Towards the end of the nineteenth-century the 1690 Tuscan Stradivari made for Cosimo III de Medici was the most famous violin in the world. Now an all but forgotten instrument, Benjamin Hebbert looks at it’s importance and some of the extraordinary copies made of it in by C.F. Langonet in the workshop of W.E. Hill & Sons.
The company of W.E. Hill & Sons started life in Wardour Street, London in 1880, taking secondary premises at 38 New Bond Street in 1882 and new purpose-built premises at 140 New Bond Street in 1895 where they established themselves as pre-eminent amongst all of the violin dealers in London. Location was everything for the Hills and in 140 New Bond Street; they had made a substantial coup, occupying the shop (now familiar as Zilli) directly opposite the front door of auctioneers, Sotheby’s. From this moment onwards, anybody connected to the art and antique trade had immediate access to a prestigious London violin-dealer. The bowed glass shop front gave space to more of a museum of instruments than a violin dealer plying their trade, all with the intention of making the Hill name known to the kind of people who may have an ‘old Cremona’ in the attic. This was the period of the ‘country-house Strad’ as traditional landed wealth gave way to new industrial wealth and bankrupt aristocrats began selling the treasures that had been amassed by their ancestors on the Grand Tour.
Throughout the early history of W.E. Hill & Sons, the firm had paid enormous deference to Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in Paris in a relationship that would eventually lead to their inheritance of the prime position in European violin dealing. This relationship meant that well into the 20th century they openly used the legacy of their relationship to enhance their own reputation, allowing it to become so strong an element of their own legendary position in the market that even in 1972 they were still hanging to the coat-tails of the legacy with their publication of Roger Milliant’s Jean-Baptiste Vuilllaume, sa vie et son oeuvre. As far back as 1862, William Ebsworth Hill had exhibited a quartet of bows at the Crystal Palace Exhibition (even though the bows led to an irreconcilable falling out with James Tubbs who had actually made them) and it was Vuillaume’s praise which served as the highest commercial endorsement and accolade for the Hill bow when they went into production many decades later. Vuillaume was far more integrated with the London violin trade than is first assumed as a result of his success at the various international Industrial Exhibitions in London, where he had won medals or served as Juror. At the time of the Special Loan Exhibition of Ancient Musical Instruments at the South Kensington Museum in 1872 – one of the several times he brought the Messie to London – it was he rather than any British violin dealer who had curated the violins in the exhibition. With the continuing Franco-Prussian War, the exile of Napoleon III and the anarchy of the Paris Commune, Vuillaume increasingly looked to abandoning Paris completely in favour of becoming London’s leading violin dealer. The increasing economic stability in France led to Vuillaume’s return and his death in 1875.
Vuillaume’s demise left Paris and the rest of the world without a clear successor to clearing the way for William Ebsworth Hill to build a business that would eventually take the lead throughout Europe and into the burgeoning economies of the wider English-speaking world. In the 1880s, no matter how hard the Hills worked to fulfil every aspect of Vuillaume’s reputation, one essential element was tantalisingly out of their grasp. The Messie had first arrived in London in 1862 for the World’s Exhibition at Crystal Palace; valued at 15,000 francs it took centre stage in the 1872 South Kensington Exhibition. After Vuillaume’s death it passed to his heirs and may have seemed destined to take it’s place in the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire, a fate that overcame the 1742 Alard del Gesu in 1888. For the Hills, the answer to the ‘Messie’ was to create their own legend around a violin of their own. At the time, the idea of the Golden Period was still very much in flux and it was the French, particularly Vuillaume who had focussed on the first decade of the eighteenth-century as the zenith of Stradivari’s achievement. George Hart coined the term ‘Golden Period’, but in their 1901 monograph on Stradivari, Hills were openly scornful of what they referred to as ‘The So-Called Golden Period’ a concept that they accepted ‘but not without considerable reservation’. Charles Reade, an influential figure in London society placed the 1720s as Stradivari’s ‘grandest epoch’, and for the Hills the years of ‘The Perfect Craftsman’ came earlier:
‘Stradivari had now reached the plenitude of his powers as a craftsman, for it cannot be questioned that in point of sharpness, accuracy and beauty of finish some examples of the years 1686, 1687, 1688, 1689, and 1690 stand unsurpassable. This is natural, when we consider that he was now in the prime of life. The perfect skill with which he handled his knife is seen in the cutting of the “f ” holes, the insertion of the purfling, and the carving of the heads. The finish throughout marks him as having been one of the most dexterous craftsmen the world has ever known, and we emphatically assert that no violin-maker has ever surpassed and few have equalled him No more unique example of his unrivalled finish of work exists than the “Tuscan” violin, made in 1690. It stands alone. Others equally fine were made, but the vicissitudes of time have not spared them to us.” W.E. Hill & Sons, Antonio Stradivari, 1901, p.42.
By focussing on pure craftsmanship and the logic that Stradivari was then in his prime of life, W. E. Hill & Sons were able to provide commentary that neatly placed the 1690 Tuscan as the greatest of all Stradivari violins. This contradicted the opinions of their nearest rivals – Hart, Vuillaume and Reade. This would change by 1901 when they wrote their monologue on Stradivari, but the fundamental respect for the period which produced the 1679 Hellier decorated violin and the 1690 Tuscan held a very special place for the Hills. Nevertheless as they came to dominate the market, they made efforts to retell history to rehabilitate Hart’s ‘Golden Period’ for their own commercial advantage without loosing the integrity of William Ebsworth Hill’s claims about the importance of violins made in Stradivari’s prime.
The Tuscan did not reach the serious attention of the Hills until 1888, but dramatic changes in the British musical landscape had been significant in the rise of W.E. Hill & Sons in the years preceding it’s acquisition. The move to Bond Street in 1882 had boldly separated W.E.Hill & Sons from the maze of violin dealers in and around Wardour Street, ensuring a new kind of market alongside dealers in the finest elements of grand aristocratic European culture from silversmiths to the dealers of old master paintings. Their shift in track was directly linked to the burgeoning popularity of amateur music making amongst London’s affluent society. The much awaited opening of the Royal Albert Hall, London’s first great concert hall for the masses took place in March 1871. From 1872 Sir Arthur Sullivan had conducted the Royal Orchestral Society, at the time London’s only standing orchestra apart from the Royal Philharmonic Society, but exclusively populated by amateurs led by it’s founder, the Duke of Edinburgh.
By 1880 the Royal Academy of Music had transformed from a fledgling organisation into an established teaching institution with more than 350 students. In South Kensington, the National Training School for Music was built alongside the Royal Albert Hall what is now the Royal College of Organists. As with the Royal Academy of Music it had categorically failed to differentiate between the needs of the scion of the rich industrialist family looking to perfect their social accomplishments in music from the requirements of professional training. Sir Arthur Sullivan resigned as it’s principal in 1882 and in the following year the Royal College of Music was formed under the directorship of Sir George Grove. The College still relied on 42 fee-paying places (largely string players, pianists and singers) to subsidise the fifty scholars (significantly wind and brass) elected by competition to become professional musicians. The ambitions of Hill & Sons directly followed the changing social climate of music during one of the most revolutionary points in the history of British music. They still didn’t own the Messie. As things looked in 1885 it was probably out of reach. However, W.E Hill & Sons fortunes changed favourable during 1888 with the opportunity to acquire the greatest Stradivari in the world, the near perfect example representing the most extraordinary period of the master’s workmanship and backed by a provenance that alone placed the Messie in the shadows. The peerless violin had not lain unplayed in the attic of a piedmontese tramp, as the Messie had done, neither did it have the dubious merit of being owned by the sometime-amateur-violin-playing aristocratic, horse-training great-great granddaughter of Lord Byron, Lady Blunt. Instead precisely the kind of ‘country-house Strad’ that the Hills had dreamed of came through their doors.
The violin had left Italy in 1793 in the hands of David Ker, an Irishman on the Grand Tour. Ker had little interest in violins, but clearly had more than an interest in the painter Angelica Kauffman, for whom he was sitting for a portrait. With her encouragement he bought the Stradivari for £24 from Giovanni Felice Mosell, a prominent composer and musician in the Tuscan court. He returned to Ireland with the violin and portrait alongside an art collection that included paintings by da Vinci and Raphael, acquired from the Pitti Palace. Once on home soil he put the violin safely aside and promptly forgot about it. With the passing of years Ker died, his house moved into other ownerships with only a family legend of a Stradivari lingering on. During ensuing years his family searched for the violin amongst the various houses that had belonged to them, eventually finding the violin in a house that was then owned by a book collector who, so engrossed in his hobby, was unaware of the instruments’ existence in the house.
In 1845 the Stradivari was rescued from a fire, which destroyed the family’s seat at Portavo, and sold to a family friend, F. Ricardo. Under his care it was brought to Paris, where it was setup by Vuillaume. “Mr. Ricardo was at first puzzled by its fresh appearance, but lost no times in taking it to the celebrated Parisian maker, Vuillaume. His old foreman examined it carefully, but would give no opinion; but on Vuillaume’s entrance, held it up and said: “Here! Monsieur Vuillaume, here is a Stradivari,” to which Vuillaume, without approaching nearer, replied at once: “Oui, certainment.” Hills relate the story of another occasion when it was shown to Fendt, who was reported to have exclaimed, “If it is not a Strad it is something better”. From Ricardo it passed back into the family in 1875 for £240 and in 1888 it arrived at W E Hills & Sons shop where they acquired it for a four-figure sum.
For the Hills they suddenly had a violin of their own that could be compared to the Messie in terms of craftsmanship and preservation, but this Stradivari offered more to them than just that. The letter accompanying the violin from 1794 stated that the violin had been made for Cosimo III Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Moreover their knowledge of the 1684 letter between the Marquis Ariberti and Stradivari ordering the quintet of instruments for the Medici court and Dom Desiderio Arisi’s mention of the order in his biography of Stradivari provided the highest standard of provenance. In their own words, the violin was representative of Stradivari’s highest powers as a maker, and it had been made for the most famous patrons of the arts in Italian history. This was the masthead violin that W.E.Hill & Sons had been dreaming of, with a provenance comprehendible to any connoisseur of art, whether they knew about music or not. The acquisition prompted the first monograph to be published on a single violin, The “Tuscan”. A short account of a violin by Stradivari made for Cosimo Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, dated 1690. The violin became central in promoting themselves as the world’s greatest violin dealers.
Ever mindful of taking Vuillaume’s lead, the Hills looked beyond the simple matter of owning the world’s greatest Stradivari and sought to find ways of making it translate into a powerful tool for reinforcing sales and reputation at every level. Just as Vuillaume had made copies of the Messie copies of the Tuscan became an important symbol for the Hill shop.
The majority of W E Hill & Sons violins were made after 1900 and production increased more-or-less in parallel with their bow production. Before this point violins were produced in very small numbers, with the suggestion that they were more ‘exhibition pieces’ intended to demonstrate the universal expertise of the firm than instruments intended for sale. Industrial exhibitions of the kind typified by Crystal Palace held a very important place in raising awareness of a brand, and since they concentrated on modern manufactured goods, it was essential to produce new instruments for the purpose. In 1885 W E Hill & Sons won gold medal for a quartet of instruments entered in the International Inventions Exhibition against altogether dubious competition. In the medals for a single violin the Glasgow maker, George Duncan won gold and Szepessy Bela took silver, but bronze medals went to significantly lesser makers, John Askew and William Pearce. Likewise Hills had beaten Jeffrey Gilbert into silver medal for a quartet of instruments with Walter H. Mayson and Emmanuel Whitmarsh taking bronze. Over-reliance on the medal rankings would produce a woefully distorted picture of British violin making at the time.
These may be the very first instruments made by W.E. Hill & Sons. A handful of violins with the label “William E Hill & Sons, Makers, Wardour Street, London 1887” also survive and it seems more than plausible that these were intended for exhibition at the Glasgow International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art held in 1888, which was the greatest exhibition of it’s kind to be held outside of London and the most significant international exhibition in Britain of the decade. Hills were certainly upping their game at the time, and 1887 is the same year that they commissioned the 12 ‘Apostles’ violin cases, each intended to house a golden-period Stradivari violin. Whatever the circumstances of this early batch of violins, the workmanship is very precise and it is possible that they were made as a joint project between several members of the workshop.
The very fine workmanship that we associate with Charles François Langonet can be seen in the backs and scrolls but the fronts have a tendency towards more sterile Mirecourt workmanship, suggesting another hand. It appears that the workshop made quite a high number of instruments in the white, leaving them to be labelled and varnished when they were required because instruments of this kind seem to appear with later forms of varnish even as late as 1909. Surprisingly the majority of these early instruments are made to a 356mm Stradivari long-pattern, perhaps intended to consciously differentiate Hill’s finest work from the endless Messie-derived violins that came over from France. Just as there are no W.E. Hill & Sons violins known to me before 1887, 1888 also seems to be a vacant year. The earliest numbered W.E. Hill & Sons violin that I have encountered (with a 38 New Bond Street label) is 13, an exhibition copy of the decorated Hellier Stradivari violin (featured in The British Violin). These instruments are amongst the very finest that the Hills produced, and stand out from the more typical Hill violins of the early 20th century. However, the acquisition of the Tuscan in 1888 seems to have inspired the Hills to go one step further.
Amongst the violin makers who appeared in the Hill workshop from France in 1880, Joseph Prunier, Joseph Maurice Somney and Leon-August Delunet. Charles François Langonet, the workshop foreman has the most prodigious reputation as a violin maker. The majority of craftsmen in the workshop appear to have spent their time working on restorations, although some clever Voller-like violins by Delunet appear from time to time. Langonet, by contrast couldn’t have been older than fourteen when he was singled out as ‘a future Stradivarius’ by Vuillaume; he was just nineteen years old when he entered the Hill workshop and became its foreman. Langonet never signed his work when he was at Hills, although from time to time instruments appear with an oral attribution provided by the Hills when they were first sold. Somewhat perversely the Hills worked hard to sustain Langonet’s reputation as their finest craftsman whilst making it almost impossible to identify his hand.
Back in 1855 when Vuillaume had travelled to Turin to purchase the Messie, he instantly began to produce copies of his prized violin. Evidently taking their lead from Vuillaume, in 1889 the Hills set about producing a series of stunning copies of the Tuscan. Given the extraordinary quality of these instruments, logic alone dictates that they were made by the man that Vuillaume had singled out as ‘a future Stradivarius’. Almost painfully detailed scroll carving resolving in an undersized eye seems to be a constant feature of his work, and very precise rounded edgework is another element that singles him out from most Mirecourt-trained makers. What is clear is that one particular hand is seen in Hills finest work, and it fits the legend that they allowed to grow around him. The Hills seem to have been aware that the use of conventional wood for their instruments could draw comparison to good French work of the time, so that the major differentiation of the Tuscan copies (and some other violins made by them) is the use of almost slab-cut wood as opposed to more strongly flamed cuts. The wood is particular to Hill work of this period (and possibly exclusive to Langonet), and it is even arguable that they thought it more refined than the choices available to Stradivari. Nevertheless, the one piece back follows the same density of flame that exists in the original violin.
Pins surprisingly are absent from the back. Once again at a time that understanding of Stradivari’s work was primitive, it is possible that the Hills considered them a blemish on Stradivari’s work that they could dispense with. In fact, the Tuscan is one of the few Stradivari violins where he too seems to have been conscious to keep them as discrete as possible. The top pin is completely hidden beneath the purfling and the lower pin is only slightly visible. Remembering that number 13 is a copy of the Hellier (and made in more the 1887 style), numbers 15, 16 and 18 are known to me and are all identical Tuscan copies, suggesting that maybe as few as five such instruments were ever made. These instruments come from a time when W.E. Hill & Sons seemed particularly self-conscious and anxious about the quality of workmanship, and there is much in this seemingly short-lived golden period that compares to their history of bow making, with the outstanding playing quality and technical perfection of Samuel Allen’s bows – essentially making more precise Tourte copies than Tourte ever made himself – finding itself absent from later generations of a more industrialised W.E Hill & Sons workshop at Hanwell.
The purpose of the 1889 Tuscan copies is also uncertain. The monologue about the Tuscan could only have been conceived of as a permanent calling card to demonstrate to achievement of Hills in bagging the greatest Stradivari the world had seen. It follows that Hills would have been happy to demonstrate their prowess as craftsmen through showing off their near-perfect copies alongside or in place of the original Stradivari violin. The uncompromisingly new appearance of the instruments, like that of the Tuscan itself, was out of keeping with most London instrument making of the period and would have probably resulted in a harder sale within a shop full of authentic and beautifully worn antique instruments. The answer to why they were made seems to be explained by William Ebsworth Hill’s commentary in the Tuscan monologue.
This remarkable instrument, one of the finest examples of Stradivari’s work, is probably unique in the preservation, in every detail, of the original beauty of its form and workmanship. The violins of Stradivari, like most other old works of art, have almost all suffered from the accidents of time. Even in exceptionally well-preserved instruments, cracks have appeared in the soft wood of the belly, the sound holes have often lost some of their accuracy of outline, and the varnish has been rubbed off the parts most exposed to wear. It has consequently been difficult to realise, even from the best specimens, how a violin looked and spoke when fresh from the hands of Stradivari. But the condition, in which this instrument has been preserved, for nearly two hundred years, enables us to stand, in imagination, as contemporaries of the great master, and to see and handle a violin just as it left his workshop.
Just as Vuillaume could express his fundamental understanding of Stradivari through his obsession with copying the Messie, W E Hill & Sons could claim the same through the Tuscan. By 1895 numbers on Hill violins had reached only 85, indicating that little more than ten violins were made every year. Cellos appear to have been on a different numbering system, and a fine forma-B cello from 1893 is numbered 15. As early as 1893 the Hills experimented with artificial dyes in their varnish, with the result that some of the best work has discoloured to become particularly lurid salmon-pink, diminishing the appeal of what is otherwise much of the finest Hill work ever produced. The 1889 Tuscan copies contrastingly remain compellingly close to the varnish of the original Stradivari violin.
In 1890, despite what must have seemed the near-certainty that it would have been gifted to the Museum of the Paris Conservatoire, Vuillaume’s heirs put the Messie up for sale and it became the property of W.E. Hill & Sons. The following year they published The Salabue Stradivari: A History and Critical Description of the Famous Violin, Commonly Called “le Messie”. The Hills seemed far less concerned about copying the Messie, perhaps so that their own copies of the Tuscan could stand against Vuillaume’s of the Messie. Perhaps also because the Messie was so widely copied by that point finding reincarnations both in trade Mirecourt work, and in copies produced by some of their London rivals such as G.A. Chanot that it lacked the significant distinction that the Hills were looking for. With the onset of 20th Century the Hills were in a dominant position in the London and European violin trade. The expense of producing uncompromising works seemed to be less important than simply producing better products than their competition. Langonet’s hand in Hill violins became rarer, and Hill violins tended to look more like improved versions of Mirecourt work rather than masterly copies of a Cremonese original. The short-lived golden-period in W. E. Hill &Sons violin making was over.
After 1890 when the Hills had the Messie in their possession, they changed their tune ever so slightly about when Stradivari made his best works. Their observations about ‘The Perfect Craftsman’ in Stradivari’s 1680-1690s period is still as acute today as it was when they wrote it in 1901, but Stradivari’s constant experimenting with the long-pattern and other forms makes this the most inconsistent period of his entire career. By contrast the ‘golden-period’ from around 1700 to 1720, with 1716 at the zenith proves explicable for a far more consistent and numerous period in Stradivari’s career. As a firm with a commercial sense, once they owned the Messie, it was a matter of time before they came around to Vuillaume and Hart’s way of thinking.
What was once the most important Stradivari violin in the world was sold successively by Hills to a number of the most famous collectors of the day – R.E. Brandt (1890), Charles Oldham (1904), F.Smith (1908), Richard Bennett (1918) and G.Kemp (1933). They bought it back in 1940 and in 1953 it was sold to the Italian Government. Under the guardianship of the Accademia S.Cecilia in Rome it was played by Gioconda di Vito and Pina Carmirelli and although it featured in the 1987 Cremona exhibition, it had become an increasingly overlooked violin given its previous importance. Whilst the tenore viola and cello from the 1690 commission are preserved in Florence (and the contralto viola in the Library of Congress with the last violin of the quintet unidentified), the Tuscan is now in the academy’s museum. It is less well preserved than when the Hills knew it in 1888, but is still one of the most important Stradivari violins in existence, made when Antonio Stradivari was in his prime. It is potentially the single-most significant waypoint in his departure from the Amati traditions that continued to dominate Cremonese thinking past 1690, and sharing the same proportions as the 1714 Dolphin, is one of the remarkable early violins (along with the 1679 Hellier) that anticipate many of the qualities that Stradivari would return to as consistent features in the best years of his Golden Period.