According to George Crompton, his friend and biographer, George Craske’s head “was exactly the same shape and measure as Shakespeare’s”. Craske is one of the more familiar names amongst nineteenth-century English violin making. His history, circumstances, and posthumous reputation provide a bigger story than expected. Craske was an incredibly prolific workman, but throughout his career, and especially during his twenty years of virtual seclusion in Stockport, he appears to have sold only a fraction of the instruments that he made, leaving many unsold and a huge number of instruments that he never completed. He was said to have made 2,050 violins, 300 violas, 250 cellos and 20 double-basses. His stock was eventually acquired by W.E. Hill & Sons who completed many unfinished instruments. The result is that his work is incredibly numerous, but also incredibly varied. Much of it is indifferent, but his finest work is amongst the most interesting of the nineteenth century.
Craske was born in 1795 in Bury St Edmunds to an immigrant German family, his father the bandmaster of the West Suffolk Milita. According to his biography he showed an early interest in violin making and was sent to London to find employment with William (III) Forster. Although his London career took him to work with Thomas Dodd and Muzio Clementi, the violin trade was a closely intermixed group at the time, and all evidence suggests his time in London was brief, leaving in his late teens or early twenties.
Seeking better fortunes in Bath, Craske’s arrival in the city seems likely to be before 1819. He became well connected within the city’s musical circles where he met several musicians who had a significant effect on his career. The first of these appears to have been Sir Patrick Blake who – according to George Crompton – owned a Stradivari and Amati that Craske copied. The story of Blake’s Stradivari turns out to be significantly more important than first appears. The violin (now lost) had belonged to Franz Lamotte (1751-1780) and then to Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815), who had bequeathed it to Blake upon his death. In turn, Blake died in 1818 and the violin sold with others at Phillips in 1819 (to Dr. Hague of Cambridge), giving a four year period during which Craske would have had the opportunity to see it in Bath.
If Craske copied this famous Stradivari “from his early period” an extremely strong contender for this early work is the long-pattern copy that we have for sale. The violin shows several hallmarks of Craske’s early period, especially the use of sugar maple for the ribs with English sycamore for the back and head, which appears to typify his time in Bath. The model for the violin is one of the few Stradivari violins made at the end of his long-pattern period dating to approximately 1698 when he maintained the narrow proportions, but reduced them down to a normal body length. The outline of the Craske is identical to this period of Stradivari’s making.
Craske’s long pattern copy is revelatory in understanding the genesis of Craske’s later works. When Stradivari first adopted the long pattern in 1692, he combined the larger body (360mm) with an intensely flat arch, providing enormous architectural contrast to the violins of the previous era. The flatness eases somewhat in the middle of the 1690s, but as he created the short-long-pattern, he returned to this stridently flat conception. In comparing Craske’s long-pattern with the likes of the 1698 ‘Baron Knoop’ the cleverness of Craske’s work is immediately apparent. The violin involves an element of Craske’s own style – the soundholes and edge work appear out of scale with the rest of the instrument, and the scroll is typical of Craske’s rather perfunctory attitude to this part of violin making (he gave up completely on making scrolls and bought them in later in life).
If Craske had stuck with copies of Blake’s violin, history might judge him in better terms than it has done so. However, he appears to have used this model as the springboard to his own individual ideas. To some extent the instruments which he made immediately afterwards have some parallels with French making of the same time, as Lupot, Aldric and Pique were reaching for fine golden-period Stradivari models, several of the second-tier Parisian makers resorted to similarly flat and broad models. Craske, however appears to have taken things a step further: Preserving the characteristics of Blake’s c.1698 Stradivari, he created a significantly larger (360mm) outline. The almost circular upper bouts and flat arching become a characteristic that is almost always found on Craske’s work throughout his life.
The Musical scene at Bath was seasonal, since the aristocracy and landed gentry would spend time between the cultural city and their own estates. This led to Craske moving around continuously when the city was out of season, finding work around the South Coast and travelling as far as Leeds and Sheffield in the North. However, in Bath Craske found important allies in Nicholas Mori and John Loder, influential musicians and teachers.
Another of our violins shows the full effect of Craske’s new-found ideology of violin making. Crompton describes how Craske made copies of Loder’s violin, a late-period Stradivari of 1729. The violin we have for sale comes with a verbal provenance suggesting that it was considered amongst the most important examples of Craske’s work – certainly it was one of the few that was neither bought, nor resold by W.E. Hill & Sons. It was bought from Paul Voigt in Manchester who in turn acquired it from George Crompton who had kept it back when he sold Craske’s estate to the Hills. The instrument is once again typical of the Bath period, with back and ribs that are identical to the “Blake” copy, but it is made to the enlarged form. The tragedy comes in the soundholes that are carefully and diligently copied from an original Stradivari violin, in this case so distinctly copying a late Stradivari that it is possible to detect the influence of Francesco Stradivari in the shaping of the wings. With so much effort going into copying the superficial elements of the 1729 “Loder” Stradivari, no matter how good the violin is, it is a heart-breaking failure given the full potential of Craske to produce a more diligent interpretation of an instrument he had set eyes on.
Craske eventually left Bath for the fashionable Snow Hill area of Birmingham where he set up shop for twenty years. He was there by the time of Nicolo Paganini’s 1832 Tour of Britain. Upon Paganini’s visit to Birmingham, Craske was called to repair his Guarneri del Gesu, the 1743 “Canone”, marking a turning point in his work: Thereafter, the vast majority of his violins and violas have the outward appearance of del Gesu’s pattern. Sadly for Craske however, his repairs amounted to taking the top off and regluing one of the blocks on the day of the concert. His time with Paganini’s violin was not extensive enough for him to study it in depth, and the resulting instruments are better described as impressions of what he had examined imposed on a basic design of his own, rather than strongly informed copies. These again are normally based on Craske’s 360mm outline and are by no means literal copies. He seems to have had further problems reconciling the highly stylised soundless of del Gesu’s work with his broad large model. Nevertheless, a firm date of 1832 for the inception of his del Gesu copies makes him a strong contender as the first maker to regularly copy this form. Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume’s early attempts may pre-date Craske, and he famously repaired the “Canone” making a copy to fool Paganini with at the same time. However, the date of this is unclear and Vuillaume’s violins are not dated – except to say that this could not have been after 1840 when Paganini died, and this is unlikely to have happened before Paganini’s return to Paris in 1836. John Frederick Lott (Jack) the great English copyist of del Gesu did not establish his business in London until the 1840s. Our violin for sale is typical of his finer del Gesu copies, with significant similarity to his Bath period instruments suggesting that it is one of the earlier del Gesu examples from the early 1830s.
In time Craske wearied of Birmingham and moved to Manchester where he lived for about a year, before moving into its suburbs – first to Salford and then Stockport, where he is reputed to have lived in complete seclusion for another twenty years, before eventually selling his stock to George Crompton and retiring to Bath where he died in 1889.
Upon Crompton’s death in 1902, the stock was divided. Much of Craske’s wood, reputed to have come from the Forster workshop, was sold first to Paul Voigt, a Manchester-based violin maker, and latterly ended up in the stock of Thomas Earle Hesketh, who finished it off. Everything else was acquired by W.E. Hill & Sons, who took the instruments and parts down to London. They published George Crompton’s biography as a pamphlet in 1902, and labelled Craske’s work to demonstrate their part in posthumously promoting his work “Made by George Craske / born 1797 died 1888 / and sold by / William Hill & Sons, London”. Over the years they appear to have bought back many other of Craske’s violins, selling them on with the same Hill label, so that it is now even harder to find one with an original label of any sort.
To the Hills, Craske’s work, and later the stock of Job Arden – another reclusive compulsive violin maker – proved a blessing. They could name their price on newly manufactured cases and bows where they had a monopoly, but the making of violins was costly to the Hills because they were rated as a small buisiness and liable to a tax levied on manufactured goods that made them uncompetitive against individual craftsmen whose sole-trader businesses fell below the threshold. For more than a generation, Hills were able to exploit a tax loophole and sell Craske’s violins as second-hand restorations avoiding this tax. Legend has it that it was routine for any member of the Hanwell workshop to assemble a Craske if they had a couple of spare hours towards the end of the working day, but combination Craske’s also appear – as if to allow the stock to run further – with half of the parts made up by craftsmen in the Hill workshop. These instruments are frequently amongst the best violins sold with a Craske label, and although technically composite, can be certified as correctly originating from the Hanwell workshop in this state.
Craske’s violins come in an enormous range of qualities, and I make a point of searching out the finest examples of his work. The variation was well and truly apparent to the Hills and in 1902 they priced violins between £6 and £10, but quoted examples of special merit for as much as £25. Violas, which are normally on the small size they priced from £4, and cellos from £20. Much of the credibility of these instruments rests on the work done to complete them in the Hill workshop.
Contemporaneous accounts of his work give Craske extremely high praise as a copyist: Simon Andrew Foster remarked that “We think nothing of him: he has copied Joseph Guarnerius so that people can’t tell the difference and get taken in”. Joseph Pierce was of a similar opinion in 1866, writing how he “has made many violins in imitation of the Cremona makers, some of which have been sold by unscrupulous dealers as genuine instruments”. Although this seems to be at odds with the general perception of his instruments, many Craskes that I have seen give a hint here or there of a significantly greater talent than his immediate reputation indicates. His method of antiquing is advanced for the period, although he naively applies a red ‘blush’ over a brown ground. Nevertheless in the 1840s he developed a thickly textured varnish which rubs away to bare wood in a very Italianate style. He is amongst the first makers to observe Cremonese methods of pinning the back of an instrument. Finally the Hills published a set of photographs of his best work in their 1902 pamphlet. The violin is an incredibly full arched and confident interpretation of a violin from Stradivari’s golden period. To date I have never seen a violin like it by Craske, but it has the appearance of being one of the cleverest Stradivari copies by any English maker of the 19th century. There may still be much more to Craske still than meets the eye.