Monday, July 23, 2012

How does one Handle Handel? British Violins, of Course!

Written by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins,
 and Kevin Berdine

The W.E.Hill violin shop was by far the greatest violin shop in England, if not in the world, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But they did not rise out of a vacuum. There were wonderful makers in England long before the Hills and there remain great shops since the Hills closed shop. The Hills simply took the best of those talents, added their immense knowledge, and brought out a tremendous violin shop.

Although the English do not have the same lengthy and legendary luthier lineage (nice alliteration, eh?) as their continental counterparts (more alliteration, sheesh!), the Italians, their history is interesting and full of great instruments. According to George Hart in his book "The Violin: Its Famous Makers and their Imitators" Jacob Rayman may be the first violin maker in England as there are no records of any other maker before him. Jacob Rayman was, most likely, a maker, from the Bavarian town of Fussen, who sought out an unsaturated market in England and looked to make his mark, and living. His instruments bear little connection to previous English viol makers, but links firmly to the Tyrolean tradition. The first records of him being in England date to 1620. His instruments bear the Tyrolean design, tending to be rough on the exterior with great character, flat arching, "striking" f-holes, and a very fine varnish. His instruments have little English influence in design as his studies were, undoubtedly, made on the mainland. His one, probable, student was Urquhart who made instruments that closely resemble Rayman's. Otherwise, one is hard pressed to find any English makers that bridge the gap from 17th Century viols to 18th century violins until Peter Wamsley and Barak Norman.

Peter Wamsley (1670-1744)-Wamsley worked out of a shop in Piccadilly, London. His early instruments bear a thick varnish which was very prone to chipping. Later on he developed a varnish that resemble that used in Italy at the time. During his career, he and his contemporaries, began using and interesting label stating that the violin was " made, sold, or mended" by Peter Wamsley. The Prince of Wales enjoyed Wamsley's work so much that Wamsley received the Royal Warrant for his work. Wamsley's son apprenticed at the shop and later ran it with his mother upon Peter's death. Both father and son made instruments that were beautifully crafted on the Stainer model with high arching and a gorgeous tone. The instruments tend to be thinned out quite a bit, thus one sees quite a few repairs to belly, back, and scrolls. Their bows were finely made as well and demand much attention. Their bows are believed to be the earliest example of bows stamped with the makers mark.
1741 Peter Wamsley Cello Scroll
Barak Norman (1688-1740) was a prolific viol maker whose making skills evolved to violin family instruments. His instruments, especially cellos and viols, can be easily distinguished by the purfled design under his fingerboard that bears his monogram. His cellos are especially sought after, as it is believed they are the first cellos that were produced in England and produce a tremendously sweet sonority.

Other luthiers, in England at this time, had not transitioned from viol making to violin making. Many fine viols can be attributed to English makers all the way back to Aldred in the 1560s, and perhaps even further.

English violin making can be generalized as follows- Before 1650 most makers were producing viols; 1650-1700 makers followed the high arched Brescian, Stainer, and Amati patterns; 1700-1800 makers were heavily influenced by Stainer; the last decade of the 1800s began to see the rise of Stradivari patterns which continued and strengthened throughout the 1800s; copyists have continued since the 1800s.

The Forsters. John Forster (1688-1781) worked in Brampton, Cumberland in the 1700s. He was mainly a maker of spinning wheels and gun stocks and made the occasional Stainer model violin. William (1 and 2) Forster (1713-1801, 1739-1808)-William (1) was a spinning wheel maker,  and an instrument maker on the side. His son, William (2) reversed the occupations and spent most of his time producing instruments and even stopped making spinning wheels when instrument making began to pay all the bills. William (2) moved to London in 1759. His early London work was much like his contemporaries, making Stainer copies.  In 1770 his making patterns changed as he started copying the Amati pattern which produced much better success. To this day, his cellos, patterned after Stradivari, are much sought after and played by many great performers.

The Banks family Benjamin (1) (1727-1795). Benjamin (2) (1754-1820), James and Henry (brothers of Benjamin)
Benjamin (1) apprenticed with his uncle, William Hutoft. His earliest known advertisements are for citterns and keyboard instruments. Once does not see string instruments in his inventory and advertisements until 1760.
Benjamin (2) studied with, perhaps the best known English maker of all time, Richard Duke. He Marked his instruments liberally with B.B. He copied Amati instruments so well that they became almost indestinguishable. His finest specimens are quite extraordinary in craftsmanship, wood choice, varnish and tone. His lesser specimens, labeled Banks, are probably the work of his sons and shopmen. His larger form cellos, made on Amati and Stradivari patterns, have won highest regards amongst professionals.
James and Henry were very involved in the shop, but few instruments are attributable to their hands. In fact, all evidence, points to their involvement with pianos.
In 1784, every violin makers nightmare came true as their shop went up in flames. Local press belabored the highly combustible nature of dried aged wood, and varnish. The shop survived the catastrophe and continued a prolific output of great instruments.

A violin by Benjamin Banks, 1791
Find out  more about the Banks family through the wonderful Metropolitan Museum website.

London Young,  circa 1728, was a pretty unknown maker, but one that William Purcell apparently loved. Purcell immortalized Young and his father in verse:

"You scrapers that want a good fiddle, well-strung,
You must go to the man that is old while he's Young;
But if this same fiddle you fain would play bold,
You must go to his son, who'll be Young when he is old.
There's old Young and young Young, both men of renown,
Old sells, and young plays, the best fiddles in town;
Young and old live together, and may they live long,
Young, to play an old fiddle; old to sell a new song." 

John Betts (1755-1823)was perhaps the earliest London dealer of Italian Instruments. Betts dealt in fine Italian instruments and, perhaps, influenced the English public to start purchasing Italian instruments. His works may have influenced Hill and Sons with their extensive work. Although Betts was a purveyor of fine Italian instruments, the Hills were the ones who brought vast knowledge to English luthiers. John Betts' son Edward Betts became a great copyist with little, if any, originality. His instruments are so extremely meticulous that they appear to have been 'poured out of a mold.'

Before W.E. Hill and Sons arrived on the violin scene in London, English luthiers were continuing to use the high arching designs of Stainer and Amati as their model. It wasn't until W.E. Hill brought in the instruments of Stradivari, Gagliano, and Guarneri that English makers began constructing violins for the ability to project to the back of ever-increasing sized concert venues. W.E. Hill and Sons brought in many famous instruments of Stradivari, Guarnei, and Maggini and repaired/restored, cataloged, and studied them.  Much of our knowledge is due to their extensive work with restorations. Our ability to attribute and create provenance is also due, in large part, to their efforts.

Thomas Dodd was a great shop-owner whose shop-workers produced fine instruments labelled Dodd. Dodd claimed to have the only true Cremonese varnish recipe. Perhaps true. He guarded his recipe such that his makers (John Lott and Bernard Fendt) would make the instruments "in-the-white" and he would varnish them with his own hand and his own varnish recipe. Many of his shop-workers left the shop to open their own business, but each of their varnishes were inferior and not at all like that of Dodd.

Richard Duke circa 1768. In England, Richard Duke's name is ubiquitous. Outside of the great Italian makers, no instrument maker's label has been copied as often. Because of this, Duke was often thought of as a poor maker with incredibly inconsistent workmanship. However, when one truly witnesses a Duke, one sees that the work is rarely surpassed. The materials, craftsmanship, and varnish are of the highest quality. There was a time in English history where his instruments shadowed over Stradivarius instruments.

Thomas Kennedy (1784-1870)-Most prolific English maker. More instruments were made by him than any other 2 luthier combined. Due to his extraordinarily large output of instruments the quality in his instruments range from the most exquisite instruments to quite ordinary and plain. Oftentimes his lesser instruments left the shop without purfling. To this day, cellist seek out his Long Amati patterned celli.

Bernard Fendt Family(1800-1851)-Bernard Simon immigrated to England from Fussen, Bavaria like Rayman. On Fendt's mother side he is related to the Klotz family of violin makers. Bernard Simon studied violin making with his Uncle Francois (originally Franz Fendt, changed to Francois Fent while working in Paris to match his market). After Francois died, Bernard Simon moved to London and married his first wife, Caroline. They had one known child, Bernard Simon II. Bernard Simon II was a genius maker who worked in the Dodd workshops until striking out on his own. His instruments, while in the Dodd shop, were varnished with Dodd's miracle varnish. Later he joined the workshop of John Betts, making Amati copies, that are attributed to Betts.
He had three sons, Bernard Simon (tried to artificially mature his instrument); Martin Fendt (Worked for Betts); Jacob Fendt (amazing copyist who made 'near replicas' of Stradivaris).

John Thomas Hart (1805-1874)-Apprenticed with Gilkes to learn the craft of violin making, however he made very few instruments. His shrewd business sense and unerring eye allowed him to seize the day's tendency towards Italian instruments. He thus became a foremost expert who according to George Hart "became the channel through which the greater part of the rare Italian works passed into England, and it has been said that there are very few distinguished instruments in Europe with which he was unacquainted."

Instrument making in England evolved in much the same way that it evolved on the continent. Makers made the quality of the instruments that the public demanded. Some instruments show great workmanship, wood quality, and tonal production while others were sent out of the shop as quickly as possible to meet the needs of clients and earn a living. Continental influences can be seen from the first violin maker in England, Rayman (who was actually from Bavaria), to the Hills, who brought fine Italian instruments and consequently inspired Brits copiers. It seems that England has plenty of fine instruments, especially cellos, that can be claimed with pride.  Next time you see a fine English instrument up on the selling block, you may want to consider it!
George Craske Violin
More info about the Hill's and their influence on Luthiers and Archetiers can be found in our previous blogs:

George Hart's book can be read at Google books:

Other great sources:
Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bowmakers-William Henley
The British Violin-John Milnes, editor. Published for the 1998 Exhibition: 400 Years of Violin and Bow Making in the British Isles
The Violin Family and its Makers in the British Isles-Brian W. Harvey

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