Museums at Night 2014: Somerset House

An out-of-the ordinary opportunity to collaborate with artist-in-residence, Jacob Thompson-Bell in conceptualising a sound performance to celebrate Museum’s at Night at Somerset House. “In Memory” uses J.S. Bach’s first cello suite (in Gmajor) as the foundation of a soundscape bringing musical life throughout the public rooms of the museum. Performed by an ecclectic quartet comprising baroque and modern cellists and violists with electronic reinterpretations of Bach’s masterpiece. Not what we do everyday, but its always fun to get my hands grubby in another sphere of music. Thanks to Emma Alter, Natasha Kraemer, Deborah Chandler and Richard Jones for getting involved in a very different kind of music. Photographs to follow..


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A fine French silver mounted violoncello bow by Eugene Sartory, stamped “E SARTORY A PARIS”, Paris, circa 1920.

A good and strong example from arguably this maker’s best period.

Round stick with silver lapping and ivory tip. Some minor playing wear and restorations to the stick and frog at the thumb position, but otherwise in very good playing condition.

Length: mm

Weight:  grams.

Sold with our certificate and the certificate of Bernard Millant dated 29 January 2009.


Claude Thomassin

A fine silver mounted violin bow by Claude Thomassin, stamped “BELA SZEPESY” for the London trade.

Along with many of the London shops, Bela Szepesy is documented to have bought bows from Paris which he stamped with his own brand. Whilst these are reasonably common for companies such as Hart & Sons and Withers, Thomassin bows with Bela’s stamp are extremely uncommon. This is the only example that we have encountered.

Round stick with silver lapping and ivory tip. Some playing wear including a chip and minor repair to the frog, but otherwise in very good condition.

Length: 743mm

Weight: 59 grams.

Sold with our certificate.

Tourte and Vienna

Why did Beethoven  ignore the technological progress of the French..


We were delighted to be invited to speak at the symposium “Le Violon c’est l’archet” – bows from the time of Beethoven and Paganini held at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna in association with Bern University of the Arts. We discussed the complex political undercurrents of the Napoleonic period, and how intertwined musical performance had become with cultural diplomacy, suggesting that it was little surprise to us that the transformations of playing style that took place in Paris fell on such unreceptive ears as Beethoven’s Vienna fell under siege of Napoleon’s army.

James d’aquisto

Guitar Heroes and the holy grail of the American Mandolin..


James D’Aquisto was one of the iconic makers of the American archtop guitar. In 1971 he created his own design of mandolin applying the proven aesthetics of the New Yorker archtop with the basic principles developed by the Gibson Company. This example was the first, made in 1971 for Lydia Merryman, but the front was too thin and shortly after construction it cracked. The fittings were scavenged from it and put into a second instrument. D’Aquisto kept the carcass until his death in 1995, since he always had the intention of building more, but was kept busy with high demand for his guitars. The resulting paradox is that of three mandolins that he made, this first example is the fourth. When we discovered the instrument, it had been put back to playing condition with cheap generic fittings. It was acquired by an American institution and was restored by d’Aquisto’s protege, John Monteleone. In 2011 it was one of the centrepieces of the Guitar Heroes exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Architetto del Suono

Our contribution to the 500th anniversary of the birth of Gaspar da Salo..


In 2008 we were flown to Salo on the banks of Lake Garda to speak at a conference at the birthplace of Gaspar da Salo, half a millennium after he was born. We spoke on the broader influence of Brescian work in the sixteenth-century, paying special attention to the international marketplace that had developed with connections both to England and Spain. Our work on the importance of this aspect of Brescian influence was published in the Turris Editions book, Gaspar da Salo: Architetto del Suono.


A treasure from the collection of the Barons Albert and Nathaniel Rothschild..


This extraordinary instrument belonged to the collection of the barons Nathaniel and Albert von Rothschild. The collection was put into safekeeping by the Austrian government in 1938 and was eventually restituted to the family and sold at auction in 1999. This was one of the few objects withdrawn from sale, but it surfaced on the market almost adecade later. Daniel Achatius Stadlmann (b.1680, d.1744) was one of the leading instrument makers in Vienna, and an important early maker in the development of instruments with sympathetic strings. In addition to belonging to the first generation to make viola d’amore, he was also an important maker of the baryton and the instrument belonging to Haydn was made by him. It is unlikely that this mute instrument was anything more than a showpiece, without serious intention as a musical or practice instrument, but it is significant in the golden period of the viola d’amore. The instrument was bought with our guidance by a major international institution.

Giovanni Grancino

A rare example from the golden-period of Milanese lutherie..


Four instruments of this sort are known, made in Milan by either Giovanni Grancino or Carlo Giuseppe Testore and spanning a period of approximately fifty years from the 1660s. Their original function remains unclear, but we suspect that they had an on-stage role in opera performances in Milan. This example was owned by Leandro Bisiach, and an engraving of its outline was used as part of his company letterhead. The head is probably by Bisiach although it was severely damaged by worm in relatively recent times making any judgement unusually difficult, and at a later date was converted to accommodate six strings creating an anachronistic instrument. The body is nevertheless an extremely fine example of Grancino’s work. Despite the unusual outline, there is much about his workmanship that demonstrates his prowess as a follower after the Cremonese school. We were delighted to advise an internationally significant musical instrument collection on their purchase of this instrument, and to provide a detailed forensic report to support acquisition.

Josquin des Pres

A remarkable discovery that changed the face of Josquin scholarship..

We were asked to consult on this important English painting by the anonymous ‘Master of the Countess of Warwick’ from the sixteenth-century belonging to a private collection on behalf of the Weiss Gallery in London. Having admired the precision of the musical text in the painting and expecting it to be a contemporaneous English source we eventually drewa blank. With the help of Kerry McCarthy, a friend and William Byrd expert, we finally revealed the text as a motet of the Burgundian court composer, Josquin des Prez. For decades historians of English music have murmured about his possible influence and reception in England, but considered any evidence to be far-fetched or coincidental. It was more than a surprise therefore to find such compelling evidence in the hands of a teenage boy of the late 1550s.

‘Stradivarius’ in Oxford

Our involvement in the 2013 Stradivarius Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum..


We were enormously privileged to be involved in the 2013 ‘Stradivarius’ exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford guest-curated by Charles Beare. It provided an opportunity to give our lecture on the year 1690, the most influential year in Stradivari’s life that led to the wonderful creations of his golden period. Of the numerous tours of the exhibition that we gave, an extended tour to a delegation from the Comité International des Museés et Collections d’Instruments de Musique (CIMCIM), a division of UNESCO’s International Council of Museums (ICOM) was perhaps the hardest lecture we have given to date. Benjamin Hebbert regularly lectures at the Ashmolean Museum on a range of subjects from Stradivari and the Messiah to topics for children during Science and Technology Week.

Nicolas Lanier

A portrait of Nicholas Lanier of outstanding importance to British Art..

We were delighted to be invited to contribute to the study, Nicholas Lanier: A Portrait Revisited, following the discovery of this extremely important English portrait of Nicholas Lanier, the art connoisseur and musician who became the first Master of the King’s Musick during the reign of Charles I. The portrait had formerly been identified as the work of afollower of Anthony van Dyck and at some time had passed for his original work, but closer inspection revealed that it came from the decade before van Dyck’s arrival in England, was painted by a collaboration of the finest artists of the English court, and served as a precursor for the artistic style that he came to typify. Our work began with an examination of the lute and evolved into a full analysis of the musical metaphors hidden within the painting. We are grateful to the Weiss Gallery for inviting us to participate in one of the most important discoveries in early English art of the past century.

An accompanying separate article published by Oxford University Press in Early Music is available to read here.

Visit my friends at the Weiss Gallery here, and read more as an Ebook below:

A Medieval Masterpiece

This remarkable survival ranks amongst the finest medieval woodcarving in existence..


It was our pleasure to participate in the major symposium on this instrument, organised by the British Museum. The citole is an extraordinarily rare survivor of fourteenth-century English instrument making, and has long been acknowledged as the finest surviving example of medieval decorative wood carving. Our interest has always been in the later adaptations to the instrument when it was turned into a violin, with the date of 1578 forming part of an associated goldsmith’s mark. Our report found significant similarities with the craftsmanship of the three Bassano violins that we have discovered previously, and identifies importance of the fingerboard and tailpiece as consistent with English viol making practice of the period, and amongst the earliest violin fittings to survive from any country.

Jacob Stainer

An outstanding viola by the greatest of all makers working outside of Italy.


Jacob Stainer is regarded as the greatest of all makers working outside of Italy. There is continual debate as to whether he crossed the Alps to study with Amati, but certainly his earliest acknowledged works show a very close relationship with Cremonese masters of the time, although his style rapidly developed. It is not known how many violas by Stainer survive, buta generous estimate might be in the region of twenty. This example made in the 1660s must rank as the finest, retaining much of the fragile deep-brown varnish that had washed off most of Stainer’s instruments before the end of the eighteenth-century. The wear patterns to the back show how it was played across the body using a strap, and such is the purity of the instrument that they have remained undisturbed. The viola is a ‘tenore’ size, retaining its original dimensions which are too large and too deep in the ribs for serious sustained professional use.  We were delighted to broker the sale of this highly significant instrument to a prominent North American institution. It will now join two Stradivari violins and a Vuillaume cello for regular use in a string quartet.

George Craske

Craske banner


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.

Violin by George Craske, Bath circa 1820; a late Stradivarian long-pattern copy influenced by Sir Patrick Blake's Ex-Salomon, Ex-Lamotte Stradivari.

Violin by George Craske, Bath circa 1820. A late Stradivarian long-pattern copy influenced by Sir Patrick Blake’s Ex-Salomon, Ex-Lamotte Stradivari.

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.

HEBB14013A Craske (10)

Violin by George Craske, Bath circa 1825 showing the fully developed flat and enlarged-pattern that dominated his violin-making for the rest of his career. The soundholes are careful copies of the 1729 Stradivari belonging to his friend and mentor, John Loder.

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.

HEBB14064 (10)

Violin by George Craske, probably Snows Hill Birmingham, circa 1832-1835. Made to the same form as the ‘Loder’ copy from his Bath period, but an early example marking his transition to the Paganini-inspired del Gesu model for which he is famed.

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.



Giovanni Gaida

Like Vincenzo Panormo a century beforehand, Giovanni Gaida’s work has often sat uncomfortably between the Anglo-French and Italian schools of violin making, without clearly being one or the other. Whichever side of the debate about the nationality of his violins wins out, his instruments are nevertheless some of the most original and inspired examples to come out of London at the turn of the twentieth-century.


Gaida was born in Bollegno, Ivrea in 1862 but trained as a violin maker in France before coming to England in 1890. He first worked for the Stainer Manufacturing Company in St Martin’s Lane which produced fairly commercial violins of no particular merit, but was saved from obscurity by Frederick William Chanot, with whom he worked before establishing his own workshop in Castle Street, Long Acre, and supplied many violins to Edward Withers and Dykes & Son. He returned briefly to Italy from 1895 to 1900, where his two sons were born, but worked mostly in London where he died in 1939.


Chanot, with whom he worked, was deeply interested in emulating classical models through his own instruments. His output evolved out of his French training into reflecting the diversity of old Italian masters that passed through his dealership, or that he was otherwise familiar with from the London trade. These ranged from copies of Stradivari’s famed ‘Messiah’ (then owned by W.E. Hill & Sons) to interpretations of fine Milanese work by the likes of Landolphi. There are many similarities between the works of either maker, suggesting that Gaida was thoroughly schooled by Chanot: Their scrolls can be remarkably alike, and the varnish treatment and antiquing styles can be identical. However, Gaida appears to have been encouraged to embrace his Italian roots, and produce violins that were reflective of more contemporary Italian achievements.


At the time, the Turin school of Giovanni Francesco Pressenda and his followers achieved high popularity in England. Annibale Fagnola enjoyed particular success exporting his violins from Turin for the English wholesale market, and many of these were labelled as copies of Pressenda’s work to provide unambiguous evidence of his pedagogy. Invariably, however, his instruments tend to be quite hard on the eye, with brash abd brightly coloured red varnishes that look out of place against the subtle tones of older violins. Gaida may have capitalised on his own roots from Ivrea in the Province of Turin, and aligned his work with that of his compatriots, for certainly his instruments are influenced by Pressenda’s Stradivarian models, but one or two touches in the way that they are made demonstrate a plausible connection to Fagnola instead (one example is the rather broad ‘button’ below the heel of the neck, which is in a shared distinctive style). He continued to make violins during his 1895-1900 return to Italy, and it is possible that he developed close connections with his Italian colleagues at the time. Nonetheless, his work seems always to have been intended for a market that was accustomed to the stately tones of older varnish. Working from Chanot’s pallet of colours, Gaida’s work is either tastefully shaded as if to reflect a violin of the earlier nineteenth-century, or fully antiqued in a style that was becoming increasingly commonplace in London at the end of the nineteenth-century.


Gaida’s instruments are very precisely made, often with a crisp perfectionism that comes from an Anglo-French training which can be a little at odds with the way that the varnish is antiqued. His status as an English or Italian maker will always be up for some level of discussion, but along with the Voller brothers, and Bela Szepessy, he remains one of the most distinguished and respected violin makers working in London at the turn of the twentieth century.




Daniel Parker (London, active 1700-1725)

Fritz Kreisler performed frequently on his Daniel Parker violin.

Fritz Kreisler performed frequently on his Daniel Parker violin.

Daniel Parker (fl. ca.1700-1725) is amongst the most important British instrument makers of the eighteenth-century. He is often mistakenly considered to be the only violin maker outside of Italy to engage in Stradivari’s designs during Stradivari’s lifetime. Whilst this is not the case, of all the early northern European makers influenced by Stradivari during this period, his work is the most accomplished. His violins have gained an outstanding reputation, not least thanks to Fritz Kreisler who performed extensively on the “Parker Strad”, a violin that he acquired from W.E. Hill & Sons at the end of his 1910-11 tour of Britain (where he premiered the violin concerto that Edward Elgar wrote and dedicated for him). Nathan Milstein, Rugiero Ricci and Giorgio Ciompi are all known to have admired or owned Parker’s work. As early as 1740 there is evidence of his violins being likened to Cremonese work; together with violins by Amati and Stainer, the catalogue of the estate of the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor included the consecutive lots, “A Cremona Violin by Guernerius [Sic]” and “A ditto by Parker”. The connection of Hawksmoor and Parker is all the more tantalizing given that until 1714 the two must have have worked in very close proximity as Hawksmoor was deputy to Christopher Wren for the completion of St Paul’s Cathedral.


Parker worked in the City of London, and in addition to his own work, his hand and influence can be seen in the instruments of Edward Lewis, Barak Norman, Richard Meares (II) and John Hare, all of whom ran music shops on the northern edge of St Paul’s Churchyard at one time or another (by 1700 Hare had removed from St Paul’s, and was operating in a shop in Cornhill near the Royal Exchange). Parker appears to have had the status of ‘small master’ within the city, implying that he had become a freeman of the city, and was allowed to trade on his own name and reputation, but lacking a shop (the requirement for becoming a full master). Many of the instruments that he made in their entirity appear to have supplied many to the major retailers of the day, but his hand is also detected in collaborative work, suggesting that he also asserted his rights as a ‘journeyman’ working for a day-wage amongst the various shops in St Paul’s Churchyard. Hence there are no labels that provide any indication of where in London he worked, and we are only able to associate him with this area because of the close associations observed through his work and that of others.  Occasionally instruments are found with a printed label “Daniel Parker, London Fecit”, or an inked inscription onto the wood where a label should be found. Many more of his instruments contain hidden signatures on the inside of the belly near the bottom block, following an convention that was already strongly established in the furniture trade for small masters and piece-workers to surreptitiously identify their hand. Both methods protecting the rights of his retailers from competition and indicating the work of a craftsman who didn’t retail his work from his own shop.


Early violins that show influence that can later be seen in Parker’s hand, contain the labels of Edward Lewis dated from around 1700. These tend to be based on pre-existing vernacular English designs, but demonstrate an immediate interest in producing a more refined Italianate arching. Although these are quite full in appearance, the almost circular upper bout that typifies almost all of Parker’s work is already in evidence. These instruments demonstrate that Parker was already searching for new standards in English making, influenced – if albeit only partialy – by Italian fashions, however a watershed in his career appears to have come in 1703-1704 with the celebrated arrival of Gaspar Visconti to England.


With tremendous popularity for Arcangelo Corelli’s sonatas, the English had pressed for the composer to come to London, but being a priest in the Catholic Church, he resisted journeying to a protestant country, sending a succession of his pupils in his place. Nicolo Cosimi arrived in 1701 followed by the the Cremonese Nobleman, Gaspar Visconti. Visconti evidently had a high interest in the sound of the violin and is more than likely to have come to England armed with insights into Stradivari’s working methods. There is no evidence from before 1703 that links the two, but whilst he was in England he assisted the Steffkins brothers (the two prominent viol players in the Royal Court) in acoustical demonstrations at the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. After he returned to Cremona taking Cristina Steffkins as his wife however, Stradivari produced a cello for her in 1707 as a special commission, of which several neck templates survive. The Cremonese biographer, Don Desidero Arisi, writing in 1720 touched upon Visconti’s role in assisting Stradivari with his designs.


Direct association with London violin makers comes in May 1703 when John Hare advertised the sale of Visconti’s violin sonatas Opera Prima, first of all in a luxurious edition on ‘royal paper’ contrived for the English market but published by Etienne Roger in Amsterdam, and thereafter by cheaper London editions published by Walsh & Hare. In the same year, Hare published a set of Aires for the Flute, and in 1705 he published the third volume (the first and second now lost) of “Nolens Volens”, a set of English and Italian aires for the violin by ‘Signor Gasperini’ – as the English quaintly called their celebrated Italian visitor. Almost instantaneously the influence of Stradivari becomes evident in the work of a select group of violin makers,all of whom have a direct association with John Hare, and amongst whom Daniel Parker numbers. Barak Norman’s work is the earliest that can be dated, with examples from 1704 that demonstrates outward traits of Stradivarian influence, not least the repetition of Stradivari’s black edging to the scroll, a characteristic that appears nowhere else in the early eighteenth-century except within Cremona and the small group of makers around St Paul’s Churchyard in London.


The English makers to whom Stradivarian ideas were exposed had a high reputation as craftsmen in their own right. Barak Norman and Edward Lewis were indisputably the leading makers of viola da gamba in their day, with a client base that extended through France as well as England, and whose best instruments commanded comparable prices to the finest imported works by Italian makers. Therefore, without exception they don’t appear to have had any need to revere Stradivari’s work, but sought to incorporate their interpretation of his ideas into their own style of making. Barak Norman, for example, continued to use a manufacturing technique familiar in earlier English instruments of inserting the ribs into grooves in the back to make many of his violin-family instruments. On an architectural level (without ever being dismissive of his instruments) the violins made entirely in his hand  fall short of the seminal achievements of his contemporaries. His collaborative work with Daniel Parker or Norman’s apprentice, Nathaniel Cross is often the most compelling of all his work.


In his own way, Daniel Parker was no less irreverent to Stradivari. Instead of copying Stradivari’s work, he appears to have used it as a starting point developing his own results from a set of ideas that were familiar to the Cremonese. His access to Stradivari instruments allowed him to follow a range of basic patterns, including the ‘long-pattern’ of the early 1690s (for example the Ex-Francais), the ‘shorter-long pattern’ (the Ex-Kreisler) – a model that combined a standard back-length with the narrow proportions of the ‘long-pattern’ dominate his violins, whilst he had evidently seen something similar to the 1696 ‘Archinto’ Stradivari to create one of his designs of viola. His instruments largely rejected Stradivari’s drive towards flatter models, providing luscious sweeping arching to his instruments that would have been an anathema to Stradivari’s mode of thinking at the time, but that recall the generosity given to Cremonese arching of the late-brother’s Amati period and survivng through to Stradivari’s youthful work from the 1660s and early 1670s. This approach to the new forms of violin that appeared around 1700 had other parallels, most especially to the work of Peter Guarneri of Mantua. In combination with Parker’s strong red varnish this has given credence to how significant examples of Parker’s works have become confused with those of the later Mantuan makers, Tomaso Balestrieri and Camillus Camilli. Ironically, Stradivari would adopt a similar arching in violins of his final period after about 1730.


Parker was no less receptive to vernacular English ideas, and certain elements of his work manifest his traditional London training. The soundholes of his instruments invariably terminate at the top and bottom with circles of similar size in defiance of Cremonese orthodoxy, and at least one viola of his  speaks of the same reverence to the old English tradition in its decoration and almost absurdly proportioned soundholes and a double-canted back, but the strength of combining the broad proportions of earlier English work with an Italian arching produces compelling results that reveal his fluency and deep understanding of Cremonese ideals . Towards 1720 as the trend for Stainer-modelled violins emerged in London, his contributions combine a elements of Stainer’s outline and volume of arching with a resolutely Italianesque approach to resolving the form. In some cases this lends itself to characterful and quirky instruments, but it is within the unorthodox examples of his work that his obsession with Cremonese technique, rather than an interest in copying what he saw, shines through. Therefore the ‘Ex-Francais’ is one of several examples of differing forms where the combination of the narrow Stradivarian form and rich arching ends up with soundholes that are unexpectedly close together, but they are well proportioned when compared individually from the outside of the outline of the violin. This lends itself to the idea that Parker used the Cremonese technique of locating the soundholes using compasses from the corners, whilst the slight imbalance on the soundholes of the ‘Ex-Kreisler’ almost identically mirrors the failings of Stradivari’s own workshop practice. His Stainer-influenced violins don’t quite match the similarly inspired Venetian work of Giorgio Seraphin and his contemporaries, but a very similar intellectual path to their design is in evidence.


The last known violin by Daniel Parker is a magnificent collaboration with Barak Norman dated 1723. Norman died in the following year, and the once-populous community of instrument makers in St Paul’s Churchyard dwindled as Piccadilly became the new focus for English musical culture.  Later in the century, one Benjamin Parker made violins in Salisbury around 1785 (co-incidentally the same forename as Banks, Salisbury’s greatest maker) but there is no immediately obvious connection between either maker and the timescales seem to be too far apart. Given the modest circumstances of Parker’s working practices and the relatively common nature of his name, he disappears from view after 1723 as mysteriously as he appeared a quarter of a century before.







On many instruments the soundholes terminate in circles of almost identical size, following a trait that is characteristic of vernacular English work, rather than enlarging the bottom circle in the manner established by the Cremonese more than a century before.



Benjamin Hebbert, The “‘Parker’ Stradivari” (Tarisio Blog, October 25th, 2012).

Andrew Fairfax, John Dilworth, Tim Baker (et. al.) ‘The British Violin: The Catalogue of the 1998 Exhibition’, (BVMA, 2010).





National Science and Engineering Week 2014

Benjamin Hebbert was back at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on 22 March 2014. With National Science and Engineering Week inspiring lectures in museum’s and galleries throughout the country, this provided the challenge of talking to completely different audiences with different agendas in mind.


The violin provides coscience and the violinuntless scientific angles to talk about, ranging from understanding it’s acoustics right the way through to the forensic techniques that help us identify a genuine violin from a forgery. However, for this audience and context I decided to talk instead about how the design of the violin evolved in a period without the same kind of scientific enquiry that we enjoy today, and to discuss why this design has continued to be successful over half a millennium without being significantly challenged by ideas that have come from scientific progress.


With an engineering theme in mind, the lecture focussed on the empirical knowledge that fed into the design of the violin: The combination of hard and soft woods used to mae the body, that give a similar acoustical effect to a modern Hi-Fi, yet have their origins at least 1000 years before amongst musical instruments excavated from Roman-controlled Egypt. In exploring its design, the lecture explained how the attraction of the violin comes in its inbuilt imperfections. Maybe unwittingly, this makes the instrument (and the viola and cello) map the characteristics of the human voice. The elements of design that outwardly make it absurd ultimately contribute to its unique playing qualities because of this.


Ultimately any lecture of this nature has to ask the question, can science allow us to do better. For me, the answer remains that I’m not sure what Beethoven would think if we tried.


Blogging for Tarisio

For some pleasurable months from 2012-2013, I was able to put (increasingly metaphorical) pen to paper writing blogs on the key lots for Tarisio’s online auction. With the development of the Cozio site, these have been consumed into their back-catalogue of ‘Carteggio’ articles, and my pen is being put to other uses closer to home. All the same, here is a list of some of the more interesting projects I was able to spend time with – I can’t believe I wrote so many.

Visit the Cozio Carteggio here.


bloggingt1The ‘Parker Stradivari’
On the extraordinary ‘Parker Strad’ one of Daniel Parker’s most Stradivari-like instruments. Fritz Kreisler bought it from Hills towards the end of his 1910 tour, where he had come to England specifically to perform the violin concerto written expressly for him by Edward Elgar. It would become a violin that he played frequently during his life, once jesting to Nathan Milstein that it was the ‘Parker Strad’. An icon of English violin making.

bloggingcamilliA fine violin by Camillo Camilli, Mantua, 1742
Mantuan makers from Peter Guarneri, through Camilli and Tomasso Balestrieri are amongst the most free-thinking and imaginative traditions in violin making to evolve directly from the Cremonese, producing instruments of astounding beauty. I’ve long been fascinated by their incredible work, but it comes with a second fascination because of a phenomenal similarity between their work and and that of my favourite English maker, Daniel Parker.

bloggingberkovaThe Berkova Guadagnini, Milan, 1755
The sale of the Gillot Collection in 1872 was arguably the auction of the century as the amazing collection of Joseph Gillot, a pen-nib manufacturer in Birmingham was disposed of. Amonsgst the lots in the sale, the 1755 Guadagnini – later to be called the Berkova – is one of the few instruments that can still be traced to this iconic collection. The violin had been barely played in the nineteenth-century, and the purity shone through. Experts debate which period of Guadagnini’s life produced the very best work, but to my mind, this is one of the most memorable of all Guadagnini’s violins that I’ve seen.


A French masterpiece in the shadow of Vuillaume
Jean Baptiste Vuillaume set a standard for French making that continued long after his death as French instrument makers competed with one another to take on the reputation that he had left behind. This doesn’t automatically relate to instruments being made that are equal in tone to Vuillaume’s work, and it is testament to his rigid workshop structure that so few of his assistants achieved the same quality when they worked on their own. This cello, by Jacquot in Nancy follows in a tradition of painted instruments that was revived by Vuillaume. It is likely that this belonged to the quartet that won Jacquot a silver medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889.

bloggingstorioniA fine Italian cello by Lorenzo Storioni and Nicolò Bergonzi
It comes as little surprise to find a cello showing the two hands of Lorenzo Storioni and Nicolo Bergonzi in the same instrument. Their relationship was so close that they were sharing a house together from 1790 to 1795. Nevertheless, cellos by the later Cremonese makers are extremely rare, and in smaller instruments it is less likely – but not unheard of – for the evidence of collaborative work to be found.

bloggingvuillaumeA Fine Belgian Cello by Nicolas Francois Vuillaume, Brussels, 1862
Vuillaume’s influence and relationship with his brother is explained through this marvellous copy of Stradivari’s 1701 Servais cello. Like his brother, Nicolas-Francois Vuillaume was astute in focussing around the most celebrated instruments and their owners within Brussels society. Hector Berlioz called Adrien Servais ‘the Nicolo Paganini of the violoncello’ and it is his instrument which was copied.

bloggingaldricA Good French Violin by Jean-Francois Aldric, circa 1815
A violin by one of the few French makers who I admire even more than Vuillaume. Amongst the great early makers of the nineteenth-century, Aldric seems to be eclipsed by his contemporaries, Lupot and Pique, but unfairly. The violin is made to a very well observed ‘golden-period’ Stradivari model, and preserved in very good order, it is amongst the first rate of Parisian work from the period.

bloggingdaneTwo Rare Danish Instruments
Guldbrand Enger isn’t the first name of choice when choosing one of Vuillaume’s workshop assistants to write about. In fact much of Vuillaume’s influence across Europe came from training leading makers who would return to their native country with the confidence of having worked for such an important figure. Enger’s Guarneri inspired violin from 1870 has its own distinctive characteristics, but the influence of Vuillaume runs right the way through it.

bloggingforsterA good English cello by William Forster II, London, c. 1803
Forster’s account books survive in fragmented form, and its wonderful to occasionally find an instrument that can be put down to one of his customers. The pleasure becomes all the greater when they turn out to be a famous musical character of the period. A little detective work found that the cello was commissioned by William Hole, a little more work revealed him to be chaplain to the Prince of Wales, and the most famous amateur cellist of his day.

blogginglandolfiA Fine Violin by Carlo Ferdinando Landofi, Milan, 1772
Understanding who influenced who in eighteenth-century Milan is an enormous challenge to violin experts. The orthodox assumptions tend towards suggesting that the most praised of all makers, G.B. Guadagnini, inspired his lesser contemporaries, but a more complex picture reveals itself. It was revealing therefore to study an exceptional violin by Landolfi alongside the ‘Berkova’ to see where the superficial differences are but how the similarities on a technical level are profoundly closer.

bloggingricciA fine contemporary French violin by Frédéric Chaudière, 1997, ex-Ruggiero Ricci
After Ruggiero Ricci gave up his beloved Guarneri, the ‘Gibson, ex-Huberman’ his attention settled on contemporary makers during his journey to find a replacement. He became sufficiently entranced with the possibilities of new instruments that he bought many of them. In 2001 he recorded “The Legacy of Cremona” his tribute to his nineteen favourite new violins. Amongst the violins in the recording was this splendid 1997 violin by Frederic Chaudiere, based loosely on the ‘del Gesu’s’ output from around about the year 1735.
bloggingpressendaA fine violin by Giovvanni Pressenda, Turin 1828
Pressenda’s associations with Luigi Tarisio may well have encouraged him to build violins for the French market, and many of his instruments from the 1820s are straightforward golden-period Stradivari copies at the top end of a continuum that includes the work of Lupot, Aldric and Pique in France. At the same time, he continued producing a body of work that reflected his constant experimentation within Cremonese boundaries and often recalling Guadagnini’s work from Turin in the previous generation. The violin in this article seems intimately connected to Stradivari’s very last years in terms of concept. The immediate familiarity with the Habeneck or the Kreisler (though not a copy) is evident in the perculiar boldness of its form. I first bought a Pressenda on behalf of a client back in 2001. I never cease to enjoy studying his work.

bloggingvollerA Voller Brothers Copy of the Vieuxtemps Stradivari
This very important example by the Voller brothers helps to shed light on their activities well beyond the conventional understanding of their life as fakers. This violin was made as a legitimate copy of one of the greatest Stradivari violins in circulation on the market at the time, and was openly labelled as such when it was sold by Hart & Sons. The attention to detail in the work demonstrates much of the close connection and trust that the Vollers enjoyed amongst certain members of the trade, but perhaps the most significant part of the story is how it sheds light on the Vollers as greatly respected restorers working amongst the leading circles of the London trade.

bloggingsolianiA Fine and Rare Italian Violin by Angelo Soliani, Modena, 1807
Modena is one of the cities in Italy that really should have more of a violin making tradition than it actually has. Perhaps though, the reason for being so sparse of luthiers was its relative wealth and constant proximity to other cities that had a better reputation for the craft. Angelo Soliani is the last of the classical period makers of Modena. There is something irrepressibly hasty about his instruments, but the fixation and experience of Cremonese forms produces an admirable result. I might have to admit to being dismissive of this violin when it was first in my hands, but by the time I had spent a few hours with it, Soliani grew exponentially in my respect and admiration.

bloggingcooperA fine Grancino from the Cooper Collection
Albert Cooper’s name is legend amongst British violin dealers. An unassuming and modest man living in Hampshire whose passions seemed at times to be more embedded in early English instruments rather than the great Italian works that passed through his hands: He is probably best known for his biography of Benjamin Banks. This cello by Giovanni Grancino is characteristic of the class and quality of instrument that Cooper concentrated on, and its hard to find a more enviable example of Grancino’s work.

blogginggenoaTwo Early 18th-century Genoese Makers
Genoese makers of the early eighteenth-century are incredibly rare, none more so than Andrea Stanzer whose name appeared on the 1722 label of a violin that appeared at Tarisio’s auction. This was more detective work than I normally get asked to do. Notoriously, labels in a violin may have very little to do with whoever made the instrument. This time, such an unlikely label of a barely known maker held true. With a Giuseppe Cavalieri in the same sale, it was easy to think that Genoese makers were more commonplace.

blogginghammaWalter Hamma’s collection of decorated bows
Walter Hamma was the last of the great German violin-dealing dynasty. His collection of gold mounted (and mostly tortoiseshell) bows was of particular interest because of what it revealed about his interest and passion for living bow makers. Each example in the collection was a masterpiece and as a whole the collection gave enormous clarity to the brilliance of late twentieth-century makers whose talents are often overlooked for the sake of not being antique.

bloggingsacconiA fine violin by Simone Sacconi, New York, 1940
Simone Sacconi is a legendary name in violin making circles, especially for his book ‘Secrets of Stradivari’ which went further than any maker before towards understanding how Stradivari worked and disseminating ideas to help future makers get closer to his standard. As a legendary restorer his time as a violin maker was limited and his instruments are correspondingly very rare and seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic. In fact his life was one of legend, from sweeping the floors in a violin workshop at the age of twelve, to a developing fame that brought him to New York in 1931. This violin reveals his genius in observing great Cremonese masterpieces. Few violins of the twentieth-century capture Stradivari as well as this.

bloggingysayeA fine François Peccatte bow owned by Ysaÿe
Francois may be remembered in the shadow of Dominique Peccatte, but it is easy to overlook how great the elder brother was, and therefore how extraordinary bows by some of his other family members can be. In fact, for much of its life this bow was assumed to be the work of Dominique Peccatte and it is only in recent years that the value of these bows, and the attendant requirement for expertise has enabled connoisseurs to know the difference – Eugene Ysaye, it’s famous owner certainly didn’t. How much the bow informs us about Ysaye’s playing is uncertain. It appears he was constantly searching for the perfect bow and owned many as a result. Yet it seems certain that Ysaye found this a compelling bow, which is why he bought it and chose to keep it. It has remarkable playing qualities.

bloggingscarampellaStefano Scarampella and the Later Mantuan School Part I
Stefano Scarampella worked in ways that are both incredibly disctinctive and incredibly easy to pastiche. I’ve seen an enormous number of fake Scarampellas ranging from enterprising violins made by kids straight out of violin making school, to the emulations of his work created by the Mantuan makers that he trained. There is nothing superficial about Scarampella’s genuine work however, and just as del Gesu managed to mix profundity with an over-quick method of working, the same sense of greatness inhabits Scarampella’s best violins.

bloggingmantuaStefano Scarampella and the Later Mantuan School Part II
Oreste Martini and Mario Gadda were the most talented of Scarampella’s pupils, yet the 1920s brought about a nationalist-led celebration of Italy’s national crafts encouraging these makers towards a more refined approach to violin making with the aim of reconquering the mastery of ages past. Neither maker ever escaped entirely from the idiosyncracies of their master, and found strong markets for emulating his work.

Stradivarius Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum


From 13 June to 11 August 2013 the Ashmolean played host to the most extraordinary exhibition of Stradivari’s instruments curated by Charles Beare, the first time that so many of the finest examples of his ‘golden-period’ where exhibited together in modern times. I was delighted to play a part in this remarkable exhibition, invited by the Ashmolean Museum to provide the official public guided tours of the exhibition. An exhausting and enormously rewarding task, with ever the intimidation of wondering which other expert was listening in.

Visit the Ashmolean Museum’s website here


1690: Stradivari’s Defining Year?

I was delighted to be invited to give one of the special lectures on Stradivari for the Ashmolean’s 2013 Exhibition. 1690 may have been the seminal year for Stradivari as he exploited musical demands for a new need for the concerto sound. A recording of my lecture will be forthcoming.



Caged Messiah

The 1716 “Messiah” might not have been Stradivari’s greatest work, but made at the height of his powers and preserved for almost three centuries in almost perfect condition, it is arguably the greatest testament to this legendary craftsman. For more than half of its life, debates have raged between those who want to hear it play and those who prefer preservation and it’s totemic status has been increased with its incarceration behind glass at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. From a practical point of view, I am of the opinion that it should never be subjected to the risks of playing, but like other proponents of this view from before me, it is one that is influenced by ever other of the thousands of violins I’ve seen and judged, and by seeing how the demands of use place a strain on other instruments. I have also seen enough to appreciate how unique it is amongst other Stradivari instruments.

For Oxford Today I expressed a rhetorical argument. I appreciate that there will always be a desire to have the instrument played, and many of the conventional arguments against its use can be countered by equally compelling views from the other side. Yet a great deal of the controversy rests lies in the public prominence of this most famous of all Stradivari violins, giving it undue attention by comparison to other instruments that are sheltered from view. My view is that there is a dialogue in favour of playing the violin, but given its singular state of presentation, that dialogue deserves to be heard once the arguments have been made for every lesser violin by Stradivari. All six hundred (or so) of them.

To view my article in Oxford Today, Read on.

To see a picture of the “Messiah” in its glass case, see below.


Scrapheap Orchestra

Scrapheap Orchestra

Some life experiences are unforgettable, especially those that your colleagues and clients will never let you forget. One of these was a lecture I gave at the British Violin Maker’s Conference at Dartington the morning after the workshop staff from Guivier’s had made sure I had far, far too much to drink. The other (at least as far as I remember – or am willing to admit) was my stint as a reality television star with Charlie Hazlewood, the BBC Concert Orchestra and nine other musical instrument makers for the BBC documentary, Scrapheap Orchestra. The film has been shown all over the world, and is aired on long-haul flights by certain airlines. I even have my own listing on IMDb, a distinction amongst violin dealers which (as of 2011) I uniquely share with Charles Beare: See here.

Having been set the collective challenge of creating an entire orchestra from scrap, I divided the strings with Rob Cain who teaches at Newark School of Violin Making. The surprise was that he made the violins as well as the violas from discarded sewage pipe. For me the challenge of making cellos and double basses provided the kind of large-scale project I like to get my teeth into. The instruments had to work, and the culmination of the project was to achieve an orchestra capable of giving a ‘serious’ musical performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at the Royal Albert Hall for the 2011 Proms.

Scrapheap OrchestraThe project was made infinitely more difficult because there was little opportunity to think about the materials from which the instruments were made. The time constraints of working with a camera crew hampered things, and the production team had a habit of arranging unexpected places to forage for instrument parts. It never occurred to me to ever make instruments from car parts, at least not until the film company delivered me unexpectedly to a car breaker’s yard at seven in the morning. A Jaguar car bonnet eventually made it onto the stage riveted to a copper water tank as the soundboard of a Maggini-inspired double bass, whilst a sci-fi cello evolved from the fuel tank of a 1950s Land Rover: Doctor Who would be proud of it. Other things took shape: I chopped up an old filing cabinet to make another cello, with Bauhaus-inspired soundholes and entirely held together using bicycle inner tubes. Another was made from plywood, with papier-mache to stop it from splintering and impaling the musician half-way through the performance. The triumph was a double bass lashed together with parts of an old chest of drawers, a dinghy mast and an old zinc washtub. Overlooking minor playability issues – the neck was too thick, it’s a yacht mast: go figure – it made a phenomenal sound and hearing it solo in the opening bars of the overture brought tears to my eyes (and just about the rest of the audience, but for other reasons). Nevertheless, after the musicians had figured out how to play these instruments and the audience had got over their surprise, the success of the experiment was measured in their instantaneous standing applause. I’ve never seen quite such an ovation, and neither had many of the musicians in the orchestra.

Over a thousand hours of footage went into creating the film, and the producers had the unenviable task of finding the best parts for a 90 minute documentary. It was a shame that the sense of purpose with which we entered the project got lost. We had been inspired by township orchestras in South Africa which make do with home-made substitutes when necessary instruments were unavailable – could we do the same with our scrap? Despite our misgivings (and it is terribly easy to have them when you have trusted your soul to a bunch of reality TV producers) when the program aired before Christmas on BBC4 it got the highest viewing figures of any BBC classical music program in history. If it inspired one more person to listen to classical music or to learn an instrument that’s something to be proud of.

Watch the entire film on YouTube here: Scrapheap Orchestra

The Invention of Tradition: The Price of Stradivari Violins

Over ten years ago I penned a long essay about the invention of tradition and the price of Stradivari violins. I’m fascinated about how the market works and how prices have developed over time and think its important to go as far back to the beginning in order to gather context for the modern market. The purpose of the article was entirely academic for one of innumerable exams at Oxford University, and for that reason it goes into some things in an academic voice that is different from my preferred writing style and takes it’s style from Eric Hobsbawm’s remarkable methodology of “The Invention of Tradition”. A decade later, I think that most of my arguments still hold water, with some excruciating exceptions that serve to underline to me exactly how much I have learned in the intervening years. It seeks to understand Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume as an innovator in a market that ultimately lived up to his challenges.

The essay was published in 2011 in Tom Wilder (ed.) The Conservation, Restoration and Repair of Stringed Instruments and Their Bows. You can order a copy here.

You can read the entire text of the essay here for free.


Record Prices of the Past

The violin market is always looking to new world record prices as the inevitable progress of inflation mixes with the phenomenon of finite supply in a growing marketplace. However with the finest and most coveted instruments selling periodically for yet greater and unimaginable sums of money, it is easy for the market to become excitable and speculate about a trajectory far steeper than reality permits. In 2000, as the controversy over the “Messiah” Stradivari hit the headlines in the Times Newspaper, an interview with Charles Beare revealed the presence of customers in the marketplace willing to spend £10million to acquire the instrument, if only it were on the market. In 2010 Bein & Fushi put the 1741 “Vieuxtemps” del Gesu up for sale at an eyewatering $18million, and if that seemed an improbably high sum for the finest Guarneri on the market, it suddenly felt like reality when in the following year, the second-best Stradivari, the 1721 Lady Blunt made an astonishing $15.9million.

With these sales in mind, many in the market place are baying to see the $100million sale within our lifetimes, and new voices constantly try to compare the universally understood brand-impact of Stradivari with the likes of Van Gogh or Picasso whose entry-level paintings go for more than a handful of decent Strads. But a look back on history reveals how intimately connected the art and violin markets have always been, with paintings and instruments selling in the same sales to the same kinds of buyers, but over more than three-hundred years they have been consistently separate because they serve separate needs. This look into record prices of the past, written at the time of Tarisio’s historic sale of the Lady Blunt, is just a part of my ongoing research into the way the violin market developed. I apologise for the meaningless and misguided ‘conversions’ into real money: One of the many editorial interventions that make me nervous about writing for Strad Magazine.

Read on here: record instrument prices of the past

The Most Extraordinary Performance in the History of the Proms

Scrapheap Orchestra

The 2011 Proms season included a performance so secret that it was kept off the program, and many of the instruments kept under blankets until the moment of truth. Behind the scenes, the reasons for secrecy became ever more apparent. The concert wasn’t even televised in an embargo to keep the surprise till later. Instruments made by professional makers were to be played by the BBC Concert Orchestra. So far so good, but each of them was made entirely from scrap. As part of an audacious BBC documentary, it wasn’t clear until the morning’s soundcheck whether the project would be given the green light, with serious musical concerns about quality and integrity at stake. This was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 as you’ve never heard it before, but as the curiosity of the audience deepened, it proved to be everything that Roger Wright, director of the Proms had predicted – the most extraordinary performance in more than 120 years of history of the Proms.

This was the culmination of months of preparation for BBC Four’s 90 minute film, Scrapheap Orchestra. I made the cellos, and the double basses.

Listen here for the radio recording of the Proms perfomance. Sit back, let it warm up, and don’t mind the intonation. In the immortal words of Radio 3, “you need never fork out millions for a a Stradivarius again. Simply pop down to your local tip” – priceless: Click Here

Gasparo da Salo, Architect of Sound


The year 2009 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of Gasparo da Salo, one of the greatest makers of the sixteenth century, whose instruments influenced the future of the violin.

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the Architetto del Suono conference which took place at Salo, on the shores of Lake Garda – Gasparo’s birthplace. For the conference, my interest was in both the European influences that affected Gasparo’s work, and equally the way in which his instruments and those of other Northern Italian makers were received widely throughout Europe. Taking the countries, England and Spain, my chapter on this subject was published in the accompanying book.

The book is available here:  Gasparo da Salo, Architetto del Suono (Cremona Books, 2009)

The English original text for my chapter is available here: Brescia:Influence and Influences in England and Spain.

Treasure in a student bar



In 2009 I was asked to travel to Toronto to inspect a small collection of musical instruments owned by the university and displayed in a glass case over a fireplace in a bar. For years I had heard rumours about these instruments and suggestions that there might be more to them than meets the eye. A labelled bass viol was known to by (or at least labelled for) Joachim Tielke, the great Hamburg maker of the 1690s period. Others – well, who knew? My job was to value them, but also to make recommendations about whether they should remain behind glass, be played, or how to negotiate responsibly between the two.

The instruments turned out to be an extraordinary assemblage representing a chest of viols formed over a hundred years ago and bought by the University in their veneration of all things Shakespearian. The Tielke – as genuine – was exciting enough, but amongst the others were unexpected treasures. One tiny treble attributed to Carlo Bergonzi was by the Southwark maker, Henry Jaye who worked a stones-throw from Shakespeare’s haunts during his lifetime. Another all important instrument was by John Rose, made almost certainly in the 1590s, from Bridewell Palace. It is the best preserved of all his works, and the carving on the scroll is the best Elizabethan craftsmanship I’ve seen in any wooden medium. I was so impressed with it, that my photos became my logo.

To read more on the identification of these instruments: Rare Hart House viols to stage an appearance.

Stradivarius and why old violins are better than new


I once gave a lecture at Imperial College in London entitled “Science, Stradivari and Snake Oil Sellers”, exploring the publicity that scientists have gathered for themselves with theories about violins that are either poorly tested or sometimes spurious. Every year or so, someone or other backed by technology and funding of unimaginable scale comes out with a pet theory of one sort or another. When the world media reported that the mystery of Stradivari’s violins had been “solved” yet again, it deserved a common sense reply.

Read the Independent’s article of 2 July 2008 Solved: the mystery of why Stradivarius violins are best.

Read what I had to say about it: Stradivarius violins and why old violins are better than new.

Rare chance to try out a masterpiece.



It’s been a little while since I’ve been directly involved in a public sale of a Stradivari, in fact not since I was working with Kerry Keane at Christie’s in 2007. When I did, it got center-page coverage in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and various related American papers. The violin was the 1729 Ex-Murray Lambert. A beautiful and sensational late-period Strad.

Read the full article by Anthony Ramirez here: rare chance to try out a masterpiece.