I have been neglecting my blog. But all in a good cause. Busy in the workshop with two Guadagnini copies, a del Gesu copy and another Linarol viola model on the blocks, and a Strad model cello in the planning and choosing wood stages (the best bit). Two long term cello restorations also keeping me challenged, but progressing quite smoothly, if slowly. Sad to say that my highly valued assistant and good companion Rob Furze is leaving for Scotland in the summer, so he’d better get all the above finished double quick… He has been an absolute treasure over the last few years and I wish him the very best of good fortune in Edinburgh.
An old friend dropped by a few weeks ago. A Rugeri cello copy I made in 2000, and looking well and happy, I’m pleased to say.
Last month I was in Cremona for the ‘Messie Study Day’, which was very exciting, particularly hearing a wealth of scientific analysis supporting the known history of this unique violin. Great to see it back in the city of its birth for its 300th anniversary.
The current preoccupation is with a complex Gofriller restoration, the intricacies of which are helping to distract me from global politics.
I’ve just got back from Cremona where I participated in the study day devoted to the ‘Messie’, which is spending its 300th birthday in its home town for the first time since 1775. It has been CT scanned, inspected under UV light, and given other analysis by several labs in Italy, and some very interesting findings have come to light. Firstly, the soundpost crack documented by Cozio di Salabue (and missed on repeated examinations by myself!) has been detected and revealed under powerful magnification and intense ultra violet scanning. This as far as I’m concerned removes any doubt that this is indeed the violin which Cozio bought from Paolo Stradivari, and the provenence established by the Vuillaume and the Hills is correct. There is also important new information about the inscriptions on the various Stradivari moulds, documents and relics in the Museo del Violino’s collection, which allows us to finally and definitively separate Antonio Stradivari’s hand from that of his sons, and equally importantly from the additions made by Cozio. Much food for thought.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a new copy of the ‘Heifetz’ del Gesu has been finished and delivered to, I’m happy to say, a contented customer. This is another thickly wooded Guarneri, like the Paganini, but seems very responsive as well as powerful.
During restoration of the viola, I sent a small sample of the purfling to Kew for analysis, and it turned out to be walnut, possibly matching the Vienna violin.
When the viola da braccia became obsolete in the seventeenth century, some, like this one, were converted to violas. There is a fine Gaspar da Salo braccia in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, for which the Hills made a viola head. Another viola da braccia very similar to this Linarol can be found in the collection of the Royal College of Music in London, converted in the same way by reshaping the lower bouts to conventional form and substituting a viola neck and pegbox. The original pegbox for these instruments would have been in the flat ‘spade’ form, with the pegs projecting vertically. The London violin maker Georges Chanot (1831-1895) seems to have been well aware of the potential of these instruments and made several copies himself, and possibly had a hand in converting one or two of them.
The attraction of this model is the fabulous flat, strong arch across the broad centre bouts, which seem to give enormous power and depth to the sound. There is virtually no channel around the edge. It looks amazingly modern to me, quite unlike the style of Linarol’s Brescian contemporaries. The charming soundholes are also a pleasure to cut, with a strong inner bevel. The scroll I made is a sort of amalgam of the Vienna violin scroll and familiar Brescian designs; a replica of the original viola da braccia style head would have been quite inappropriate. Duplicating the original single strand of walnut purfling was fun too. Saves a bit of time, you know.
I’ve been neglecting this blog I’m afraid. Too many distractions. But the completion of my last commission for an American client has stimulated a few thoughts about the instrument from which it was copied. I restored the original viola many years ago when it was in the hands of a distinguished London player, and became fascinated with it then. I made a few copies of it at that time, but it’s been many years since I revisited it. It was made at the end of the sixteenth century in Venice, by Ventura di Linarol, originally as a viola da braccia, a particular instrument popular in Venice and Brescia at that time, with unstopped strings running alongside the left side of the fingerboard, usually with the lower bout curving inward at the endpin. They were made in various sizes, and a particularly fine large viola da braccia by Linarol is kept in the National Music Museum in Dakota, U.S.A.. Linarol was also the author of a violin of equally distinctive form, in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The back, sides and neck of this equally fascinating instrument is made of dark hardwood.
I see it’s six months since I updated this- lots of new projects have presented themselves, and some old ones at last completed. The restored Matteo Gofriller cello is back with it’s owner and in good voice again, and several books I’ve been involved with are now published.
Jorge Pozas’ ‘the Golden Age of Violin Making in Spain’ is something I am very proud to have contributed to. It’s a beautiful book, and the first thorough examination of the subject as far as I’m aware, gorgeously illustrated.
Then there is the first batch of the ‘Amati Monograph Collection’, the brainchild of James and Sarah Buchanan of Amati.com, with which we’ve tried to revive those beautiful old Hill monographs. We have now published four, covering the ‘Archinto’ Stradivari cello of 1689, the ‘Tyrrell’ Stradivari violin of 1717, the 1709 ‘Pucelle’ Stradivari violin, and the c.1670 Stainer ‘King’.
In the workshop, the build of my current ‘A’ model Stradivari cello copy is being filmed throughout by my friend Matthew Ford of Backbone Productions, which adds a bit to the pressure, but I hope a good cello and a fascinating film will be the result.
Two new violas and a new Stradivari violin copy are also underway, a Ventapane and a Gagliano receiving some refreshment… no rest for the wicked. I knew this year would be busy, but we’re a third of the way through it already. How did that happen?
A little deck clearing has been achieved; time to start new projects. A replacement scroll to be grafted onto a Gofriller cello, and scrolls for my new builds, a cello based on the Stradivari ‘A’ pattern, and a Maggini violin copy.
A break with friends in the Peak District last weekend took us to Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, and a delightful surprise in this wonderful marquetry games table dated 1567. Astonishing images of stringed instruments in full detail, including some interesting viol forms and one that is certainly a very early violin. Definitely worth some research. The music at the bottom is, I was told, Tallis’ Canon, and has been sung direct from this score.
After several months when it seemed as if there was too much to do to keep up to date with posting here, it is very sad that the impetus for resuming is to make a tribute to Michael Byrd, my friend and colleague who passed away last week after a short illness. A shock to us all in the small world of violin makers and restorers, who only became aware of his diagnosis in the last few months. I met him first at the Newark School of Violin Making; he was in his final year when I enrolled. To me, as a tentative first year student, he was one of the ‘initiates’, already possessed of the awesome ability to make a violin, flawless and complete. But he was also one of the unofficial mentors, who never tired of helping out beginners when the teaching staff were hard to find. He continued in this role for me when I joined him at J.& A. Beare, where we both went after graduation. Michael had been there for a couple of years already and was carrying out what to me were absolutely astonishing restorations, and happily discussing the detailed characteristics of Strads and Guarneris as well as more obscure makers whose work we were dealing with day to day. Michael was always happy to talk. He stored up anecdotes as much as he soaked up and imparted precious information about our craft. We worked there for more than a dozen years; I left a few years before he did, both of us starting our own independent workshops within a few miles of each other in south west London. Although we remained near neighbours, inevitably we didn’t see quite as much of each other subsequently, but Michael never lost his strong characteristics of integrity and dedication to craftsmanship, and to this day I can only judge when a job is finished after I mentally pass it over to Michael for his approval, just as I actually did all those years ago at Beare’s. I try and look at it through his eyes before I decide if it’s good enough. And I will continue to do that even now.
The last of the present run of cellos completed, with the vital assistance of Hubert de Launay and Lea Trombert. This is modelled on the ‘Gore-Booth’ 1709 Stradivari, the first great Strad cello I got to know, and still one of my favourites. It is for Judith Fleet of the BBC Symphony, and I hope she likes it.
Restorations and a couple of new violins on the bench next. But the Amati Exhibition, once again at the magnificent Lansdowne Club in Mayfair (gin & tonic by the pool, anyone?) was again a terrific occasion to meet friends and see and hear instruments. The new Monograph series, books to be published by Amati.com in association with J.& A.Beare, has been officially launched. We had a chat about the wonderful 1689 ‘Archinto’ Strad cello which will be one of the first subjects. It was there to be viewed, a great privilege. Later on we will be publishing a volume on the magnificent ‘Bass of Spain’, amongst other choice examples of classical luthierie.
It’s all go…
Only just got in before the end of the month this time. Time seems to be on the flood just now, as is the river a few hundred yards way… and closing. Lots of exciting things happening professionally. I’m very happy to say that I’ve been asked to act as a consultant to the Dextra Musica foundation of Norway, which holds a wonderful collection of instruments. The foundation is dedicated to bringing fine instruments to the best players in Norway and encouraging musical education. I’m very proud to be involved in a small but hopefully significant way.
Another exhibition by the wonderful Amati.com looms in March, at the luxurious Lansdowne Club in London. Significant for me as we will be launching the Monograph publications I have been working on with James Buchanan (the Boss), John Milnes (the Brains) and J.& A. Beare. We aim to produce four volumes per year, each one describing one worthy instrument in fine detail and glorious photography.
Another forthcoming publication is the work on Spanish makers by Jorge Pozas. More deadlines. Jorge hopes to have something ready to show at Mondomusica in September. I am working on my contribution, greatly helped by the startling dendrochronological revelations of expert Peter Ratcliffe. Which has made me think a lot about wood…
Dendrochronology generally seems to suggest quite short seasoning times for most classical makers. The idea that violin wood should be as old and aged as possible seems to be on the retreat. Where did it come from? Was it really only Vuillaume who started it all, with his ‘Swiss Chalet’ wood?
But here I am, with a challenging commission to make a copy of the delicious ‘Alard’ Stradivari. Hunting through my wood store I looked again at the old (and I mean OLD) Hill workshop pieces I was given many years ago. I found nice match. Thing is, it’s dark tar brown. Almost black. You can just read the writing on it, which says ‘July 1894, 4/9’. Which means one hundred and twenty years ago it cost W.E.Hill round about 25p. It’s beautiful wood. I used some to make a copy of the ‘Wilton’ del Gesu some time ago, which turned out to be one of my favourite pieces of work. So I’m happy to use it for special occasions. The depth of colour goes right through the wood, a wonderful base for varnish. I’ve jointed it and it’s nearly ready to cut out. We’ll see how it goes.