jacob Stainer violin back in the early 1800s.


“The most wonderful price ever paid, taken at it’s present value, was given for a Steiner violins – 1,500 acres of land, on which a large part of the city of Pittsburgh now stands, were exchanged for one in the early part of this century.” From The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science and Art. (New York, May 1872.) 

OleBullLater, the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull made his American debut in 1843, touring with a fabulous collection of rare and exquisite violins. His repeated tours to the country eventually led to his establishment of an ill-fated colony of New Norway on 11,000 acres of land he acquired in Pennsylvania in 1852 (the capital was named Oleana). Aged sixty in 1868, he married the 20 year old Sarah Chapman Thorp of Madison, Wisconsin before returning to Norway in the 1870s. If any single influence can be identified in the development of violin mania in the United States, the responsibility would seem to be his.

From the other end of the cultural spectrum (and somewhat paradoxically), the establishment of Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1886 played an enormous role in broadening the collective consciousness in America for fine violins and other objects of European culture that had previously appeared distant and unobtainable. The enormous mail order operation grew out of industrialised European and American manufacture, and for violins it drew upon the mass-production german musical instrument making from the town of Markneukirchen in Saxony. The trade with America was so vast in scale, that although the population was only 6,652 in 1890, from 1893 until America joined the First World War there was a United States Consulate established there to facilitate export of musical instruments. The sense of variety offered by German factory fiddles, made to endless classical designs, and identified by imitation labels of the great Cremonese makers of the past, provided endless potential for mail order companies to create a mystique about the violin. Within a generation the names of Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati became familiar across violin-playing America.

King del Gesu

Royal de Forest Hawley’s 1737 “King” Giuseppe del Gesu, as illustrated in George Hart’s History of the Violin.

Following in the footsteps of Ole Bull, an agricultural machine supplier from Hartford in Connecticut ended up becoming a significant influence on the American market. The unlikely name of this figure was Royal de Forest Hawley, whose journeys to Europe brought him in contact with George Hart who supplied the majority of his enormous collection of fine violins. Hawley had intended to publish a history of the violin and his collection had been hand picked to provide an encyclopaedic spectrum of classical violin making. His death in 1893 allowed the Chicago firm of Lyon & Healy to acquire the entire collection, plus the manuscript which they published in 1904 as The Hawley Collection of Violins: With a History of Their Makers and a Brief Review of the Evolution and Decline. Whatever Hawley’s ambitions may have been, for Lyon & Healy, their acquisition of the collection and launch of the book established their reputation as America’s eminent dealer at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Stradivari violins were rare in the United States. Hawley’s own collection contained the 1722 Earl and the 1723 Healy, both made outside of the Golden period. The crown-jewel of the collection was the 1737 King Joseph Guarneri del Gesu and Cremonatone copies of this violin (Lyon & Healy model G.1125) appear from this period celebrating the greatest violin in America.

On one hand the phenomenon of rare Italian violins was heavily entrenched in the American musical psyche. On the other, an awareness of the rarity of these instruments underlines how few had made their permanent home outside of Europe. Even in the 1930s Stradivari’s work was so rare in the United States that there was serious concern that they would not be heard unless examples were secured for the nation through it’s cultural institutions. Mrs Annie Bolton Matthews Bryant donated the 1694 Francesca and the 1711 Antonius to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for that purpose in 1933, and two years later the Library of Congress received it’s quartet from Mrs Gertrude Clark Whittall (ironically with the changing agendas of cultural institutions, these are now amongst the least played Stradivaris in the world).

million dollar partners

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffiths, the million dollar partners. 

In the early days of the silent screen, film producers were grappling with to find subject matter that would provide them with commercial success. Tensions existed between the concept of a new art form, and an increasing realisation of the attraction of the cinema for the mass market. In 1909 when David W. Griffith produced The Violin Maker, the format of slap-stick silent movies that would propel the likes of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin to world-iconic status was almost unimagined. Instead film companies sought to build their artistic legitimacy within already established traditions. Cinematography grew out of the realism that existed amongst the literary and artistic movements that followed the pre-Raphaelites in painting, and responded to the challenge to visual art that had been established by the birth of photography in the middle of the nineteenth-century. The same choices to involve subjects that related to real life were referential to the emerging American literature, which took Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irvine as it’s founding fathers. This wasn’t simply the pretensions of dramatists and movie moguls to be compared alongside the literary, artistic and dramatic icons of their day, but it allowed early film to combine short dramatic adventure for a culturally aspirational society as a source of enrichment.


D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer in 1920

David W. Griffith’s output in the early years was extraordinary. As a failed playwright, he began his acting career with Edison Studios in 1907 after they rejected one of his manuscripts, and in the following year joined the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. By chance, Biograph’s main director, Wallace McCutcheon fell ill, and his son proved an unsuccessful successor, providing Griffith with the chance for success. Following The Adventures of Dollie. The film was a ‘lemon’, nevertheless he progressed to direct forty-eight further short films in 1908, more than 170 in 1909 and a total of 532 films before the end of his career in 1931. With the realisation that sound and film went together, it seems that an exploration of the violins potential was strong in the ideology of Biograph, and Griffith produced three films between 1909 and 1910 in which the violin featured prominently in the title. The Message of the Violin in 1910 is lost, and given it’s rather slushy title that may be no loss to history. The Voice of the Violin produced in 1909 is a contemporary story of romance and anarchy, making light of the threats offered by the new radical ideas of Communism that existed within much of the new immigrant population of the United States.


Le Luthier de Crémone, a rival 1909 adaptation of Coppées play by the Pathé brothers (now lost)

Griffith’s 1909 The Violin Maker of Cremona is most important to film buffs because it starred Mary Pickford in her debut role as an actress playing Giannina. For charting the history of the violin market in America it is interesting that the concept of Cremonese violins – however tangentially dealt with – was considered significant enough to have commercial potential as the pretext for an otherwise undistinguished silent film. From a violinistic point of view, however there may have been much more to this film than meets the eye. At first glance the film is an acknowledged adaptation of François Coppée’s 1876 French comedy, Le Luthier de Cremone. The original play was written in verse and as a result had a sustaining literary value beyond the stage performance. Although his critics published numerous parodies of this style, describing his work as ‘chatty comfortable rhymes’, damning them with faint praise as ‘the delight of the enlightened bourgeois of the day’, nevertheless they were widely disseminated and translated into English, Hungarian and German by the 1890s. In 1894 the play formed the basis of an opera by the Hungarian violinist Jeno Hubay, and in 1909 the theme attracted not only Griffith’s adaptation, but a (lost) French interpretation by the Pathé brothers.


Jeno Hubay’s A cremonai hegedūs performed by Franz von Vecsey (click to listen)

Returning to Griffith’s silent film, the choreography is strongly operatic, relying at all times on a small and highly theatrical cast and set at a time when other silent films were trying to be much more naturalistic, taking advantage of the camera’s ability to bring outside environments into the movie theatre, suggesting that it was Hubay’s opera rather than Coppée’s rhyming text that provided the inspiration for the silent film. The Intermezzo to Hubay’s opera in two parts, A cremonai hegedūs lasting approximately 2 minutes was a widely published and performed part of the virtuoso repertoire of the early 20th century (download the music from IMSLP here).

Here’s the silent film… enjoy!

The coming of the ‘Messiah’

175145_10150137319771955_4175646_oWhen Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume visited London in 1872 he caused a considerable fracas amongst British dealers through his antics at the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments held at South Kensington. Benjamin Hebbert examines the circumstances of his visit, and reveals photographs taken of the ‘Messiah’ at the time of the exhibition whilst still in Vuillaume’s possession. First published in the March 2011 ‘Messiah’ issue of The Strad. 

In the early 1870s a controversy erupted in the London violin world, and even the presence in the city of the most celebrated instrument of all could not reconcile those involved. The disagreement was caused by the French violin maker and dealer Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume whose behaviour in curating an 1872 exhibition of ancient instruments angered several leading figures in the violin trade. Among these was the English novelist and dealer Charles Reade, who was so enraged by Vuillaume’s ungentlemanly conduct that he openly attacked the Parisian in letters to the press. In this sulphurous atmosphere, not even the excitement of seeing the Frenchman’s prized Stradivari violin, the mint-condition ‘Messie’ could diminish the antipathy Reade felt towards its owner.

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

To commemorate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall in 1871, a committee was formed to secure the loan of specimens for the Special Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments, an event which was to be hosted at the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, the following year. Vuillaume was appointed as part of a Paris-based sub-committee, and was given personal responsibility to ‘superintend the arrangement of the Italian Stringed Instruments’ for this exhibition. The Frenchman was well respected in England and had significant links to the London violin trade where he had bought and sold many antique instruments, and where there was a ready market for his new violins. His influence was felt strongly in the formation of the exhibition and his direct contribution was considerable, the Frenchman loaning four instruments of the highest quality – the ‘Violon du Diable’ by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gésu and, by Stradivari, the ‘Messie’ and ‘La Pucelle’ violins, as well as a 16th century Brescian cittern that he erroneously attributed to Stradivari.

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1860.

Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1860.

Significantly, the exhibition committee did not include any British violin dealer or expert among its 45 members. Whatever reasons surrounded this snub to the British violin trade on it’s own soil, Vuillaume capitalised on it mercilessly in the exhibition catalogue, treating his rivals with appalling contempt. Read and his fellow British dealers John Hart and Georges Chanot each loaned fine instruments to the exhibition, yet Vuillaume described them in the catalogue with nothing more that ‘A VIOLIN, By Straduarius’. In other places he poured doubt on attributions of instruments belonging to rival London dealers, in order to diminish the reputation of the London trade. In one case he wrote acidly, ‘if we may rely on the label inside, by Gaspar di Salo’, and elsewhere ‘ascribed to Guarnerius, probably Storioni’. Simultaneously, he turned the catalogue into a brochure dedicated to his own commercial success, and he devoted detailed descriptions to those instruments in which he had a vested interest, including half a page – the longest description in the entire catalogue – to his beloved ‘Messiah’.

Charles Reade, novelist and violin connoisseur.

Charles Reade, novelist and violin connoisseur.

Charles Reade was justifiably enraged by Vuillaume’s behaviour. In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette, published on 24 August 1872, he sought to belittle the Frenchman’s contribution by purposely underplaying examples of Stradivari’s golden period, writing simply that ‘for nearly twenty years Stradivari poured forth with unceasing fertility some admirable works, of which you have three fine examples, under average wear, hard wear, and no wear – 90, 92, 91. Please look at the three violins in this order to realised what I have indicated before – that time is no sure measure in this business.’ These numbers referred to ‘La Pucelle’, ‘A VIOLIN. By Straduarius, Lent by Mr. John Hart,’ and the ‘Le Messie’ placing focus on the instrument entirely dismissed by Vuillaume between his two treasures. To render his sabotage more effective, Reade confounded convention by stating that it was not the instruments of the golden period, by those of the 1720s that were of ‘the grandest epoch’.

It is more than likely that the 'Messiah' had first been seen - and heard - in England in 1862, when Vuillaume was juror at the World's Exhibition. Unable to compete because of his office, the violin maker was allowed to make an unofficial presentation of his own creations. These were played against a Stradivari violin he had brought with him from France that had a reputed valuation of 15,000 francs (£600). No mention is made of the identity of this violin, but we can be reasonably certain it was the 'Messiah'.  In 1872 and 1874 both Reade and Carl Engel, the organiser of the South Kensington Exhibition associated this value with the Messiah.

It is more than likely that the ‘Messiah’ had first been seen – and heard – in England in 1862, when Vuillaume was juror at the World’s Exhibition. Unable to compete because of his office, the violin maker was allowed to make an unofficial presentation of his own creations. These were played against a Stradivari violin he had brought with him from France that had a reputed valuation of 15,000 francs (£600). No mention is made of the identity of this violin, but we can be reasonably certain it was the ‘Messiah’. In 1872 and 1874 both Reade and Carl Engel, the organiser of the South Kensington Exhibition associated this value with the Messiah.

On 5 June 1872 The Times had issued a report of the exhibition that focused chiefly on Vuillaume’s contribution and included a rare description of the sound of the ‘Messie’ from its owner: The exhibition is strong in violins, and the musical amateur has such an opportunity as will probably never come to him again of studying the fine lines, the flat surface, and the exquisite varnish and purfling of some of the most precious in Europe – notably M.Vuillaume’s Straduarius ‘La Pucelle,’ so named from its ‘parfait conservation’, and his ‘Le Messie,’ another instrument by the great maker, which has been scarcely played upon since first its strings were knotted in 1716, and still looks brand-new, having been venerated and cherished in glass cases by its successive owners for more than a century and a half. As its happy possessor proudly says, this instrument proves that long-playing is not the secret of the exquisite tones of a Straduarius; for though scarcely played since it left the hands of the great master, the notes of ‘Le Messie’ have all the golden qualities for which his best instruments are renowned – ‘force, moëlleux, rondeur, finess, vibration, facile, ton distinguée, noble, incisive’.

The attention Vuillaume received in the British press again raised Reade’s ire, and in his letter of 24 August he attacked the value of the Frenchman’s connoisseurship with regard to the ‘Violon du Diable’ Guarneri. And while he begrudgingly accepted the importance of the ‘Messiah’, his bitterness against Vuillaume wasn’t spared. ‘There is a  beautiful and very perfect violin by Stradiuarius, which the Times, in an article on these instruments, calls Le Messie,’ he wrote. ‘These leading journalists have private information on every subject, even grammar. I prefer to call it – after the very intelligent man to who we owe sight of it – the Vuillaume Stradiuarius. Well, the Vuillaume Stradiuarius is worth, as times go, £600 at least’.

Unable to criticise the ‘Messiah’, Reade launched a thinly veiled attack on Vuillaume as a maker. ‘As further illustration that violins are heard by the eye,’ he wrote, ‘let me remind your readers of the high prices at which numberless copies of the old makers were sold in Paris for many years’. He elaborates on the chemical processes used to age the wood, concluding that ‘these processes kill the wood as a vehicle of sound; and those copies were, and are, the worst musical instruments Europe has created in this century; and, bad as they are at starting, they get worse every year of their untuneful existence; yet, because they flattered the eye with something like the light and shade and picturesqueness of the Cremona violin, these psuedo-antiquities, though illimitable in number, sold like wildfire, and hundreds of self-decievers heard them by the eye, and fancied these tinpots sounded divinely. the hideous red violins of Bernadel, Gand, and an English maker or two, are a reaction against those copies.’

Yet for all his posturing, Reade was bewitched by the ‘Messiah’; ‘If you could see the Vuillaume Straduarius at night and move it about in the light of a candle, you would be amazed at the fire of the foil and refraction of the light.

Front images of 'La Pucelle', 'Le Messie' and 'Le Violon du Diable' from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor's edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum - from our archives.

Front images of ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon du Diable’ from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor’s edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum – from our archives.

Back images of 'La Pucelle', 'Le Messie' and 'Le Violon du Diable' from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor's edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum - from our archives.

Back images of ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon du Diable’ from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor’s edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum – from our archives.

Side images of 'La Pucelle', 'Le Messie' and 'Le Violon du Diable' from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor's edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum - from our archives.

Side images of ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon du Diable’ from the front, taken for the 1872 exhibitor’s edition of the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum – from our archives.

Postscript: Publishing this article in 2011 provided the first opportunity to put photographs into the public domain that were taken in London in 1872 during the exhibition. These show ‘La Pucelle’, ‘Le Messie’ and ‘Le Violon Diable’ displayed together in front back and side views. Although these were originally published in a special exhibitors printing of the exhibition catalogue, copies are so rare that we believe these are likely to be the only copies surviving in the public domain. It is notable that no reference has been made to them in recent publications disputing the authenticity of the Messiah, and the ability to see the aged violin photographed in the same frame as two Cremonese instruments of undisputed provenance at the time that they belonged to Vuillaume gives us significant additional evidence that needs to be taken into consideration by those who dispute the authenticity and history of the Ashmolean Museum’s 1716 Stradivari. The violin remained the property of Vuillaume and after his death in 1875 it passed to his heirs who sold it to W.E. Hill & Sons in 1890.



August Wilhelmj’s spectacular Dodd bow.

Wilhelmj ad

August Wilhelmj wrote the transcription of Bach’s 3rd Orchestral suite that spawned Air on a G’ String, but it is his re-orchestration of Paganini’s violin concerto in 1882 and the cadenza he wrote for it that are his significant contributions to the pantheon of great works for the violin. Benjamin Hebbert explores the fame of this extraordinary musician and takes a look at one of his performing bows. 

Nicolo Paganini

Nicolo Paganini

Through twenty-first-century eyes it is difficult to separate the man from the myth of Nicolo Paganini. For such a titanic character of 19th century music it is unexpected to realise that he was already fatally ill with syphillis and mercury poisoning in 1828 – the year after Beethoven’s death – curbing his activity, and his eventual demise in 1840 was still relatively early in his century. For those who had heard him play, it was fleetingly during his tireless tours to endless audiences across Europe. His legend rested largely on the publication of his 24 caprices in 1820, their subsequent dissemination, and the fact that few musicians at all could match his virtuosity. Even performances of his work by other violinists was largely impossible during his own lifetime as he jealously avoided publication of most of his music. The less people encountered of him, the more famous he became. Publication of Paganini’s works came after his death. The first violin concerto written somewhere between 1811 and 1815 finally entered public circulation in 1840.

Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, the female Paganini in 1885.

Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, the female Paganini in 1885.

From this point on, the race was on for the ‘next Paganini’. His memory had established such a cult that for the remainder of the century it seemed unthinkable that a new and greater violinist would emerge. Hence even the greatest interpreters of Paganini’s works, ranging from Emile Sauret, or the ‘female Paganini’, Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda to August Wilhelmj would trade immediate fame for a lacklustre review in the annals of history: neither famous for their own compositions nor for famous concertos commissioned in their honour. Nonetheless, these were the violinists who would cement Paganini’s fame. They provided the kind of performances that allowed the likes of Conan-Doyle (born in 1859) to enable Sherlock Holmes to bore Dr Watson with ‘anecdote after anecdote’ about the extraordinary violin virtuoso. Wilhelmj was born in 1845 and was just seven years old when Henriette Sontag declared he would be ‘the German Paganini. His first public performance in 1854 in the court theatre at Wiesbaden made so significant an impact that Prince Emil von Wittgenstein immediately sent him to Franz Listz. Several years later when Listz wrote a letter of introduction for the young violinist to Ferdinand David in 1861, it was once again as ‘the future Paganini’. With his training at an end, the latter part of the 1860s say him embark on the touring life of a virtuoso travelling first to Switzerland then England, France, Italy Russia, Belgium, Sweden and crossing paths with Joachim and Berlioz along the way.

Wilhelmj roll

The ‘Wilhelmj Cylinders’ are a unique set of wax recordings dating from around 1900 that are preserved in the British Library. To read more about them, and to hear fragments of Wilhelmj’s sound, click on the photo to visit the British Library’s website.

By 1875 he had become a public figure in England, playing at the memorial concert for Sterndale-Bennet given by the Royal Philharmonic Society, and heavily involved in the English cult of Wagner. He returned to Germany the following year to become the first concertmaster at Bayreuth, for Wagner’s first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen. When he returned to England in 1877 it was his influence that encouraged Wagner to accompany him to conduct a festival of his works at the Royal Albert Hall (with Wilhelmj, as it’s concertmaster). From 1878 to 1882 he embarked on a world tour before retiring back to Germany. His semi-retirement still included occasional performances – famously in 1885 his invitation by the Sultan of Turkey to play before his harem, ‘the ladies of Seraglio’, but he concentrated on running a violin school in Wiesbaden. In 1893 he made his final move to London, becoming principal professor of violin at Guildhall School of Music in the following year. He remained in London for the rest of his life, and died in 1908.

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus where Wilhelmj performed Der Ring des Nibelungen as concertmaster for it's first season in 1876

The Bayreuth Festspielhaus where Wilhelmj performed Der Ring des Nibelungen as concertmaster for it’s first season in 1876

I am delighted to offer for sale a bow by James Dodd that was one of Wilhelmj’s principal performing bows in the 1870s. James Dodd died in 1865 and the bow is representative of his final period of production, with the typically protruding Parisian eye and ‘goldfish’ mother of pearl that is seen throughout the finer works by James Dodd, James Tubbs and Samuel Allen across the late nineteenth-century. The dates are such that it is implausible that Dodd made the bow for the young Wilhemlj, and like heavy Dodd cello bows that became the golden-bullet for soloists such as Amaryllis Fleming and Jacqueline du Pre in the 20th century, it appears these bows suited a purpose that was entirely unintended when they were first made. In London, Wilhelmj was one of the first violinists to encounter the problems of the new generation of concert halls that developed in the late Victorian era, the chasmic Royal Albert Hall that opened in 1871 being significant amongst them.


Weighing in at 64 grams the bow is certainly one of the heaviest and one of the most unusual English violin bows that I have come across. The weight is reserved in the breadth of the octagonal stick, but as it resolves towards the tip, the bow recovers more conventional proportions resolving in a firmly Tourte inspired head following the very best of the Dodd tradition. The balance of the bow is excellent so that the bow does not feel heavy, but has an enormous amount sense of gravity on the string. Wilhelmj said that he ‘could produce a better tone on this Dodd than with any other of his bows’. Some French bows, especially by Pajeot in the 1820s have a similar quality, and it is possible that Dodd was following this concept. Wilhelmj was playing the bow in 1878. We don’t know when exactly he bought it and it seems paradoxical that he should have parted with such a favoured bow in the middle of his world tour. It is certainly deliciously tempting to look further back than 1878 and wonder if this was the bow he used as concertmaster in the inaugural performances at Bayreuth the year earlier.


Certainly the massive nature of the bow seems suited as much to the power required to perform Wagner as it is for the bombastic virtuosity of Paganini’s first violin concerto, a piece that Wilhelmj had virtually claimed as his own, and the extra energy in the bow would certainly have inspired confidence in a musician faced with the unrivalled scale of the Royal Albert Hall or the singular difficulties posed by the Festspeilhaus in Bayreuth. During his world tour, Wilhelmj had been attracted to Chicago by Adolph Rosenbecker a Prussian immigrant to America who organised and conducted the Turner Hall Concerts. Wilhelmj figured amongst the various soloists who played with the orchestra including Pablo de Sarasate and Eugene d’Albert. Rosenbecker was a serially entrepreneurial musician, also serving as concert master to a fledgling Chicago Symphony Orchestra and later the Chicago Grand Opera Company before moving to San Francisco where he became concertmaster of the symphony orchestra in 1912 until his retirement in 1915.

Adolph Rosenbecker's letter to Louis Persinger,September 25th 1917.

Adolph Rosenbecker’s letter to Louis Persinger,September 25th 1917. Part of the correspondence sold with this bow.

Having bought the bow from Wilhelmj in 1878, he passed it to his successor in the San Francisco Symphony in 1917. The strength of the letter which accompanies the bow is an indication of the very high regard with which it was held. His successor was no less than Louis Persinger who had been leader of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Opera Orchestra in Belgium before moving to America. Shortly afterwards he would become the teacher to Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci and Isaac Stern. Papers accompanying the bow indicate that in 1936 it belonged to one Coleman Young of San Francisco, named on a Wurlitzer certificate. We know little about him except that he owned a violin by Jacob Stainer made in 1663. From there, the lawyer and amateur violinist Irving Golombe owned the bow in 1969. It returned to professional use thereafter as a highly prized bow until we acquired it for sale.

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.

Record Prices of the Past

StradAug2011When the Lady Blunt Stradivari sold by Tarisio in 2011 broke all auction records, Benjamin Hebbert looked back on the market shattering prices of the past for the August 2011 issue of The Strad Magazine. Some years on and we’ve seen further extravagant prices asked for and paid for the world’s finest instruments. The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu was sold against a price tag of $18million, and an eye-watering $40million has been asked for the Stradivari Macdonald viola. Here we take a look at sales that changed the face of the market periodically since the seventeenth century. (A version of this article was published in the Strad Magazine August 2011 issue at the time of the sale of the 1721 Lady Blunt). 

Justus Sustermans portrait of Galileo Galilei painted in 1636 around the time that he was shopping for a violin.  Justus Sustermans portrait of_Galileo_Galilei,_1636

Justus Sustermans portrait of Galileo Galilei painted in 1636 around the time that he was shopping for a violin.

By the beginning of the seventeenth-century connoisseurs of musical instruments began to distinguish between the qualities of new and old specimens. When Galileo sought a violin in 1637-8, his agent reported the advice of claudio Monteverdi. his nephew wished “to send an instrument of exquisite work” which needed time for it’s cremonese maker to “bring it to perfection”. The letter followed on that “he can, however, offer an old one of superlative merit, but the price asked is two ducats more – that is, fourteen. I have requested him to have this one sent at once, irrespective of price”. We can safely assume that the maker was Amati. The superlative statements applied to both the new and old work that was on offer male it clear that amongst Cremonese violins, the advantages of age were already well understood. Meanwhile in England, and before his death in 1626, Sir Francis Bacon expressed the view that “old lutes sound better than new”. Setting a familiar precedent for the violin market that followed, at a time when a professional lutenist might pay two or three pounds for a good instrument, and ten pounds for an exceptional one, antique instruments could make three or four times more. In an exceptional case, King Charles I was reputed to have paid £100 for a prized old lute by the Bolognese maker, Laux Maler.

Thomas Mace's Musick's Monument describing prices of £100 for the lutes of Laux Maler during the reign of Charles I.

Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument describing prices of £100 for the lutes of Laux Maler during the reign of Charles I.

During the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries (a period of negligible inflation), receipts from the Lord Chamberlain’s Account Books of the English Royal Court repeatedly give values between £10 and £12 for violins bought for musicians in the King’s employment, sometimes described as Cremonese. John Bannister, master of the King’s violins returned from Paris in 1662 where he had been sent to learn the French style of playing from Lully, submitting receipts upon his arrival for two Cremona violins at a value of £40. In the previous year another celebrated violinist in London, Thomas Baltzar likewise submitted a receipt for £34 3s 4d to buy a pair of fiddles for the Kings service. These prices seem to reflect the purchase of very special violins, and were a foretaste of what would come as the violin sonata became popular amongst wealthy gentleman amateurs. Before long the prestige of owning the most celebrated violins would drive prices upwards and the rage for Cremonese violins that followed was noted by Thomas Shadwell in 1672 in The Miser, where he noted a ‘Cremonia Violin’ amongst the essential assets of a true lover of music. John Evelyn commented in 1683 that “‘Nor have the Cremona Violins or Loxmollar [Laux Mahler] Lutes been lately of such excessive prices as formerly”. Cremonese violins were escalating in price, and as they increased in popularity increasingly existed in the imagination of a broad population, more diverse than the wealthy elite that owned them.

Charles II's "Private Musick" by J.B. Medina, circa 1662.

The members of Charles II’s “Private Musick” by J.B. Medina painted around 1662. Amongst the sitters, the identities of the two violinists in the foreground are thought to by John Bannister (left) and Thomas Baltzar (right).

An auction in 1692 sets the trend for violin sales in the following century in which violins would be sold. That year, Edward Millington, a prominent auctioneer working at the Vendu in Charles Street advertised ‘A number of curious violins, Cremonia and others’ forming part of a sale of old master paintings. Nothing further is known of the sale, but the reaction of the playwright, Thomas Southerne in the following year may relate to the results of this auction. In The Maids Last Prayer Sir Symphony plausibly remarked ‘Mines a Cremona, and cost me fifty pounds, gentlemen, Pray suspend your curiosity, and come to my chamber, and I’ll resolve you any Question in Musick’.

The earliest record of a violin achieving £100 is found in 1705 when Nicolo Cosimi, a pupil of Arcangelo Correlli resident in London, and an inveterate dealer in instruments sold a violin to Lord Baltimore. For the century that followed, the sum of £100 appears to have remained as a sort of ceiling for the value of violins. In 1774, for example, the Carbonelli sale conducted by Mr Bremner on the Strand achieved 80 guineas for a Stainer of 1668, 60 for another made in 1674, and a mere 30 guineas for a Stradivari. The sale of a significant music collection belonging to John Stanley, and conducted by James Christie in 1786 included a 1617 Amati violin and a Cremona dated 1657. The publicity surrounding the sale and the high prices achieved in the promoted an excitement for violins at auction. The satirist, Peter Pinder wrote one of his Fairwell Odes for the Year 1786 remembering the auction:


In the same year, the playwrights, Elizabeth Inchbald and Thomas Holcroft took the same circumstances to an extreme in the prologue of The Widow’s Vow (needless to remark, the first occasions that a violin auctioneer has appeared either a play or an ode):

Inchbold Holcroft

The justifications for high prices up to the beginning of the twentieth century appear to have been inspired by passion rather than sound economic sense, with the most generous sums paid within very close social groups where one particular instrument had become highly coveted. One such example was a Barak Norman cello belonging to John Crosdill. The Prince of Wales, his pupil, took a liking to the cello and gave several liberal offers for it. Having had all of his offers refused, the prince borrowed the cello for an evening and never returned it. Crosdill was instead allowed to keep an Amati cello that had cost 70 guineas in lieu of it, and given a sinecure place of £100 per year. We don’t know the date of the transaction, but the prince was crowned George IV in 1820, five years before Crosdill’s death leaving a minimum sinecure of £500 on top of the Amati cello. It may have been much more. Yet even with the greatest of instruments, over-pricing could leave an auctioneer severely burnt. This was certainly the case at the Christie’s sale in 1827 comprising instruments belonging to the late Sir William Curtis, one of the great collectors of the day. The Spanish Court viola estimated at 150 guineas failed to take a single bid, and the 1572 King cello by Andrea Amati failed to sell against an eye-watering estimate of 500 guineas. “A document was given to the proprietor when he purchased this instrument, stating that it was presented by Pope Pius V. to Charles IX., King of France, for his chapel. It has been richly painted, the arms of France being on the back, and the motto ‘Pietate et Justitia’ on the sides. The tone of this violoncello is of extraordinary power and richness”. A 1647 Nicolo Amati (now, the Ole Bull) was bought in at 185 guineas, though “justly considered as one of the most beautiful and finest instruments in THE WHOLE WORLD”, and a 1684 Stradivari cello that had been preserved in a crate of cotton for a hundred years, (now the General Kydd) failed to find a buyer at 235 guineas. Remarking upon the period, W. T. Parke recalled in 1830 “That there exists a sort of mania amongst certain connoisseurs in fiddles, (as in regard to pictures,) is not to be doubted, as the following fact will show : Mr. Hay, a former excellent leader of the King’s band of musicians, produced on his favourite violin, made by Klotz, a German, a tone so sweet and powerful, that he had been frequently solicited to part with it, and was, on one occasion, offered for it by a noble lord three hundred pounds in cash, and an annuity, durante vita, of one hundred pounds! Mr. Hay, however, possessing a handsome independence, and not being desirous to part with his instrument, rejected the offer, and dying some years afterwards, this rara avis, at the subsequent sale of effects, produced but forty pounds!”.

Lady Blunt’s purchase of her 1721 Stradivari from Vuillaume in 1864 must count amongst the great prices paid for a violin during the nineteenth century. Vuillaume acknowledged that ‘this fine instrument is absolutely complete, and in an exceptionally rare state of preservation’, setting the price at £260. During this period it was unusual to see a Stradivari sell for much over £150, yet in 1862 and again in 1972 Vuillaume exhibited the Messiah, claiming a value of 15,000 francs (£600). The tremendous differential between the two values can only be explained as part of the myth-making that surrounded the Messiah and Vuillaume’s ownership of it. It is otherwise difficult to justify so large a premium over the price of the Lady Blunt. Passion, mystique, provenance and other intangible elements of human desire continued to define prices for violins during the nineteenth-century at levels far beyond their economic value as raw instruments. Therefore, whilst the Lady Blunt reflects the upper end of a market controlled only by the musical nature of rare violins, examples that had particular personal associations continued to achieve vastly increased prices. “The highest Price ever given for a fiddle was for a Steiner make – by the father of General Neville of Cincinnati, America – he gave 1500 acres of land, worth a dollar per acre – suppose a dollar was worth four shillings (moderate value) £300 – but as the City of Pittsburgh was soon after built in this 1500 acres, how much must the fiddle have cost? The next highest priced was sold in 1856 (14 years ago) at £40 per ounce”. A violin roughly weighs 14 ounces, giving a price of £600.

At the end of the nineteenth-century, the market for rare violins would increase exponentially. The success of dealers such as W.E. Hill & Sons appears to have come about because of rapid movement in the values of great instruments. The Messiah, valued in the 1870s at an unthinkably high 15,000 francs sold in 1890 to Hills for 50,000 francs (£2000) palling earlier prices into insignificance. The late nineteenth-century had witnessed rapidly emerging interest in violins from a cash-rich, largely English middle class which pushed prices ever higher. As the Americans came into the market following the first world war, values would reflect the rapidly growing market. To buy the same violin in the 1920s, Henry Ford believed it was worth offering a blank cheque.