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Violin Making in the British Isles

When the 19th century began,  the musical world of England did not provide many opportunities for luthiers to sell new string instruments.  This might have been the reason that there were not many English luthiers producing instruments of a respectable standard at this time.  However as the century progressed,  London eventuatally sat just behind Paris to be one of the principal cities for the sale and repair of violins.

Thomas Perry  (c.1738 – November 1818) was one of foremost  luthiers of this time.  His father Thomas Pierrie was also a luthier who worked from Temple Bar in Dublin.  The family was of French Huguenot descent and possibly related to the PIerrie violin making family of Paris. Thomas Perry is known to have crafted more than four thousand violins. These were all numbered and most followed the Amati pattern.  

John Betts violin label

John Betts (1755-1823) was born in Lincolnshire.  He studied violin making under Richard Duke.  He was not an exceptional luthier but he had a good eye for business and was therefore able to provide a livelihood for many of the most notable makers of the day.  He opened an attractive premises and amongst his luthiers were the notable Parnormo, Fendt, Carter and Tobin.  Betts made few violins and he preferred his luthiers to  use the Amati template.

Thomas Dodd, John Lott

Thomas Dodd at work reviewing John Lott's work

Thomas Dodd came from a family of renowned bow makers and around 1784 he began his working life making bows. By 1794 he was now making some fine violins in the Italian tradition along with dealing in string instruments.  Many (some say most) of the instruments with his label were actually made by his assistants:  Fendt and Lott with Dodd applying his very fine and methodically blended varnish.  He would also apply his famous varnish to European instruments imported in pieces to avoid import duties. 

John Frederick Lott  (1775-1853) was born in Germany.  After arriving in London he became a chair maker until his friend Fendt convinced him to come and work with him in Dodd’s workshop.  Lott eventually had his own workshop. His double basses are particularly well regarded.  His sons George Frederick Lott (1800-1868) and John Frederick (1805-1871) were respected repairers and also provided valuations.

John Carter worked in London for John Betts from 1773-1790 and he was active right up to the close of the eighteenth century.  His early career took place in Richard Duke’s workshop. His instruments from this period are comparable to those of Duke. Even though he had his own workshop.  Carter tended to produce his instruments for trade with some of these bearing the label of Longman and Broderip. Carter followed the Cremonese school.

Vincenzo Trusiano Panormo (1734-1813) was born in Sicily.  He practiced his craft in many places including Turin, Cremona and Paris.  He also worked in England periodically and always returned to France until the French Revolution provided him with the motivation to migrate to London on a more permanent basis.  His violins were patterned after Stradivari and are highly regarded. The violin historian Henley writes of six well known soloists who claimed to play Strads but actually use Panormos.  Vincenzo was assisted by William Taylor with three sons and two grandsons following in his footsteps.

Vincenzo Panormo violin and label

Beautiful maple flaming on a Vincenzo Panormo violin

Richard Tobin (1766 – 1847) is considered to be the most gifted luthier that England has ever had.  Tobin was born in Ireland and began his training with Thomas Perry at the age of 15.  Tobin never established his own workshop. After moving to London in about 1798, Tobin worked periodically with Betts.  His Strad copies are so meticulously executed that many collectors have difficulty separating them from the originals.  His scrolls had no equal amongst English makers and were so superbly cut that sometimes they would be removed to act as a starting point for fake “old Italian violins”.  He also provided his fine scrolls to Betts and Dodd for use under their labels. Like many luthiers, Richard Tobin often experienced straitened circumstances and was in the Shoreditch workhouse towards the end of his days.

Between the years of 1758 and 1888, there were several generations of luthiers in the Furber family. They were all located in London.  Out of the family,  the work of Henry (active 1872-1888) and John (active 1810-1845) receive the highest praise. Henry Furber’s work is described as being comparable to that of Cremona and sought after by connoisseurs.  John’s work demonstrated great care and talent. Like Fendt, John spent time working for JE Betts.  There are several instruments with Bett’s label which were in actuality crafted by Furber.

Portrait of Matthew Hardie painted by Sir William Allen in about 1822

There were also eight luthiers with the surname of Hardie that came from several different families. Matthew Hardie of Edinburgh (1755-1826) was especially talented.  He became known as the “Scottish Stradivari” due to the fine instruments he made following in the Cremonese tradition.  Matthew Hardie was very well educated but unfortunately struggled with alcoholism.  Towards the end of his career, his debts resulted in incarceration in Carlton Gaol where despite his circumstances he went on to make some of his best violins.  The quality of his violins varies enormously.  He made violins for the lower end of the market as a means of financial security but in terms of sound these instruments are unexpectedly good considering their materials.  His best work however explains why he is known as the "Scottish Stradivari"

James Hardie II (1836-1916) also worked in Edinburgh. He took up the craft of lutherie seriously at the age of 15 following the construction of a primitive cello at the age of nine.  His three sons went on to assist him in his business.   More than two thousand instruments have been credited to him- he insisted that his sons only carrying out their fitting.  James also taught the fiddle and enjoyed playing reels and strathpeys in competitions.  He particularly liked the Maggini violin -his best violins followed this model.

James Hardie violin

George Craske violin

George Craske (1795-1888) was born in the town of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.  Craske’s father was bandmaster of the West Suffolk Militia.  After showing interest in violin making, George’s father sent him to London to study the craft with William Forster. He also worked as a repairer in a firm established by Muzio Clementi (the composer and piano virtuoso).  Craske set up his own workshop in Bath and made 2620 instruments over the course of his 93 years.  No other luthier is known to have made so many instruments without an assistant.  He knew Sir Patrick Blake who owned both a Stradivarius and an Amati and Craske was able to make many copies of these. As such his work followed the tradition of the great Italian masters.  After he died,  all of his remaining instruments were bought by Hill & Sons.

A branch of the famous Chanot family established themselves in England and reached a similar level of importance as the Fendts. Their English founder was Georges III (1830-1895) who was born in Paris where he trained in his father’s workshop. He brought the influence of the French school of making to England. The Chanot family was originally from Mirecourt- the famous French centre of lutherie with the first known Chanot luthier appearing in the early 1700s. George III assisted Maucotel in London from 1851-1857 and took over the business when Maucotel retired.  Initially he mainly sold his father's instruments.  However his own reputation as a luthier was such that all the principal players of the time sought his guidance. Famous violinists such as Joseph Joachim, Henryk Wieniawski, and August Wilehelm.  Chanot’s sons Joseph Anthony, Georges Adolphe and Frederick William,  and grandson William, Alfred Ernest and, John Alfred were all highly regarded luthiers.

Georges Chanot in front of his shop in Soho