The Voller Brothers are famous as forgers and copyists, but their work takes many forms including some relatively ‘straight’ instruments. Ultimately for anyone making a serious judgement about what is and isn’t typical of their work ends up looking through an enormous array of techniques and characteristics of which very few may be detected on any particular violin. This relatively straight Stradivari copy came into the studio for certification. In this blog Benjamin Hebbert looks at the features that make it a relatively clean example of the Vollers work. It may be a plain and simple model, but as ever, nothing is straightforward about the world’s most devious forgers.
Over the years I’ve discovered more about the Voller Brothers and their unique way of working in Victorian and Edwardian London, with a growing perspective about the range of instruments that they made and that passed through their hands. The Vollers produced some of the most outstanding copies of famous Stradivari and Guarneri violins which sit at the very zenith of their work, and they also produced devious ‘forgeries’ always – or so I believe – working within the letter of the law, but taking advantage of the roguish elements of the violin trade, but they also did other things: sleights of hand that transformed one instrument into another on one hand, and more honest work on the other.
We have often spoken about how the collaborative nature of the workshop and the three brothers led to a beguiling mix of styles making one instrument unpredictably different from the next, but understanding their pragmatic approach towards the market adds even further dimensions to their work making it exponentially more difficult to categorise their work by a straightforward set of rules. Obviously the market is flexible to these grades of instruments, and an ordinary violin made by the Voller brothers comes at quite a different price to their convincing fakes or masterpiece copies. Buyer beware – it is best always to understand comparably priced instruments to see if you are being overcharged.
With these difficulties in mind, many violins have become ‘Vollers’ and over the years I’ve seen and heard of everything from genuine 18th century violins, over-restored instruments, and clever copies by makers from as far away Edinburgh, Berlin, Budapest and Prague given over to Voller because they exceed the normal expectation. Other times instruments that just cannot be placed in one city or another because of their deceptive qualities have been pigeonholed as Vollers because if their work is like a chameleon, constantly changing, these things are just as likely to be so – surely? Firmly No.
Then there are the other makers who shared cups of tea with the Voller brothers: The Frenchman Thomas Jacques Holder who made in London under the pseudonym Tommaso Giacommo Auldero, George Pyne, John Wilkinson all to an extent touch upon some of the tricks of the trade used by the Vollers, but yet again they are pragmatic which means that their more common work is less deceiving to the eye. George Wulme Hudson is a point of particular interest because he occasionally abandoned his typical way of making and produced things on the scale of the most difficult Voller violins. Repeatedly over the years I’ve been confronted with these Voller-quality Hudsons, where a little closer look normally settles the issue, but repeatedly I’ve seen these other English makers passing as Vollers, principally because their own work is good enough to meet the criteria, but that are otherwise firmly identifiable.
When I was writing for Tarisio on the wonderful 1710 Vieuxtemp Stradivari copy that they had for sale a few years back, something caught my eye as I compared the 1897 Voller copy with photographs published in Hamma’s Alt Meistergeige in the following year. Amongst the striking attention to detail including the slightly worn shoulder of the back, it was the crown on the button and the cut of wood for the modern neck that caught my attention the most – identical between copy and original. The obvious implication was that the Vollers had taken the conceit of using the same log for the neck of the original and the copy, something that was only really possible if they had been charged with its restoration. This had the result of opening up an entire new chapter in their work, understanding that some of their copies and fakes came from their additional work as restorers entrusted with everything including some of the great Stradivaris in circulation from London. There was clearly more to them than forgery alone.
About the same time a proposed Vincenzo Panormo violin came into the studio for examination. Dismissing it as a Panormo was the easy task, but determining what it actually was proved a little harder until noticing that the neck was characteristic of the Voller brothers, at which point most things were revealed as small knife marks were visible in the final turns of the corners, removing any of the original character that they one had. What was once a fairly typical Samuel Gilkes had its corners cut back enough to remove any particular characteristic rather than to add anything to the instrument. With a little more roughing up, and a label to complete it, the violin had turned into one of the fabled ‘billiard table’ Panormos (American sugar maple, which appears on works of a number of makers around 1810 is often and utterly erroneously given as the billiard table wood that Panormo used in Dublin). Literally six minutes in the Voller workshop had turned a perfectly decent violin into a dangerous fake that took another century to uncover. A good indication of the very fringes of their deceptive activity.
– the value of such a violin lies in what it is, the matter of who did what to it later on only adds a veneer of interest and ultimately devalues it a little.
Some steps towards an elementary understanding of Voller brothers work comes from the simplest of their instruments, and it would seem that on some occasions they would make unpretentious new instruments where they found a market for them. Sometimes these have labels for fratelli Voller and other times for Hart & Sons the London firm with which they were so closely and intimately connected. Hart & Sons labelled violins of this sort must be taken with caution. From experience, they appear in a variety of good quality German and French violins and it seems that as a merchant dabbling in new markets, Hart was willing to try out different sources of supply for his home-branded instruments. Moreover, these violins lead to a supply of Hart labels, which can find their way into other instruments in order to support a Voller attribution. However, from the early editions of The Strad Magazine from 1890, he warranted that the instruments sold under his name were genuine English work.
One such instrument came into the studio recently and after much thought and consultation, can be shown to be the simplest form of Voller production and although the label inside it was long ago destroyed it is similar both to ‘Voller fratelli‘ and Hart & Sons labelled violins that I have seen of late. (It is for sale, please email for further information). Of course, identifying their work is not done though a systematic list, but to explain the various stages of identification, a list is very helpful. In no way does this provide a comprehensive guide to being a Voller, famously that’s never possible with their work, but the resulting observations feed into an altogether broader field of observations that help to inform whether a violin is potentially a Voller, or whether the possibility can be dismissed. With the passage of time, it is difficult to know precisely what the Vollers (or Hart) intended for these instruments, but though the 1890s he ordered a series of deep red violins that have much of the character of Turin work, rather similar to the copies of Pressenda’s violins that Annibale Fagnola would begin to produce at the end of that decade.
Italian violin makers had fared well in the medals of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, leading directly to a market for them in London, and by the 1890s various dealers had established connections with prominent Italian makers whose instruments sold at a premium in England over those of native makers – the Vollers as well as John Wilkinson are amongst those who forged Giuseppe Rocca’s work to one level or another. It is tempting to put the violin in question alongside the likes of the Cremonese Enrico Ceruti, Rodolfo Fredi working in Rome at the time, or some of the cleaner Milanese work of the Antoniazzi family at a time when these could be found new in London shops. If an Italian violin of this level was selling for around £50, and a superior English violin of comparable quality around £15, there was plenty of scope in the market for enhanced English instruments of this type to double or triple their money in the void between these ranges. Hart & Sons offered guaranteed English violins for 12, 15, 20 and 25 guineas. This is not to detect copying but simply a level of aesthetic emulation intended to blend in amongst new Italian violins of the time. But what leads us to a Voller attribution in this case?
If the violin has an original neck, the Vollers are almost unique amongst violin makers for setting the neck into the mortise at 90 degrees to the top surface as opposed to perpendicular to the block itself. Of course they both grafted necks in their more complicated fakes, and grafted necks on instruments that may have passed innocently through their hands. Also, they are probably not the only people to do this, but as a general rule if the neck has a 90 degree setting, it’s worth taking a closer look.
This kind of thing may seem mildly trivial to a musician, but to a violin maker, the implications of putting a neck into a block one way or another are as fundamental to the whole system of making. My suspicion is that the Voller brothers made their instruments putting the back on last, in which case the neck elevation would be carved into the neck block and that would be inserted though and planed flat. A fast and expedient way of making violins, but at odds with most prevailing techniques that we know of today.
Some Voller scrolls are wickedly accurate and failing that, sufficiently off-piste that they don’t lead the eye in any single direction, but a surprising number of scrolls – perhaps the majority – have a very clunky over-sized feel to them, with this observation even extending to otherwise clever fakes, both rather inconsistent with the overall work, and rather odd in the hand when weighed against comparatively dainty French and German trade scrolls – it would be easy to suppose that these are trade scrolls except that they are too robust. Wulme Hudson made many of his violins with characteristic markings in the eye of the scroll which seem to have been a courtesy towards dealers that he knew to prevent them from mistaking his violins as something better. I have long speculated that the Vollers applied the same conceit as it seems difficult to otherwise understand why the scrolls are so often bulky, oversized and lacking in any particular charm. Examining the scroll from front and back often shows up the boxy feeling a little better than simply looking at it in profile view.
One trait that appears in this violin is the cutting of the corners, which the Vollers seem to do in order to eradicate personality within the violin, so that they don’t point towards a particular school of making. In this violin, the clean work makes it close enough to French instruments that in the 1890s it could have easily been compared to such things as the new violins made by J.B. Collin Mezin. Indeed, there seems to be a French connection with the Vollers, as occasionally one finds a pre-made set of Mirecourt ribs in an instrument, and with the employment opportunities in London and commercial links to Mirecourt, there is a good chance that the Vollers employed French workers at times.
None other than Alfred Hill and Guarnerius Withers were amongst the scions of English families of violin dealers who came to Mirecourt as lads to apprentice, and there were frequent advertisements in the Mirecourt newspapers for employment within the English trade.
The violin is of a Stradivari model, very likely derived from the 1710 Vieuxtemps, and given the general taste for Stradivari models, if it was made perfectly it would inevitably pass closer to the characteristics familiar of French work. Hence, perhaps the reason why the corners have been misshapen with a few deft cuts of a knife in the same way described of the Panormo violin above, but this time beneath the original undisturbed varnish. The edgework had been rounded before a knife was put to them, so the flattening out of the edges as well as the imperfect relationship to the purfling tells us an enormous amount about the maker’s intentions. These are the little things that show a watchful and experienced eye looking over the way things were made.
Another characteristic of Voller brothers violins is the use of ebony for the blacks of the purfling, and close up photographs show the characteristic lack of visible grain typical of this, whilst the middle of the pulling has flecking that is characteristic of beech. Ebony is hard and difficult to bend without splintering, so the Voller brothers success with it is a notable achievement in itself, but it is also why it is so rarely used when dyed poplar and similar treatments provide a better result. The Vollers preferred to use ebony because it does not discolour with the chemical treatments that they used to age the wood, and thus it becomes habitual of their making.
Antiquing is minimal on this violin, and what has been done is harder to detect than usual because of the lightness of the vanish, but the underlying ground is heavily pigmented, with a richer brown distributed over the violin in order to give it the appearance of wear. Curiously even when the Vollers were making copies of contemporary instruments they paid attention to light antiquing in order to give the instruments a little lift and interest by comparison to the many straight-varnished Italian violins of the period. One can perhaps see on the front of the violin that the chin wear on the lower bass side is exacerbated a little by the build up of pigmented varnish around its circumference. This build-up wouldn’t be there if the instrument had legitimately work down, and the same darker concentration of colour follows under the tailpiece once again in imitation of remnants of original varnish. A technique commonly known as ‘Betts Blush’ was applied to instruments early in the nineteenth century, where the addition of a transparent red varnish on top of a lighter original could sex up an instrument a little bit, and the characteristic of adding colour to create an antique effect remained in the English vocabulary of styles. Much of the craqueleur in the thin coats of darker varnish is indicative of a fairly fast process in which the ground layers dried faster than the final finish.
As with many Voller instruments, the details are fabulously observed. The button is very classic for Stradivari, and whilst these details don’t necessarily confirm an attribution, they are certainly helpful in separating the instrument from the generality of Stradivari copies of the period. One detail remains of curiosity, which is the purfling in the bottom rib. This is by no means a consistent feature of Vollers work, but it appears from time to time, just as it appears on older instruments where the ribs have had to be shortened in the process of restoration. In the 1890s or so, it would have been seen as evidence of a high class repair. It begs the question of this violin about how it started out in life. Often times, I’ve seen instruments by the Vollers that seem to have started out in one direction and ended up in another. Perhaps as ardent experimenters they were keen to try as many techniques as possible to fall on the right result, and conscious to make good on the work they put into their prototypes, recycling them into other kinds of instruments that could sell elsewhere in the market. Alongside great copies of the 1735 d’Egville Guarneri del Gesu, I have seen Voller brother violins purporting to be Giuseppe Rocca’s work, that are evidently tied to it. It seems eminently plausible that a violin like this followed the same course of history, starting out as a compelling copy of a great Stradivari, and either as a result of the general process or the experimental phases of violin making, it was put to one side and finished up in a modern way. It has no Cremonese pins in the back, which contradicts that supposition, but as always with the Voller brothers work, the questions it raises are all part of the process of detection, preparing the eye for the next problem when a totally different one comes to light.
The violin is for sale. Please contact me by Email for further particulars.
Not long ago I bought and sold a fabulous Hart & Sons Stradivari copy, but it remained in the studio for over a year whilst I gathered opinions about it. There are times when things don’t sit comfortably, and I took my time despite a heavy implication that it was another Voller. My English colleagues all saw the French characteristics in the making, but equally when I took it to French colleagues, all that they saw in it was English making especially in the way that the varnish was antiqued on the back. Sometimes things work like that. Meanwhile it was made at a time when Hart & Sons violins were guaranteed English made. It explains a lot about why I was well and truly on the fence with it. All this comes at a time when Edward Withers, another London dealer worked hard to promote his Cremonese oil varnish, which he seems to have applied to virtually anything, adding a label that gave the impression that it was a Withers violin if you didn’t ask too many questions.
I suppose I will always be somewhat on the fence with it, not knowing whether it was made by a Frenchman in England, or the result of a special order of violins made in the white in France and brought over to England for finishing. The violin had the Voller neck set (suggesting at best that part of an ideal setup included fitting the neck according to London standards), and whilst the varnish is in no way as subtle as that on the aforementioned instrument, there were profoundly similar approaches to the way that the varnish fell and the slightly saturated nature of the ground. That violin remains a mystery. In the end I sold it as a kind of Anglo-French instrument made for Hart & Sons but with firm boundaries to the extent of what could be said about it and a price to match my reservations. It goes to show that once you know a little bit about the Voller brothers, it is easy to become distracted and see their work in other places, and in this case whilst they quite probably did have a hand in putting the violin together, there is nothing Voller about the result.