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.
Happy new year to everyone! A busy Christmas here in the workshop. I should be used to it by now, but musicians like to take a break too, and the time while they’re away with friends and families is obviously a good opportunity to get that buzz sorted or the fingerboard shot or that major restoration their dear cello has always needed. So we’re packed out with all sorts of jobs, major and minor. New work that I’m looking forward to starting and finishing is on hold, and several texts I’m supposed to be writing are sort of hovering in the back of my head rather than part of my computer memory where they should be. So apologies to anyone who is waiting, but I’m doing my best… Not complaining, you understand. My own family has been whizzing off around the world, and traditional celebrations were on the quiet side. The workshop is always a welcoming refuge, with a nice crowd of Italian friends for company; Gaspar, Matteo, Paolo, Giovanni Battista. All rather quiet at the moment, but they’ll be singing again soon, I hope.
Christmas is in sight, one more cello to complete. The final one for this year, an impression of the wonderful Gore Booth Stradivari of 1710 which I have had the good fortune to study. I’ve spent most of this year making, repairing or just looking at cellos, but next year starts with work on a copy of the Alard Stradivari violin. It should be a welcome change as long as I can still focus well enough to see the little thing clearly. The Alard was one of the most beautiful of the violins at the Ashmolean Exhibition, one of the great and memorable highlights of the year- well, to be honest, my entire career. I have some rather nice old wood, a deep nut brown all the way through, which comes from a small and limited source I’ve used sparingly in the past. So no room to mess up. SuperHubert is still putting up with me, there seems no respite in the auctions and the number of curious and interesting instruments passing through the workshop, so next year, I hope, will be full of variety and new things to learn, make and write about. And not so many missed deadlines.
Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year to everyone.
Where to start? It’s been a very hectic month. I’ve seen more Stradivari cellos over the last weeks than anyone has a right to. Wonderful, wonderful things. Inspirational, but also terrifying. The Amati Auctions exhibition at the Lansdown Club in Mayfair was delightful- luxury setting (I could get used to that) and a fantastically friendly atmosphere. Great good luck to them. Working with the tireless and excellent John Milnes on writings, and I met Jan Roehrman, the fabulous fiddle fotographer, and the Archinto cello for the first time. In between, the workshop is busy- SuperHubert at the controls again, and wood being worked. Apologies to customers who have been kept waiting, but things should calm down over December (oh no they won’t…). One last cello to finish for this year, then a little holiday in January to make a little violin. Well, a normal sized one, but I need my glasses to see anything smaller than a viola these days. Cellos… Big. Beautiful. Hard work. But easier to see where you left them. Cheerio.
The highlight of this last month was a trip to Madrid to meet Jorge Pozas, violin maker and cellist extraordinaire, to examine a wonderful collection of Spanish violins. Some marvellous and sadly underestimated makers- Contreras, Ortega, Assenzio, Bofill. Beautiful Italianate style and full of personality. His book should be a real eye-opener. A lot of work, but Jorge is a dedicated man. And a great host! I didn’t go hungry. Or thirsty.
Back at home, SuperHube is back from summer break and teaching at West Dean College, so things are in full swing in the workshop. Another cello ready for the varnish cabinet, though apologies due to my client, who seems to have been waiting patiently for rather longer than I realised.
Also we have a splendid Gofriller for restoration, a lovely old basetto which has been horrifically cut-down in the past. It really hurts to see what has been done, the edges ruthlessly hacked off and reglued randomly some distance further in. Nothing much possible other than to neaten it up as much as we can and provide it with a more dignified and secure edge. Too late to restore it to it’s full, original size. The varnish is still gorgeous.
The fourth cello of the year is off the mould and ready for assembly; a Strad model this time, as is the next one, for Judith. So the fresh blocks go straight back onto the mould after a little cleaning up, her name is inscribed as the ninth beneficiary (if I may presume…) of the mould made back in 1995, and ribs are laid out for preparation. This cello will be based, at Judith’s request, on the gorgeous ‘Gore-Booth’ of 1710, so the hunt for suitable wood is on.
In the varnish cabinet, the copy of Paul Watkin’s Venetian cello is trying on another coat of varnish. It seems to fit.
Which leaves space on the main bench for plaster casting of a Testore viola and a Gofriller cello. I hope SuperHube will be back from holidays soon. I need fresh power.
I’m missing the Stradivari Exhibition at the Ashmolean already. By great good fortune, I was able to get access to some of the best- well my favourite- instruments, and log some valuable and interesting (to me) notes. I’m very grateful to the generous patrons of the event. I worry I’m getting into a bad habit of looking for ‘mistakes’ in the great man’s work. ‘Mistake’ is a relative term. I wouldn’t want to appear over-critical, but the minor slips do give the clue to the technique, and also add humanity to these fantastic instruments. So they are interesting and relevant, but Stradivari’s ‘mistakes’are way beyond what I would count as a success in my own work. Jamie Buchanan (Amati.com) introduced me to a wonderful phrase, ‘Homer nods’. It means, crudely, that even the great suffer lapses of concentration. It helps you appreciate the intensity of effort that has gone into everything that may appear, because of their genius, so effortless.
And after all that, I’m to make a copy of the great mans ‘Gore Booth’, and later this year, the ‘Alard’ violin. I hope he’s nodding.
Getting to know more luthiers via Facebook lately- I am catching up with the 21st century. Another cello is in the sun lounge getting a nice tan. This one is a copy of Paul Watkins’ glorious sounding (or perhaps it is Paul who is glorious sounding?) Venetian cello, attributed to Sanctus Serafin and Montagnana. What a combination! It has been cut, which gives it a slightly odd character, but is now a very comfortable player-friendly instrument, without the intimidating bulk of a grand Montagnana. Paul is now playing the original in the Emerson Quartet, which means we won’t see so much of him here, sadly. The gorgeous Stradivari ‘Bass of Spain’, only for little while longer on display at the Ashmolean, is next on my list of challenges. Super Hubert off on hard-earned holiday now, leaving me to do all the sweeping up this month. Perhaps I won’t bother and see what a state we’re in when he gets back.
A bit late with July. It must be the hot weather; everything is on hold until the next thunderstorm. Nevertheless, another couple of cellos have reached workshop escape velocity, and another is already on the mould and ready for purfling. Still managing to find time here and there to see the magnificent Stradivari exhibition in Oxford, taking notes for the grand British Violin Makers Association outing this coming Saturday. Luthiers from all over the place falling on the Ashmolean museum to wrench as much knowledge as they can from this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. SuperHubert has already accompanied me round the gallery, with eyes popping and a big happy dog expression on his face.
We have thorough restorations in hand on two cellos and a viola, all interesting classical instruments. Roll on the calmer weather, when we can start to concentrate properly. No rest ’til 2014 now. More tea and biscuits please.
Order emerging from chaos in the workshop here. A visitor recently described the place as ‘a mess’, hastily correcting it to ‘a very creative mess’. Well, I know where everything is. But at odd times something emerges that I consider ‘finished’- a purely relative term- and it goes out into the world, which also seems to be in a bit of a mess, mostly.
There seems to be a sudden flurry of ‘media interest’ building up to the Ashmolean Stradivari exhibition later this month. Several journalists and researchers calling up for soundbites, but quickly put off by my over-earnest account of 400 years of violin making history. They just want to know the secret of Strad in two sentences or less. So I eventually gave in and told them. I’m not telling anyone else though…..
I notice with slight panic that varnish stocks are running low since my last brew in… 2006 it says here. Hmmm. So clear the decks, break out the esoteric liquors and oils, July is going to be boiling.
Nose, knives and gouges to the grindstone this month. Super Hubert is suffering from exposure to Kryptonite and is on sick leave, Magic Eleanor has moved on to better things (at Christies. Hah. What have they got that I don’t?) so working away single handed. Cellos wait for no man, so busy gluing, scraping and varnishing.
As viola models go, the super Mori Costa at Sotheby’s (unusual, but lovely and original) appeals mightily as well. Given enough time, and less spent on this darn computer, there is no end to what can be done.
We celebrated the anniversary of Stradivari’s death in Cremona in 1987 and now the anniversary of his birth, in Oxford. I seem to be approaching this in the wrong direction. Things have changed incredibly in that short time, both inside and outside this profession, but the Maestro still dominates everything we do. At least I think so. And this is my website, so there.
Best wishes to all.