May 2021

One of the pleasures of discovering the histories of great instruments is the people you meet along the way. Past owners and players of fine instruments are not ordinary people. The great and the good, the great and the not so good, but almost by definition if you at any time have had a Stradivari in your house, you are not ordinary. The best fun is in finding the unexpected, the characters you could not possibly imagine or predict, who have played a part in a very exclusive game of pass-the- parcel.
Take John Mountford, for example. He owned two Strads and a 1730 del Gesu. He was no musician, nor was he a great industrialist or politician, least of all a member of the aristocracy. He was the son of a village blacksmith.
He was born in 1827 in the village of Lighthorne, Warwickshire. There are Mountfords all over the midlands, from Staffordshire to Gloucester, and the family seems quite closely interconnected. His father took over the forge when the previous owner Thomas Lydiat died in 1833. The smithy itself was still standing in 1975, functioning under the name of B.Cole & sons, but the premises are now simply listed as a one-bedroom house.
How John Mountford rose from this modest start in life to join the lists of Strad owners is, I suppose a Victorian tale of social progress. He did not follow his father into the blacksmith trade but joined the household of a local brewer named Gerard Leigh, as a servant of some kind. The brewing trade provided Mountford’s next employment, when he moved to nearby Burton-on-Trent, as valet to Samuel Allsopp. Allsopp’s Burton brewery was the biggest in the country, and remains in business today. Valet, or ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ would have been a senior post in the large Allsopp household, and quite a major leg-up for the young Mountford.

Brewing had always been a staple of everyday life. Public houses, taverns, inns and ordinary domestic life depended on beer, but in the 18th century it became an industry, not a local trade. Brewers, distillers, grocers and millers were the super-rich of the times, who displaced the titled landowners as patrons and collectors of the arts. So it may not be surprising that beer plays a considerable part in the history of great instruments- at least in so far as those Cremonas that came to England. The Goding, Perkins and Shea-Simonds families, who between them owned thirteen Stradivaris and many other first rank Cremonese instruments, all made their money from brewing. The eighteenth century saw a boom for bottled beer, exported across the continent, and then to the furthest parts of empire as ‘India Pale Ale’. Breweries became large industrialised businesses, making many people as rich in relative terms as today’s tech giants and financiers.
In 1861, John was no longer with the Allsopps, but living in Polesworth, some 18 miles from Burton. He was already 34, and just a few years later he was married to Harriet Tanner, who was the daughter of a farmer in Hensbury, Gloucestershire. In 1869 their daughter Elizabeth Lily was born and baptised in Paddington Green. This is the first record of Mountford in London. How he made his Shakespearian move from rural Warwickshire to the capital is not at all clear, but must have come pretty certainly through his brewing connections. In 1870, aged 43, he became the licensee of the Wheatsheaf public house in St Alban’s Place on the Edgeware Road.
The Wheatsheaf in 1850 was quite a modest looking building, two stories and an attic room under a steeply pitched roof , but it was on a main thoroughfare. At some point around the 1870s it was developed into a grand building with a stone façade, and acquired the number 329, Edgeware Road. This seems to have been the establishment managed by Mountford. Amongst the bar staff in the following years are several Mountfords, seemingly not immediate family, but relatives of some sort who gave their origins as Staffordshire or Gloucestershire in census returns, evidently brought down to London to help run the Tavern.
It seems that John had long nursed an ambition to play the violin, and after settling in London, made his way to William Ebsworth Hill’s shop in Wardour Street in 1877. Not every would-be fiddler saunters into a violin shop and comes away with a Strad, but Mountford did just that. He left the shop with the 1699 ‘Castelbarco’, which Hill had just acquired from the Glasgow dealer David Laurie, and had once very briefly belonged to Richard Wagner.
It still seems extraordinary that the village smithy’s son should be in a position to do this. The violin cost him £300, at least £30,000 in modern terms. What’s more, a few years later, with a tip from William Ebsworth Hill, Mountford made the acquaintance of ‘two ladies named Day’ in Albemarle Street, who happened to own a c.1730 del Gesu then known as the ‘Junot’. It had, by legend, come from the French Napoleonic Marshall Junot, whose baggage was plundered from his ship by British seamen and brought to Whitehaven, and thence, via the local Vicar and a chap named Thompson to the Day ladies. Mountford promptly bought it from them. At some point in this period, Hill also sold him the 1702 ‘Janzé’ Stradivari, but he did not keep it for long, returning it to Hill possibly even within the year. What Mountford got from these great instruments in his barely-tutored way cannot and possibly should not be imagined, but he proudly showed them off in their specially made double case to such distinguished patrons as Joseph Joachim and Lady Hallé, who were both invited ‘behind the bar’ at the Wheatsheaf. Ludwig Strauss, Alfredo Piatti, Franz Ries and the Hills themselves were all visitors to the tavern, which was noted for its fine wine cellar. The Edgeware road location was also convenient for the Queen’s Hall, the great concert venue which opened in Langham Place in 1893. It must have been a wonderful place to go for post-concert refreshments.
In 1891 John was no longer in residence in the Wheatsheaf, but had acquired a private house in Acton; Rosemount House in Springfield Park, sadly long since demolished. A close neighbour, William Edwards, was also an amateur violin aficionado who owned the 1743 ‘Baron Knoop’ Sanctus Serafin and the c.1733 ‘Kreisler, ex Salabue’ Carlo Bergonzi. Not how one imagines Acton society today. But around this time, one of the most dramatic episodes of his life occurred. The London Underground system opened in 1863, running (almost unbelievably) steam trains with gas-lit carriages from Paddington to South Kensington. One day, Mountford was running to catch the train at South Kensington Station, and slipped, with his arm caught in the moving train. Mountford, with great sang-froid, apparently picked himself up and ordered a cab to St George’s Hospital, where his right arm was amputated.
William Ebsworth Hill visited him the next day. How long he took to bring up the subject of Mountford’s violins we can’t guess. But Mountford refused to sell, even though he could obviously no longer play. It seems as though he was just as happy just to enjoy the fiddles as companions. In 1898 his wife Harriet died, and was buried in her home village of Hensbury. The following year Mountford passed the licence of the Wheatsheaf to one William James Smith. His violins stayed with him.
He did ultimately sell the ‘Castelbarco’ back to the Hills in 1906 (by then it was W.E.Hill & Sons in New Bond Street; William Ebsworth died in 1895). The del Gesu stayed with him very nearly to the end of his life. He finally relinquished it to the Hills in January 1913, and he died in May of that year. They gave him £2,000 for it, despite a higher offer from Fritz Kreisler, who had himself already seen and tried the violin. It was still a good return on the £500 he had given to the two ladies named Day of Albemarle Street. The Hills went on to sell the violin to Kreisler themselves, and the old ‘Admiral Juno’ tag has long been replaced by the name of one of the greatest of all violinists, with whom it is now most closely associated. In what must be a mere coincidence, Kreisler also bought the Bergonzi, which had belonged to Mountford’s neighbour, William Edwards, by way of the Hills in 1939.
Mountford left the grand sum of £16989 4s 5d (multiply by at least one hundred to get the modern equivalent) to his unmarried daughter Harriett Elizabeth Lily. She died in Paignton, Devon in 1948, leaving an impressive sum of £25724 1s 1d.
The final extraordinary twist in this story, which starts in Cremona, Lighthorne, or the sea off Whitehaven, according to taste, is that it ends for now in Washington D.C.. The two violins that had shared a double case in London for over twenty years, were separated only for a short time. In 1934 the ‘Castelbarco’ was sold to Gertrude Clarke Whittall, a wealthy patron of the arts. She is one of the few collectors to successfully assemble a quartet of Stradivaris, which consisted of Mountford’s Castelbarco, the 1704 Betts, and the1697 cello also previously owned by the same Count Castelbarco, and the 1727 Cassavetti viola. In 1935 she donated all of her instruments to the Library of Congress, to be housed in the specially built Whittall Pavilion, which was opened in 1938. It was to this new gallery that Fritz Kreisler bequeathed his own favourite violin, Mountford’s beloved ‘Junot’. The gift was made in 1952, and the two great violins from the Wheatsheaf Tavern on the Edgeware Road were reunited.

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