London’s Oldest Violin Shop?

Cathedral builders have a way of claiming the highest, the longest, the greatest volume, or area to make a claim to be the biggest, or at least the biggest at the time of completion, so semantics can go a long way. But as a unique architectural survival built in 1684, John Carr’s violin shop in the Middle Temple Gate deserves a respectable mention.

Fleet Street is full of landmarks from London’s musical past: A blue plaque marks the site of the Mitre Tavern where the diarist, Samuel Pepys, listened to John Bannister playing a concert in January 1660. The chiming clock at St Dunstan’s in the West was erected in 1671 to celebrate the church’s salvation from the Great Fire of London. It was the first public clock to have a minute hand, and the wooden characters of Gog and Magog venture out from the portico to strike the hour with their clubs. In its shadow, John Benson had been the principle stationer selling sheet music in London from 1635 and his apprentice John Playford became the most important music publisher in British history from 1651 until his death in 1687. The footings of his shop are still visible against the porch of the Temple Church.

Gog and Magog striking the bells at St Dunstan’s Church since 1671, whilst across the road John Bannister, leader of King Charles II’s private band performed in the 1650s to the delight of Samuel Pepys. 

John Carr and his wife Katherine appeared at a shop ‘between the two divels near Temple Bar’. By the time they established their business, John Playford already dominated music publishing, and sources from the period show that they considered each other as friends and colleagues. Roger North, Carr’s contemporary wrote that during his early years when he was a ‘young gentleman of the Midle Temple’ John Carr had ‘a secretary’s office … for wrighting the theatricall tunes to accomodate learners and country fiddlers’. Further sources date that recollection to 1669. Carr’s business changed dramatically in the years that followed: Whilst Playford’s musical publications were intended to a broad market and comprise relatively simple music, Carr’s publications from the 1670s were targeted for a far more virtuosic circle of wealthy amateurs. He is mostly known as a music publisher and would be almost completely unknown as an instrument dealer if it wasn’t for the extraordinary events of 1672.

From the MIddle Temple Gate to Temple Bar in 1760 and today. At the end of the seventeenth-century the shops in view were swarming with music sellers.

England was already gripped by the Third Anglo-Dutch War, and on 6 May 1672 the press-gang raided shops in Fleet Street during the mobilisation of the British fleet at Sole Bay. The confrontation between Katherine Carr and Richard Sadlington, Captain of the ‘Dartmouth’ – a 32-gun fifth-rate frigate survives in the State Papers. The deposition tells of how John Hudgebut, her ‘apprentice for the trade of instruments’ and the boy ‘Stipkin’ were pressed into the King’s service. She remonstrated with the captain, explaining that Stephkins was a musician and a servant of the King, but affairs turned to blackmail: ‘The Captain told her, if she would give him a violin out of her shop, he would release the prentice’. Remarkably, Katherine Carr held her ground, risking the fate of the two boys, betting that her connections would deliver them safely. Depositions to seek release from the press-gang are uncommon in the state papers, but by the end of the day she received audience from Prince Rupert of the Rhine and won their release. Hudgebut survived to become an important instrument dealer in his own right, and Stephkins followed his parents into becoming a prominent musician in London. In 1703 he formed a bond with the Italian nobleman Gaspar Visconti, and it was his sister who married Visconti and returned to Cremona (and whose name is found on some of Stradivari’s cello and viol patterns). As of Richard Sadlington and the Dartmouth, they survived the battle of Sole Bay, but it was a disaster for the Royal Navy and ended inconclusively with heavy losses for both sides.

Wilhelm van der Velde’s eyewitness painting of the sinking of the Royal James at the battle of Solebay, a sight narrowly avoided by Carr’s apprentice.

By the following year, Carr had brought in another apprentice, John Shaw, who would grow to become musical instrument maker in ordinary to the royal court. An advertisement from 1675 gives a taste of the concentration of the business. “Sold by John Carr, Musical Instrument-seller, at his Shop in the Temple Gate in Fleet Street. All sorts of Books, and Ruled Paper, Songs, and Aires Vocal and Instrumental ready prickt, Lutes, Viols, Violins, Gittars, Flageletts, Castinets, Strings, and all sorts of Musical Instruments”. However his interests appear to have directed themselves towards high-end instruments and antique instruments. The year after the publication of Thomas Mace’s ‘Musick’s Monument’ which claimed that old viols by Rose could sell for as much as £100 (Samuel Pepys had paid £3 for his in 1661, and a court musician would rarely pay more than £10), in 1677 he published an advert for the following:

“There is also Two Chests of Vials to be sold; one made by Mr. John Ross, who formerly lived in Bridewel, containing Two Trebles, Three Tenors, One Basse; The Chest was made in the Year 1598. The other Chest being made by Mr. Henry Smith, who formerly lived over against Hatton-House in Holbourn, containing Two Trebles, Two Tenors, Two Basses; The Chest was made in the Year 1633. Both these Chests are very Curious Work.”

The apprentice label of John Shaw, “Carved and made by John Shaw and sold by John Carr his master at the Middle Temple Gate in Fleete Street 1673”

Roger North’s relationship with Carr became increasingly important and is alluded to in North’s various writings on music. After experimenting together with etching, North’s influence led to Carr’s adoption of engraving as a means of publishing polyphonic music with double-stopping and articulation marks that had proven too challenging for ordinary moveable-type. This appeared in experimental form in the early 1670s but when Nicola Matteis arrived from Italy, having ‘travelled thro’ Germany on foot with his violin under a full coat at his back’, the system proved ideal for publishing his ‘Ayrs for Violin’ in 1676 marking a high-point in growing influence of Italian baroque idioms in England.


Roger North’s architectural plans for Middle Temple Gate (Sir John Soane’s Museum)

The relationship between North and Carr was literally set in stone (or more accurately, in brick) in 1684 when a fire in Middle Temple Lane destroyed Carr’s shop. By this time North as an ambitious barrister was secretary of the Middle Temple and charged with its upkeep, so the opportunity of rebuilding the Middle Temple Gate appealed to his dilettante whimsies. As an amateur architect, the opportunity for ornamenting the Temple with a Neo-Classical façade was too tempting and with Sir Christopher Wren as a friend, he was able to pass his designs through competent hands. The result predates the laying of the first stone of St Paul’s Cathedral by a year. Today the results seem unprepossessing. It stands exactly as it was 325 years ago, but now the neo-classical style that it triumphed has become the norm amongst its neighbours. At the time it was one of the most architecturally significant buildings of its day. With John and Katherine Carr as its sitting tenants, it became England’s oldest-standing and perhaps it’s only purpose-built violin shop.

With such a remarkable line-up of public figures embroiled in the fortunes of Carr’s music shop, it seems inevitable that Henry Purcell should make an appearance. He did following the rebuilding of the Middle Temple Gate, in the preface of ‘Comes Amores: or the Companion of Love’. Published in 1687. There are few more charming descriptions of daily life (or marital harmony) in the music shops of London as this:

Henry Purcell’s catch in honour of John Carr from ‘Comes Amores’, 1687.

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