Thomas Urquhart, a label with more than meets the eye…


The years surrounding the English Civil War, Interregnum and the Restoration of King Charles II are crucial in the development of English musical taste. Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of King Charles I) returned to France in 1646 and established a royalist-court-in-exile based around the Louvre in Paris. Prince Charles, her son followed her into exile in 1651, and for the next nine years he maintained strong connections to the French court, whilst his court-in-exile shifted from France and the Dutch Republic to the Spanish Netherlands as successive nations concluded treaties with the English Parliament. When Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate over England came to an end, the new King Charles II returned to the English throne having witnessed more of culture outside of England with his own eyes and ears than any other monarch before.

Jean-Baptiste_Lully_Nicolas_MignardWith the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came the re-establishment of royal musicians, whose English styles of playing were hopelessly outdated by comparison to the musical achievements of French court and it’s quatre-vingt violons du Roi under the baton of J.B. Lully (right) became the model most admired by the Restoration court (that is, until he struck himself in the foot with it, and died of gangrene in 1687). As Charles II reformed the royal musical establishment, the creation of his own band of four-and-twenty fiddlers became central to emulating the admired aspects of the French royal court. Hence, whilst the crown was quick to employ London’s finest violinists of the day, Thomas Baltzar and Davis Mell, the priority for developing the French taste in music led to John Bannister being sent to Paris in 1661 on the King’s command to attend Lully as his pupil. When he returned in 1662 he became leader of the royal band, establishing the foundations for royal music that survived of roughly half-a-century. Bannister’s own instruments were Cremonese violins which he paid forty pounds for during his time at the French court – a significant sum of roughly double the normal expenditure of an English court musician for a Cremonese violin. The warrant for his payment on 24 October 1662 survives in the Lord Chamberlain’s account books:

Warrant to pay £40 to John Bannister for two Cremona violins bought by him for His Majesty’s service, and £10 for strings for two whole years ending 24 June 1662.

Bannister may be the violinist in the foreground on the left of J.B. Medina’s Cabal painted in the early 1660s (below). For certain, the lanky and unkempt violinist to the right seems to correspond to descriptions of Thomas Baltzar, the Incomparable Lubicer who had arrived in England from Lubeck in 1656 and was replaced by Bannister as leader of the King’s private musicke in 1663. His reputation, like a proto-Paganini, was recorded by John Evelyn in 1656.

John Evelyn, Diary, 4 March 1656: This night I was invited by Mr. Rog: L’Estrange to heare the incomperable Lubicer on the Violin, his variety upon a few notes & plaine ground with that wonderfull dexterity, as was admirable, & though a very young man, yet so perfect & skillful as there was nothing so crosse & perplext, which being by our Artists, brought to him, which he did not at first sight, with ravishing sweetenesse & improvements, play off, to the astonishment of our best Masters: In Summ, he plaid on that single Instrument a full Consort, so as the rest, flung-downe their Instruments, as acknowledging a victor.

UrquhartThese circumstances give context to one of my favourite early English makers, Thomas Urquhart. Although his work is extraordinarily rare, I’ve been lucky to have several examples pass through my hands. The latest of these isn’t anything more than an original back and front, both of which have been ravaged by woodworm and are now coated with an opaque red varnish to helphide the nineteenth-century restorations. Yet, with a genuine label for 1663, it is the earliest dateable example that I have come across.

Thomas Urquhart is, in fact, one of the more famous early English makers. I think that his importance as one of the father-figures of English violin making is somewhat inaccurate. I’ll even go further and suggest that when William Sandys and Simon-Andrew Forster wrote the first comprehensive history of the violin in 1864, the idea of a Scottish-named violin maker holding such an important role appealed to the Forster family’s own sense of heritage: Having come from Brampton on the Scottish border to become an London’s most prestigious and influential dynasty of violin makers in the late-eighteenth-century, it was natural for them to promote a spiritual forbearer from a century before. Nevertheless, the violins by Urquhart that I have seem seem to constantly surprise me for their quality.

They are frequently a centimetre shorter than a modern violin, although the low-set bridge position means that they were intended to have a regular string length, and never feel like you are playing a fractional-sized violin. What astounds me most about his instruments are that despite an unashamedly vernacular outline, and distinctive soundholes, each instrument that I have seen seems to be an extraordinarily considered interpretation of earlier Cremonese instruments. The violin above which I sold last year (with an indistinct manuscript label) was immediately reminiscent of the 1574 Andrea Amati violin in the National Music Museum in South Dakota.

By contrast the 1663 violin has the kind of ‘pinched’ arching with markedly hollowed margins and a very pronounced rise of the belly. Once again this is completely characteristic of Cremonese violin making by the Amati family, but in this case very typical of Nicole Amati’s work from the 1640s and 1650s, suggesting that Urquhart was taking a relatively new Amati violin as his inspiration. In fact, the 1662 Nicolo Amati violin in the Royal Academy of Music collection provides a completely contemporaneous example of this kind.

There has been some discussion about the printed labels in Urquhart’s instruments, and some while ago it was noticed that in some examples a second line of text was just about visible, leading to the idea that these were fake labels, perhaps cut from a seventeenth-century book. This seemed all the more plausible since a famous Scottish writer and translator Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660), provided at least the potential to find this name printed in seventeenth-century type. To add to the level of doubt, labels as brief in their content as “Tho. Urquhart 1663″ seem to be suspiciously short by comparison to other makers of the period. Moreover, given the complexity of early English violins as well as there rarity, up until a decade ago I was more or less willing to wager that Urquhart was a complete invention of the Forster family.

urquhart labelsI’ve now seen three identical labels for 1663, 1665 and another that seems to have been re-dated several times over in the 1660s (6, 7 and 9 perhaps?) which all have the same characteristics, including identical fragments of the bottom line. The identical pattern of letters mean that it is implausible that these were cut from a book, as if it were the case, each of the three labels would have had to be cut from the same page of a different copy of the same book, and there is no evidence of ink seeping through from the other side of the page. Instead the pattern makes clear sense, with pattern “i_W_ft_i_ft__” for which the only possible reading would be “in Weftminfter” showing that Urquhart was active in Westminster when he labelled these instruments, perhaps the only violin maker working so close to the Chapel Royal in close communication with the royal musicians.

Why did Urquhart cut his labels in two? The most likely answer is that he provided some of his instruments for retail by other sellers in London and elsewhere. He was an important enough maker that there was reason for him to put his name on his labels. However, leaving his address on them would have put him in direct competition with the people trying to sell instruments on his behalf. Nevertheless, there is a peculiarity with these labels that in every example I have seen, the label is consistently cut just below the tips of the serifs. Just as it is possible to reconstruct the second line of text today, perhaps the rebellious element in Urquhart’s character is witnessed in leaving just enough evidence that an intelligent and observant customer could track him down.

PurcellHenry Purcell was born in Westminster in 1659, joined the chapel Royal in 1664, and when his voice broke in 1673 he was employed by John Hingeston within the royal court to assist him as “keeper, maker, mender repairer and tuner of regals, virginals, flutes and recorders and all other kind of wind instruments whatsoever”. Urquhart’s labels reportedly date to as late as 1681, so that the timelines of both are easily compatible. In the 1660s Urquhart’s geography and preponderance to copy Cremonese instruments places him close to the English royal court, making it highly likely that the two figures had some connection. Tantalisingly, given Purcell’s responsibility for recorders, a treble recorder survives in the Bate Collection at Oxford University that is entirely in the late-seventeenth-century style associated with Pierre Bressan who came to London in 1688. It is stamped “URQUHART”. Hence if any maker can be associated directly with Purcell, the circumstantial evidence sits wonderfully in Urquhart’s favour.


  1. Iain

    Hi. I have an Urquhart violin, from somewhere around 1680. I am trying to “meet” other sibling violins by Urquhart, so would be keen to share stories.


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