English Violin Making

From a Dictionary of Music and Musicians - edited by George Grove  and published in 1900

London violin-makers by Edward John Payne  

LONDON VIOLIN-MAKERS. London has probably been for centuries the seat of a manufacture of stringed instruments. The popularity of the viol during the 16th and 17th centuries produced many makers of the instrument, among whom are found Jay, Smith, Bolles, Ross, Addison, Shaw, Aldred, etc. Its design admitted of little variety, and the specimens which have been preserved have only an archæological interest. Of slight construction, and usually made of thin and dry wood, most of the old viols have perished. The violin type, marked (1) by a back curved like the belly, instead of a flat back; by an increased vibration, produced (2) by sound-holes larger in proportion, and with contrary flexures (f), and (3) by four strings instead of six, with a fixed tuning by fifths, and greater thicknesses of wood, reached England from the continent in the middle of the seventeenth century. Its marked superiority in all respects soon drove the treble viol from the field: and a native school of violin-makers forthwith arose, who imitated the general characteristics of the new foreign model, though preserving to some extent the character of the viol. The new pattern, at first adopted for the smaller instruments, gradually extended itself to the larger ones. But viol-shaped tenors continued to be made long after this form had been abandoned for the 'treble' viol, and the violin had taken its place: bass-viols were made still later; and the viol double-bass, with its flat back and tuning by fourths, is even yet in use.

1. Early English School (1650–1700). An independent school of violin -makers naturally arose in London by the application of the traditions of viol-making to the construction of instruments of the violin type. Connoisseurs have traced certain resemblances between these early fiddles and contemporary instruments made on the continent. But the total result of an examination of these works entitles them to rank as a distinct school. Jacob Rayman, who dates from Blackman Street and the Bell Yard, Southwark (1641–1648), Christopher Wise (1656), Edward Pemberton (1660), and Thomas Urquhart (1660), are famous names among these early makers. Their instruments, though of rude ungeometrical pattern, are usually covered with a fine varnish, and have a tone of good quality. Edward Pamphilon (1680–1690), who lived on London Bridge, became more famous. His instruments still preserve a high reputation: and their resemblance to the Brescian school has given rise among Parisian dealers to the practice, which has of late years made its way to England, of labelling them 'Gaspar di Salo.' Few Pamphilon labels exist; and nothing will persuade the Parisian connoisseur that these instruments are not veritable relics of some pre-Cremonese Italian school. Nothing, however, is more certain than that they were made when the last of the Amatis was an ancient man, and when the geometrical pattern was going out of fashion in Italy itself. Like those of Joseph Guarnerius, the works of Pamphilon are fashioned directly by hand, without the intervention of a model or mould. Often they are of stiff and graceless outline; sometimes they show curves of bold and free design, and are wrought out with scrupulous care and delicacy. In his more artistic moments, Pamphilon was fond of finishing the sound-holes with a drawn-out curl, resembling the volute of a scroll; and the bottom curve of the sound-hole runs out at something like a right angle to the axis of the fiddle. The heads are too small, a fault which is shared by all the old English makers from Rayman to Banks: they are, however, artistically shaped, and often deeply scooped in the volute. The works of Pamphilon are covered with fine yellow oil varnish, which presents a most attractive appearance. They are not difficult to be met with: the writer has casually entered the shop of a country dealer, and found three excellent ones for sale at low prices. The tenors are small, but of a good tenor tone. No Pamphilon violoncello is known to exist. The bass-viol, with flat back, was still in fashion. Barak Norman (1688–1740), a maker of eminence only inferior to Pamphilon, followed the Italians in extending the violin type to the bass instrument, and producing the violoncello. It is evident from his works that he had seen foreign instruments. His early years were chiefly employed in the construction of viols; and his first productions of the violin kind show a resemblance to Urquhart. Gradually he produced tenors and violoncellos of the new model, on most of which his monogram, elaborately wrought, is to be found. Norman became about 1715 a partner with Nathaniel Cross at the 'Bass Viol' in St. Paul's Churchyard. His works are always in request among connoisseurs. That the Early English school had its offshoots in the country is proved by the works of Thomas Duke, of Oxford (1720). None of these makers were influenced by the pattern of Stainer, which ultimately displaced the old English type of violin, as completely as the violin had displaced the viol.

2. School of Stainer-copyists (1700–1750). The bright and easily-produced tones yielded by the Stainer model, soon made it popular in England, and the London makers vied with each other in reproducing it. The first and best of the Stainer-copyists is Peter Wamsley, of the Golden Harp in Piccadilly (1710–1734). The workmanship of Wamsley varies: like most of his successors, he made instruments of three or four qualities, probably at prices to correspond. The finer specimens of his work, well finished, and covered with a certain thick and brilliant red varnish, which he could make when he pleased, do high credit to the London school. He did not despise viol-making; nor, on the other hand, did he confine himself to the imitation of Stainer. Both he and Thomas Barrett, of the Harp and Crown in Piccadilly (1710–1730), tried their hands at free imitations of Stradivarius. Joseph Hare (1720–1726) did the same. Barrett was a more mechanical workman than Wamsley, and used a thin yellow varnish. Between 1730 and 1770 the majority of the violins produced in England were imitations of Stainer, somewhat larger, and covered with a thin greyish yellow varnish: one or two makers only used better varnish, of a brown or dullish red colour. Among the makers were Thomas Cross (1720), the partner of Barak Norman, who used a + as a device: John Johnson of Cheapside (1750–1760): Thomas Smith, a capital maker of large solid instruments on the Stainer model, who succeeded to the business of Wamsley at the 'Golden Harp' in Piccadilly (1740–1790), and Robert Thompson, at the 'Bass Violin' in St. Paul's Churchyard (1749), where he was succeeded by his sons Charles and Samuel (1770–1780). To these may be added Edward Heesom (1748); Edward Dickenson, at the Harp and Crown in the Strand; and John Norris and Robert Barnes (1760–1800), who worked together in Great Windmill Street, and in Coventry Street, Piccadilly. William Forster also began with the Stainer pattern. [See Forster, William].

3. School of Amati-Copyists. Foremost among these stands Benjamin Banks (1750–1795). He learnt the trade in the workshop of Wamsley; and though he early migrated to Salisbury, where he spent the greater part of his life, belongs in all respects to the London school. He followed Daniel Parker (1740–1785) in breaking the spell of Stainer, and seriously imitating the style of Nicholas Amati. Banks copied that maker with great fidelity. Though his violins are less in request, his tenors and basses, of which he made large numbers, are excellent instruments, and produce good prices. He used a fine rich varnish, in several tints, yellow, red, and brown. His son Benjamin returned to London: two other sons, James and Henry, carried on his business at Salisbury, but at length migrated to Liverpool. Joseph Hill (1760–1780), at the 'Harp and Flute' in the Haymarket, and a fellow-apprentice with Banks in the shop of Wamsley, made solid instruments which are still in request, but adhered less strictly to the Amati model. Edward Aireton, another alumnus of Wamsley's, worked on this model. But the chief of the older Amati-copyists is the celebrated Richard Duke of Holborn (1760–1780). Duke's high reputation amongst English fiddlers is amply justified by his works, which must be carefully distinguished from the myriad nondescripts to which his name has been nefariously affixed. 'When a really fine specimen of Duke,' says Mr. Hart, 'is once seen, it is not likely to be forgotten. As copies of Amati such instruments are scarcely surpassed, varnish, work and material being of the best description.' Duke, in obedience to a fashion, though a declining one, also copied Stainer, but, in Mr. Hart's opinion, less successfully. His pupils, John and Edward Betts, followed him in imitating Amati. The latter was the better workman. 'Each part,' says Mr. Hart, 'is faultless in finish; but when viewed as a whole the result is too mechanical. Nevertheless, this maker takes rank with the foremost of the English copyists.' John Betts occupied a shop in the Royal Exchange, where his business was still carried on a few years since. The Forsters (see that article) followed the prevailing fashion, and copied not only Nicholas Amati, but Antonius and Hieronymus.

4. Later Imitators of the Cremona School. We now reach a group of makers dating from about 1790 to 1840, and forming the last and in some respects the best section of the London School. These makers forsook altogether the imitation of Stainer, occupied themselves less with that of Amati, and boldly passed on to Stradivarius and Joseph Guarnerius. Lupot and others were doing the same in Paris. Richard Tobin, John Furber, Charles Harris, Henry Lockey Hill, Samuel Gilkes, Bernard Fendt the elder (known as 'Old Barney'), and John Carter, are among the best London makers of this period: and Vincenzo Panormo, though of Italian extraction, really belongs to the same school. Stradivarius was the chief model of these makers, and in reproducing his style they gave to the world a host of valuable instruments. The elder Fendt is commonly accounted the best maker of violins since the golden age of Cremona, though the vote of the French connoisseur would be in favour of Lupot. Bernard Fendt the younger, and his brother Jacob, together with Joseph and George Panormo, sons of Vincenzo, continued this school in another generation, though with unequal success. The Kennedy family (Alexander 1700–1786, John 1730–1816, Thomas 1784–1870) were second-rate makers of the same school. The abolition of the import duty on foreign instruments, together with the accumulation of old instruments available for use and more sought for than new ones, ruined the English violin manufacture. During the present century, Italian violins have poured into England from all parts of Europe. Paris, to say nothing of Mirecourt and Neukirchen, affords an ample supply of new violins of every quality, at rates which drive from the field English labour, whether more or less skilled. A few makers only weathered the storm. Gilkes's son William Gilkes, and pupil John Hart, of Princes Street, as well as Simon Forster, made instruments up to the time of their deaths: and there are still living two representatives of the old English school in the persons of William Ebsworth Hill of Wardour Street, best known as a dealer in Italian instruments, but in fact a violin-maker of no ordinary merit, and John Furber of Grafton Street, who still pursues the old craft. Both are descended from violin-making families dating back to the beginning of the last century. George Hart, of Princes Street, son of John Hart, and author of a most useful work called 'The Violin, its famous makers and their imitators' (1875), is chiefly known as a dealer. A few French violin-makers who have settled in London, among whom are Chanot and Boullangier, belong to the Parisian school.

This list does not profess to exhaust the London makers of stringed instruments. But it includes the most famous and prolific among them: and it may be safely added that, taken in the mass, the instruments which have been produced in London are equal in general quality to those of any city north of the Alps, not excepting Paris itself. Until the time of Lupot, the English makers were unquestionably superior as a school to the French, though they were rivalled by the Dutch: and Lupot himself might have shrunk from a comparison with the best works of Fendt and Panormo. Whether the art of violin-making in England will ever recover the blow which it has received from Free Trade, remains to be seen.