Monday, August 15, 2011

Hill & Sons Violins. One-offs to Workshop

Written by Andy Fein and Stefan Aune


The Hill family of violin makers reaches deep into the history of violins. You can read our blog on the rise of the Hill firm to get a nice overview.

In the mid 1700's Joseph Hill was working at the Haymarket, in London, "at the sign of the Harp and Flute". He had a small shop at first and was probably working alone. Most of his instruments were made on a high arch model along the lines of Amati and Stainer. Joseph Hill's sons, William, Joseph, Benjamin, and Lockey all became violin makers as well. They continued with the high arched models that were popular at that time.

Lockey Hill's son, Henry Lockey, adopted the Stradivarius model and abandoned the higher arched models. For an individual maker, Henry Lockey is probably the finest maker of the Hill family and his instruments are some of the most valuable English instruments.



Henry Lockey's son William Ebsworth Hill was a fine violin maker who worked in London for most of his life, eventually establishing W.E. Hill & Sons in 1880. As the firm of W.E.Hill & Sons grew in fame and stature, the business side of things became more pressing and W.E. Hill spent more time buying, selling, and restoring older instruments rather than producing new instruments. W.E. Hill was a wonderful restorer of instruments and had an excellent eye for identification. By the time the "& Sons" were fully engaged in the business  ( the 1890s) the violin making part of the firm had passed to a workshop structure with the Hills supervising and several French trained makers doing the actual violin making.

You might think that the workshop mode of crafting violins led to a decline in the quality. Not so! The violin makers the Hills' employed were finely trained Mirecourt, France makers. These French makers worked in the same style of violin making that had produced wonderful instruments in the shop of J.B. Vuillaume in Paris. A big plus for the makers at the Hill shop was that so many great Stradivarius instruments passed through and they were able to study and observe them, inside and out. The Hill workshop of the late 1800s produced many fine copies of Stradivarius violins including the Messiah, Tuscan, Betts, Alard, Rode and Viotti. The price at that time was about 35 pounds. Not a huge sum, but not an inexpensive violin either.

A Hill & Sons violin, probably by C.F. Langonet
One of the best of the French violin makers employed by the Hills was Charles Francois Langonet. He was born in Mirecourt in 1861 and apprenticed with Alexandre Delanoy. He came to the attention of J.B. Vuillaume who described  him as "a future Stradivarius." Alfred Hill recruited him in 1880. Most of Langonet's violins bear the "Hill & Sons" label.

A violin by C.F. Langonet


Other Mirecourt trained makers that worked for the Hill shop included Leon Delunet and J.M. Sonny. Life and work must have good at the Hill shops and in London. Many of the original French makers working for the Hills sent their sons and grandsons back to Mirecourt to be trained and then brought them back to work in the Hill shop. 

My favorite "Hill" violin maker is a man who never worked for the Hills. George Craske was trained in the shop of the great English violin maker William Forster. Craske was incredibly prolific and made beautiful violins, violas and cellos. Personally, they are some of my favorite instruments. When Craske died in 1888, Hill & Sons bought his complete stock of unsold instruments, not fully completed instruments, and only partially completed instruments. These instruments were labeled by the Hills as: 

Made by George Craske
born 1797 died 1888
and sold by
William E. Hill & Sons, London

I have also seen several Craske instruments with labels that start off  "Made by George Craske especially for W.E. Hill & Sons, London" and continue with his birth and death date. I joke that's probably true - George Craske was making the instrument for the Hills, he just didn't know it until after he died. 



A violin by George Craske


I met one of  last of the Hill dynasty in the late 1970s when I was an apprentice violin maker. At that time, the Chicago School of Violin Making was named the Kenneth Warren and Son School of Violin Making. Andrew Hill came to the school and talked with us as we worked. Later, I was invited to sit in with Kenneth Warren, Sr. and Andrew Hill as they discussed instruments and bows, points of identification, and sampled a fair amount of brandy. I learned some of  the methodology the two men used to discern an instrument's origin. It has served me well ever since.




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