Highlights of violin making in England

Highlights of violin making in England

The history of violin making in England is a narrative in which clear throughlines are very difficult to make out. It includes talented masters who could proudly hold their own against their colleagues in the most significant violin-making centres of the Continent – and who in fact often moved across the English Channel to pursue their craft on the island. Other chapters of the story involve experts who had a profound understanding of the defining peak achievements of violin making history; still others feature industrious entrepreneurs who had an effect on global trade with history's finest instruments while working from the UK. Yet the surprising sum of all of these episodes is that a densely linked network of master workshops never formed in England, or indeed anywhere in the entire United Kingdom, the way it had countries such as Italy. Nowhere did the rich diversity of family traditions and student-teacher relationships emerge which shaped the time-honoured violin making regions of Europe. By a similar token, there were few beacons of industrial instrument making in England that could be compared with internationally active violin making venues such as Mirecourt or Markneukirchen. As a result, the history of English violin making was marked by upturns that led nowhere; by outstanding masters who could not make a living off their art; and by a bewildering deficiency which Oscar H. Schmitz described in his 1914 publication, a criticism of society entitled Land ohne Musik (“A Country Without Music”).

Early English violin making in the 17th and 18th century

Violin making in England appeared on the stage of musical history somewhat later than it did elsewhere: the instruments of the violin family were slower to assert themselves vis-à-vis the gambas which continued to dominate English musical culture until well into the 17th century. Wherever violins were used, they were imported (primarily from Italy); luthiers created their own workshops very gradually, and whenever they did, they frequently were run by masters who had immigrated from the Continent, such as Germany’s Jacob Raymann (circa 1596–1660), who is considered one of the first British luthiers.

Like their counterparts in many other European regions, the surviving exemplars of early English violin making – including works of not only Raymann but also Christopher Wise (circa 1650) and Thomas Urquhart (from the 2nd half of the 17th century) – showed a preference for designs with a high table, most notably the model by Jakob Stainer. Thomas Smith, Nathaniel Cross and Alexander Kennedy are good examples of the consistency that was evident in this tradition until the late 18th century.

The influence of Italian masters on the oeuvre of English luthiers

The fact that the re-orientation towards instruments with a lower table did not evolve in England until comparatively late should not, however, distort the relevance of interesting masters whose work reflected this transition. The main figure here is the highly regarded Urquhart student Barak Norman (approx. 1670–1740) who appears to have been heavily influenced by Giovanni Paolo Maggini over time and who optimised his violin model in keeping with the Brescia style. This is an interesting development in light of the fact that the much greater part of his business, even in the later 18th century, consisted of crafting gambas, lutes and theorboes.

The first traces of the Stradivari model in English violins can be seen in the work of Daniel Parker, who presumably came to know the Cremonese tradition in the early 18th century through instruments played by Italian musicians. However, although Parker crafted magnificent pieces – no less a luminary than Fritz Kreisler played a 1720 Parker violin – it would be another two generations before the construction principles of the Italian classics would have a broader effect. The greatest pioneers of this development were Benjamin Banks and his sons, whose workshops in Salisbury, Liverpool and London ranked amongst the premiere addresses of their guild in the late 18th and early 19th century. In this era, Charles Harris Sr. and Jr. also produced instruments of excellent quality in Oxford and London, although they were not to experience the same entrepreneurial success.

Regardless of these promising attempts, the Stradivari model still had difficulties asserting itself in English violin making, and even influential masters such as Richard Duke continued to craft not only these “Italian expeditions” but mostly Stainer replicas for which there appeared to be great demand even in the 18th century. Vincenzo Trusiano Panormo (1734–1813) is given credit for having helped the Cremonese model to break through in England – in part because of his students, with whose help English violin making attained a historic zenith around the turn of the 19th century.

“A country without music?” English violin making in the 19th century

Despite the fact that the 19th century began with good prerequisites for the art of violin making in England, things progressed in a very different fashion there than they did in France, Germany and Italy. No “scene” of sophisticated master workshops with their own distinct traditions managed to develop, nor were there any entrepreneurs who founded noteworthy factories or mass-production sites for stringed instruments (even though England was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution). Musicians and composers from the Continent played an indispensable part in English music culture, which had been astonishingly lacking in a clear profile since the days of Henry Purcell; Oscar A. H. Schmitz later referred to England in this period as a “country without music.“ Economical stringed instruments for popular musical culture came from the well-established businesses in Mirecourt and Markneukirchen, whereas artisanal violin making itself continued to be heavily influenced by masters who had emigrated, even in the period after Panormo. These luminaries included first and foremost George Adolphe Chanot and Georges Chanot Jr., nephew of the influential Vuillaume peer François Chanot; they lent their craft some international allure once again and founded one of England’s few traditional families of luthiers.

England as a centre for international sales of violins

Other talented and well-trained masters made their living under these unusual market conditions by applying their expertise to selling top-quality stringed instruments. One early example was Duke’s former student John Edward Betts (1752–1823), who was the first to import premium Italian violins and who paved the way for Antonio Stradivari's violins in England. In the wake of this new business model, demand arose for excellent violin making, and great figures in the field such as Panormo, Joseph Hill II and Bernard Simon Fendt ranked among Betts’ employees; the bow makers John Dodd and Thomas Tubbs created top-tier bows for him.

The wider circles of the Betts workshop also included another representative of the Hill family, Joseph's son Henry Lockey Hill, who linked Betts to one of the most famous British institutions in the world of fine string instruments: W. E. Hill & Sons, the company founded by his son William Ebsworth Hill. In addition to advancing J. & A. Beare and the Beare family’s work, the Hills guided the business of selling historic and contemporary master-produced violins and bows to its peak, and in doing so, they secured England’s position in the history of violin making for multiple generations.

English violin making today

The exceptionally high standards of craftsman expertise that was cultivated in the workshops of the Hills and Beares attracted the finest international masters over time. In 1972, the Newark School of Violin Making was established, and other highly regarded training centres followed suit, leading to the more recent development of a scene of excellent and innovative luthiers who allow English violin making to look ahead to the future with great anticipation.