Thomas Smith and the Apollo Belvedere: Neo-Classical violin making in Piccadilly.

As London’s population grew in the early eighteenth century, areas of Westminster between the Royal Palaces and the City of London became increasingly prominent. By the 1720s Piccadilly was one of the most fashionable new areas of London. In a rapidly developing cultural scene that emerged there, one violin head provides unexpected clues into the relationships between the Piccadilly violin makers and their wider cultural milieu. Benjamin Hebbert writes:

A full version of this article was published in Issue 96 of the British Violin Making Association Newsletter. Join the BVMA here. 

Screenshot 2020-01-02 14.51.15.png

St Paul’s Churchyard in the City of London enjoyed a supremacy in the late seventeenth century because of the complex interrelationship between the vicars choral of the Cathedral and the commercial nature of musical education, but the city was without significant professional music venues. To add to this, the ancient laws governing the City of London placed it beyond the direct rule of the monarch as it was effectively governed as its own Sovereign State. To this day, the Queen has to ask permission of the Lord Mayor at Temple Bar to enter the City of London. (It would be simplistic, but nonetheless accurate to compare it to the relationship of  The Vatican within Italy.) What this meant in practical terms for music and musicial instrument making was the conspicuous lack of royal patronage for musical institutions within the ‘Square Mile’. Hence the chief musical theatres that received royal patronage were out towards Westminster, benefitting from patronage led by the aristocracy that orbited the Royal Court, rather than from merchants bound by the ancient city regulations. 

06 Little theatre.jpg
View of the New Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 1821. The older theatre is next door to the left and in ruins.

To try to explain the relationship of theatre and the musical world more clearly it seems relevant to go back to the age of Cromwell when theatres were banned under Puritan laws. In 1660 Charles II reopened the theatres, but placed limits on “spoken drama” and “serious” plays because of the issues of sedition and censorship where they could serve as a political platform to air the grievances of the day. Hence the only Patent Theatres in London were the King’s Company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Duke of York’s Company at Lincoln’s Inn Fields respectively run by Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant. Although a series of changes in the law opened the field for spoken drama, it was ultimately not until in living memory – 1968, that censorship of plays was removed from direct royal control through the agency of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. 

The indirect effect of this legislation was that musical theatre in the form of pantomimes and commedia dell’arte flourished in the late seventeenth century because it served as a way to circumnavigate the strict censorship laws (just as in Paris of the eighteenth century the Concert Spirituele enabled musical performances outside of the system of royal patents by purporting to have a religious context). In turn, this set the groundwork for Italian opera to come to London. In 1705 Jakob Greber’s Gli Amore d’Ergasto opened at the newly founded Queen’s Theatre on Haymarket as the first season of Italian opera in England with an entirely Italian company of singers. Two years later, in order to protect the company from competition given the high costs difficulty in achieving commercial success for an opera company composed of highly paid Italian singers, the Lord Chamberlain ruled that “all Operas and other Musicall presentments be performed for the future only at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Hay Market”. Thereupon, the Haymarket became the epicentre of high musical culture for London setting the scene for Handel’s English debut of Rinaldo in 1711 and the establishment of his entirely Italian Royal Academy of Music that debuted in 1720. 

Roque piccadilly corrected.png
The violin makers in Piccadilly and Haymarket along with other notable musical and cultural neighbours.

Violin Makers in Piccadilly

For violin makers in London, a parallel timeline exists. John Barrett’s early career remains a mystery to us, but it is in 1713 that he appears in the Sun Fire Insurance records with a policy (3504, 8 December) giving him as “John Barret next the Standard in Picadilly in the Parish of St James Westm: com: Middx Musicall Instrumentmaker”. No instrument is known to me prior to 1720, although the Duke of Chandos had a double bass made by him listed in an inventory of that year. This is affixed by the number “16” in the place of a date, perhaps an indication that he was active as far back as the end of the preceding century, and it also begs questions about a direct relationship with the musicians of the opera, as to a great extent the purpose of the double bass in England at the time was bound within the professional instrumentalists required for the opera and operatically related music. 

03 Barrett label.jpg

The actual location of his shop is given in detail in his policy of 1735:  at which point it is described in a separate insurance policy as “a Brick house being now his Dwelling House and Situate at the Harp and Crown on the Northside of Coventry Street”. He was there until at least 1741 even though instruments from this last decade have proven to be elusive.

From 1724 Nathaniel Cross had some involvement with Barrett’s business, but it seems that the arrival of Peter Wamsley around 1726 to Piccadilly had both the effect of turning the area into a more lively part of the market, but also usurping Barrett’s place as the dominant maker for the area. Like Cross, early instruments by Wamsley lead to the hint of some kind of association with Barak Norman in the years prior to coming to Piccadilly. Wamsley’s shop, at “The Harp and Hautboy” was quite separate from that of Barrett’s and the Sun Fire Insurance records place it on the North side of Piccadilly within the parish of St James, and in 1764 as being close to Shug Lane (an abridgement of Sugerloaf Lane). When taken literally, addresses of Coventry Street and Shug Lane have the appearance of pushing their shops into the backstreets of Piccadilly, but in reality these were in sight of each other diagonally across the junction of Piccadilly and Haymarket which was already a significant  focal point within the  landscape of fasionable London., closer in spirit to the experience of Hogarth’s 1724 engraving of A Bad Taste of the Town.

Thomas Smith


If surviving musical instruments provide an accurate measure, the sheer number of examples by Peter Wamsley and his son (Peter II) suggest that they dominated the market, eventually taking the title of “musical Instrument Maker to his Highness, the Prince of Wales” as reported in his obituary in 1744. In 1751, when Thomas Smith took over the shop from Wamsley’s heirs, he was still able to maintain the patronage of key members of the Royal family, first of all the Duke of York, as given in his tradecard, and from 1768 he also appears in The Royal Kalendar and Court and City Register as musical instrument maker to the Royal Household. He retired from the business in 1782 moving to Marylebone where he died in 1789, the royal warrants passing to the Forster family about this time.  

To our modern tastes, Smith’s instruments don’t seem to be the obvious contenders to be held up as the best of 18th century making as we would expect from a recipient of royal patronage. On the face of it of the Piccadilly makers, Edmund Aireton was a more faithful copyist of Stainer whilst the Amati-derived ideas of Joseph Hill have had a greater value in the marketplace subsequently. 

A violoncello by Peter Wamsley, circa 1730, showing the deep red (presumably expensive) varnish characteristic of his earlier work. The purfling is immaculately painted on.

The luscious and rich red varnish that we see on early works by Wamsley disappeared by the time Smith was making, and many of his instruments are of a muddy brown colour. Part of the change of colour may possibly be availability and particuarly the cost of pigments, as these rich reds used by Edward Lewis, Richard Meares (II) and Wamsley in the early eighteenth century completly disappear from the English varnish repertoire somewhere around 1730, but they are also incongruous to the aim of emulating Stainer’s work and we tend to forget the rich brown colours that are found on the purer examples by Stainer (for example the viola, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art from about 1660).

Corner detail of a viola by Jacob Stainer, circa 1660 which I sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nevertheless, one cannot completely escape the problems of oxidising pigments within the varnish, and I think that the dull and muddy opacity that is found in certain examples of Smith’s varnish may have accrued over the years since they were made. 

Corner of the ‘Apollo’ violin by Thomas Smith. This has inlaid purfling but the wide white middle gives much the same visual impression as inked purfling used by him and by Wamsley.

Questions about quality are further raised because of his habit for using inked purfling on many of his instruments. It is so finely done, and imitates real purfling so precisely that it is difficult to understand why he did it in the first place. One feature that I have noticed is that the general scoop into the edge of the violin on his ink-purfled violins is much more fluid than it is on those that he purfled, suggesting a completely different approach to the arching despite them being otherwise sufficiently close as to be by the same hand. His cellos are of a rather small size, which has knocked his reputation in modern terms because they don’t make the money one would expect for an 18th century English cello. 

Detail of an ink-purfled violin by Thomas Smith.

His violins follow a rather individual take on the Stainer model, with exactly the same outline that is found in earlier violins by Wamsley, but typically there is much less scooping towards the edges, giving an almost Brescian arching (I say that highly reservedly, and with comparison to the general characteristics of Stainer copies, rather than as a direct comparison to Brescian instruments themselves) particularly with the long arch that rises steeply upwards from the purfling. The arching contributes to the laying of the f-holes which tend to feel quite widely spaced and upright, quite different from the London Stainer Pattern that was popular amongst makers in the City of London at that time. Most of Smith’s instruments have a couple of locating pins in the back of a size and style that is very similar to Cremonese work. I have even observed them bisected by the purfling in one or two examples, but they are ususally in the locations illustrated. I am yet to decide if this is a feature of all of them, for there are cellos that look very much like his work without them.

Burlington’s Academy of the ArtsBurlington house.jpeg

Burlington House as illustrated in Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus, 1715.

In 1719 the Earl of Burlington was a major donor to Handel’s enterprise of the Royal Academy of Music, and in the following year he created his informal ‘Academy of Arts’ at Burlington House that is immortalised within Hogarth’s engraving of a few years later. Within this he established his patronage of Colen Campbell, William Kent and Giovanni Baptista Guelfi representing the arts of architecture, painting and sculpure at the core of a much wider group, to which he added the patronage of the likes of Handel, Thomas Swift and Alexander Pope to represent the other arts. The Academy was one of several to appear at the time and like the theatres and opera houses, they were subject to competiting ideas and the competition of their patrons. The Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields was dominated by Hogarth – hence his satire on Burlington’s efforts, whilst Christopher Wren had kept his own circle. 

Burlington had begun to collect architectural drawings of Andrea Palladio as well as of the seventeenth century English neo-Palladian architects Inigo Jones and John Webb, viewing them as the foundations for a new architectural language for Britain. Whilst a neo-classical language had dominated the fifty churches laid out by Sir Christopher Wren following the Fire of London, the style (with a few notable exceptions) was slow to move into the grand buildings of the merchants and the aristocracy. Although it wouldn’t be until 1730 that Burlington’s Fabbriche Antiche disegnate da Andrea Palladio Vicento was published in England, through his collected academy, the establishment of a Neo-Classical style that dominated the Georgian period was well under way by the middle of the 1720s. 

gri_33125009082187_0013 (1 crop).jpg
The frontispiece of Burlington’s Fabbriche Antiche disegnate da Andrea Palladio Vicento, 1730

Burlington’s Palladio is intreresting in the light of the Thomas Smith violin featured in this article because it lays down the prototypes for the carving of the scroll, which is a combination of a Caryatid pose  and a likeness of the Greek God of music, Apollo, but in order to establish its pedigree, and hence identify the most probable carver, we begin in the years immediately before Burlington’s Palladio was published. Here, the sculptor Giovanni Baptista Guelfi along with Michael Rysbrack are implicated in the creation of portrait statues of Inigo Jones and Andrea Palladio for Burlington’s Palladian villa at Chiswick, the iconography for Palladio’s image seemingly emerging out of the imagination of the Burlington circle. Both images were reproduced several times in full form and as portrait busts. The image itself reappears in 1730, forrmalised as the portrait at the centre of a frontispiece designed for Burlington’s Palladio by William Kent, incorportating it within a monumental frame with the pediment supported on either side by Caryatid figures. 

John Boson and G.B. Guelfi’s monument to Anne Duchess of Richmond, 1734

Here we begin to see the nature of Burlington’s nurturing of artists within his milieu, for in 1734 we find a variant of his frontispiece in the funerary monument (at Deene in Northamptonshire) made for Anne, Duchess of Richmond, one of the few signed works by the carver John Boson. Here the bust of Palladio is substitued by one carved by Guelfi of the duchess, but the moment itself is signed “I[oan]nes Boson Anglus Sculpsit / Andreas Pallad[io] Vincentinus Invent”. Bosun himself was another craftsman who came under the umbrella of Burlington’s Academy of the Arts. Having established his career in the Deptford Shipyards, and produced ecclesiastical furniture for Hawksmoor’s five new churches as well as for his work on Westminster Abbey, he had come to the attention of the Pirince of Wales and therafter under Burlington’s gaze as an effective craftsman to accomplish the designs created by William Kent. By 1735  he had moved to a Palladian villa designed by Kent and leased from the Earl of Burlington at 22/23 Savile Row which served as his workshop and residence. 

Like Thomas Chippendale a generation later, Boson’s work is mostly known from receipts and other ephemeral documents connected to his work, whilst his reasonably short life meant that he was unable to expand his oeuvre to a point that it would be better recognised, but various themes within William Kent’s designs seem to be consistent in works that Boson realised. Amonsgt these, the Caryartid head seems to have formed a consistent theme. The Maidens of Karyai  whose most famous appearance in classical sculpture is the porch of the Erechtheion of the Acropolis in Athens. Two possibilities emerge for the development of this trope. The sophisticated reason was that it led to a completely different perspective to classical sculpture from that which existed in conventional Greek and Roman portraiture because the features were carved to be seen from below the line of sight in the cases of console tables, stands of various sorts and altars, or from above the line of sight as we see in picture frames. More prosaically, the second reason may simply have been that English decorative arts of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period was heaving with anthropomorphic pillars on all kinds of interior furnishings, so the theme allowed an easy Classicisation of a familiar English trope. Thematically, Kent was interested in extending the theme to a broader range of subjects including Diana, Goddess of Hunting and as we shall also see in Boson’s hand, angels supporting the altar of the Royal Naval Chapel in Greenwich. 

Boson RN chap.JPG
Detail of the angels supporting the altar of the Royal Naval Chapel in Greenwich, carved by John Boson.


The Apollo head. 

In the head of the Thomas Smith violin we see a nod towards violin making tradition with the flattened ovaloid scrolls that frame the carved head. This particular form is unusual in classical architecture and enters into the English repertoire through Inigo Jones in the 1620s, before getting picked up by Christopher Wren and heavily used within his churches, thence becoming almost a characteristic of English repertoire, especially as part of s-shaped supports and pediments, of which the curving of the pegbox is reminiscent. 75485155_2756386497718140_8671187242867228672_o.jpg

The head itself is framed by a trianglular pediment comprised of two c-shaped curves. These again have some interest, not simply for framing the head in a manner that directs us back to Neo-Classical tropes, but the c-shaped swirls appear both in William Kent’s repertoire and are one of two features that binds the design of the head to Smith’s rather grand engraved trade card, in which the cartouche is framed in swirls of the same form.  


Boson Kent.jpg

When we consider the facial features of the Thomas Smith violin, the first consideration is the poor proportions that appear when it is looked on directly as one would   in a conventional photograph, or even observing it along the fingerboard as one would when playing. This is in common with much classical scultulpture, which is intended to be viewed from given angles, for example statues intended to be on high pediments or above the roofline of a building, which fall into a better perspective when seen from the ground. This illusion works well with this head and it becomes clear that the visual emphasis is upon the viewer of the instrument when it is being played, at which point virtually every angle in profile produces a compelling sculptural image. Within this, the broad symmetrical design is very much of John Boson’s style. Most recognised examples are much larger, but the gilded angels supporting the Kent-designed altar of the Royal Naval Chapel in Greenwich are only about double the size, and provide a striking concordance to the head. 

On the face of it, there is difficulty in even  suggesting whether the face is male or female, because of it’s smooth and symmetrical appearance, and with carved heads in general there is by no means any certainty that they can be identified as a particular sitter: in some cases the proposed subject may have been obvious to past generations but their meaning becomes lost in time, and for others it may have been enough simply to have a face carved onto them, and we are overstating the circumstances to expect that they had meaning. 

In this example there are three elements that suggest the possibility of an identification for the head. There are obvious ‘rays of light’ from behind the head. These are not present in any classical reference, and are quite unusual although obviously a reference to the nature of Apollo as  deity. Interestingly they do appear on the engraved trade card of Thomas Smith behind the head of Apollo at the top of the image. 


Whilst the swirls and the rays of light have the added benefit of locating the head and the tradecard in the same context, in terms of understanding the original iconographical reference for the head, and affirming its identity as Apollo, we find the required evidence within the characteristics of the hair, which is carved with very deep incisions. At the top it is bunched into a bow, and the the hair is quite prominent in the way that it follows the jaw line. The latter feature is of particular interest because it would simply be easier to carve the head without it. It’s presence implies intention, and where intention is present, in turn this implies that there is a probable  theme for the head. 

04 Smith trade card.jpg
Thomas Smith’s tradecard from about 1750. The image of Apollo has the same rays of light found on the carved head.

Given the neo-classical nature of the whole, the immediate point of investigation would be the well known statues from antiquity. Over the centuries from the early Renaissance, successive artists had visited Rome and taken inspiration from the Vatican collections. Many drawings exist, as well as copies and casts of famous sculptures, and more importantly some of these drawings made their way into print form as etchings and engravings, assisting in their wide dispersal around Europe. Hence, the logical starting point is the Vatican collections, and the rational starting point is Apollo and specifically the Apollo Belvedere as it was known from artist’s drawings and engravings. The statue itself had been rediscovered in the mid-15th century, and had been placed on semi-public display in 1511 at the Cortile del Belvedere in the Vatican. Although it was a Roman statue from the period of Emperor Hadrian (the sandals give it away) with the rise of criticism of classical sculpure in the eighteenth century, it had become recognised as the epitome of the ideals of classical perfection (holding very much the place in Classical sculpture that is given over to Michelangelo’s David in our appreciation of Renaissance art). 

The Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican Collections

Back in London, the Apollo Belvedere was already within the repertoire particular to William Kent and John Boson. One dessigned and the other worked on the improvements to Kensington Palace commissioned by Frederick Prince of Wales. The Cupola Room includes a number of alcoves with prominent gilded statues that include one of the god Apollo. The Apollo Belvedere is Apollo the hunter, with a long-lost bow in his hand and quiver of arrows on his back, but this explains why his hair is bunched up so that it is clear of his face. Whilst Kent’s image is simplified  to become Apollo the musician, contorted to hold a lyre, neverthless the torso and head clearly take the specific characteristics of the hunting Apollo Belvedere as their prototype. Hence for the cognoscenti of the day, the mutton chops and man bun had specific meaning in reconciling the identity of the scroll.  

0 apollo .jpg
A contemporary English engraving of the Apollo Belvedere for Richard Mead, the King’s Physician, one of the founders of the Foundling Hospital, and a noted antiquarian.

George Vertue said of Boson that he was ‘a man of great ingenuity and undertook great works in his way for the prime people of quality and made his fortune well in the world. He died young in 1743 before he had properly made his reputation independently of Kent and the commissions of Wren and Hawksmoor that had seen his work within the new churches of London. In addition there are reportedly only seven works by him that have their original receipts aside from the Countess of Richmond’s tomb, which means that any kind of  certain identification of his hand is optimistic, but the point to this is to identify the violin head as in his style and within a repertoire that developed from his association with William Kent. 

William Kent died in 1748 and Richard Boyle 3rd Earl of Burlington, often referred to as the “Apollo of the Arts”, died in 1753. Other craftsmen continued in the William Kent style. In particular Benjamin Goodison, the royal cabinet maker to King George II produced work in the same distinctive style all the way up to his death in 1767, but at the same time this heavier style of Neo-Classical work was being challenged by the likes of Thomas Chippendale who published his Gentleman’s and Furniture Maker’s Directory in 1754, the same year that the young architect Robert Adam left for Rome, his work upon his return representing a further quantum leap in the fashions of London. 

This provokes an irreconcilable problem for the head of the Thomas Smith violin, for the syle and design for uncomfortably with Thomas Smith’s period of activity from 1751 to 1781 as the owner of the violin shop at the Harp and Hautboy on Piccadilly. It is not beyond reason to suggest that the actual carver may have been someone like Benjamin Goodison, but it nevertheless feels as if it appealing to an antiquated aesthetic for the period in question. Possibly the violin is evidence that Smith’s hand and approach to instruments exists from before the time that he took over the workshop, with the label retrospectively added after 1751 to assert his authorship – certainly a point worth considering in the light of other instruments with Wamsley labels that are closer to Smith’s work than to the earlier forms by Wamsley. Lastly it is simply possible that the head, carved in the 1720-40 period was inhertied from Wamsley’s shop and used on this violin. Maybe it served as one further nod to the Apollo which formed a part of the identity on his trade card. We cannot tell.

The “Apollo” violin by Thomas Smith

There is a postscript to this, and before this violin was discovered, John Boson had been a significant part of another article that I have written for the BVMA Newsletter. His will provides a provision for his lover, the actress Mary Norman. With this in mind, the story of this scroll and the associations between violin makers and the wider milieu of the arts in eighteenth century London turns full circle (read a fortune of a fiddle-maker’s daughter here):  

I do give and bequeath unto Mary Norman Daughter of Barak Norman late of St Pauls Church Yard London Musical Instrument Maker deceased all such my goods and chattels as shall be in and about my dwelling house and the appartments thereunto belonging at St Ann’s Hill near Chertsey in the county of Surry at the time of my decease and I do further give and bequeath unto the said Mary Norman the sum of Five hundred pounds to be paid her within twelve months next after my decease by my said trustees above named and my will is that fifteen pounds be yearly paid to or for each and every child of the said Mary Norman yet unborn and that shall be born before the expiration of nine months next after my decease for and during and until such child or children shall attain the age of fourteen years and then the said annuity or yearly payment shall cease and in lieu thereof my will is that my said trustees shall and do pay or allow to or for each child the sum of fifty pounds to place him or her out apprentice or otherwise according to the discretion of my said trustees or the majority of them…

Gosh I really do love postscripts… read on… 

One thing I have come to love about research is the chance that you are out of date the second you publish. Someone, somewhere will have that vital piece of information that eluded you. Sometimes it is enough to defeat a well constructed hypothesis and sometimes it pulls things together and amplifies them in exciting ways. I love Sir John Soane’s Museum, and have been there dozens of times, but it never occurred to me that the plaster cast of the Belvedere Apollo was any older than his own visit to Italy on the Grand Tour in 1770. It helps if you look at the labels (or listen to the wonderful guards in the museum). “Cast of the Apollo Belvidere, taken from the antique statue itself, brought to England by the late Earl of Burlington, by whom it was placed in his celebrated Villa at Chiswick. It was subsequently given to the late Mr. John White, who presented it to me.” Hence the cast is thought to date from Burlington’s 1719 Grand Tour, providing precisely the three-dimensional prototype from which the head of the violin was formed: the engravings and other paper matter not quite convincing or coherent enough to provide the level of tangible detail of the Roman original that is also found in the violin head. To make things more fun, John Boson, as an original member of the Sublime Society of the Beef Steaks, along with William Hogarth whose Rakes Progress lives in the adjoining room, means that I am now hopeful of ways to reunite this violin with the things from its environment in some musical way as soon as the gods allow.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s