The ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivarius violin, Cremona, 1721

The 'Lady Blunt' owes its astonishingly pure condition to a series of responsible owners. We look at the history behind this legendary instrument

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The tailpiece by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume depicting St Cecil, patron-saint of music

Along with the ‘Messie’ of 1716, the 1721 ‘Lady Blunt’ stands above all other Stradivari violins in terms of its survival in near-perfect, original condition. In a way, the mythology that surrounds these two violins tends to overwhelm the objects themselves. It is, indeed, a rare privilege for any violinist, maker, expert or enthusiast to view and examine such an astonishing violin. At that moment, the words vanish and the violin proceeds to tell its own incredible story.

The ‘Lady Blunt’ has been cared for by several of the most responsible collectors and experts in history. Today it appears much as it did when it left the famous collection of the Parisian dealer and maker, Jean Baptiste Vuillaume in 1864, and still bears the ornamented pegs and tailpiece made in his workshop. Vuillaume wrote to the collector, C.H.C. Plowden in that year:

… as for myself, I am always on the lookout for fine instruments, they come and they go, that is business but when I possess fine examples I like to keep them as long as possible because I love them. At the present time, as extras, I have the Messie, an Amati, and a Guarnerius. All these are, however, beside the point; the most remarkable that I possess is a Stradivarius that is in new condition almost like the Messie. It is a rare discovery. This violin was brought to me from Spain in an unheard of condition with the neck, fingerboard and bass bar of Stradivari. It had never been opened, the reason being it had reposed, forgotten, in an attic for over 100 years… (translation)

Like the ‘Messie’ the ‘Lady Blunt’ has had its original neck extended at the heel by Vuillaume, who was careful to leave the top untouched without mortising the edge as is more common but also more destructive to the original. Vuillaume carefully retained the Stradivari fingerboard, which has remained with the violin and shows unworn deposits of Stradivari varnish collected on its edges. He also replaced the bass bar with a longer, modern version, but retained the original, which also remains with the violin. Like the ‘Messie’, the ‘Lady Blunt’s edges, corners and channelling allow us to observe the maker’s tool artifacts unaltered by any wear. Both violins have an almost unworn, full and magnificent varnish that looks as if it could have been brushed on 50 years ago.

Inside the pegbox, at the base of the mortise, is the maker’s inscription “P G” which indicates the violin was built on the “P G” form. In the past, this inscription has been thought to be the initials of Paolo Stradivari but more recent scholars have demonstrated otherwise. The handwriting and letter form of the “P G” in the pegbox of the ‘Lady Blunt’ exactly match the inscription on the “P G” Stradivari form exhibited in the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona. The “PG” (MS21) along with the “G” (MS49) were the largest two violin forms Stradivari used during his mature years. The violins built on these forms are universally considered the most desirable.

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Originally thought to have been “PS”, the inscription to the inside of the pegbox is now understood as “PG”, indicating the form on which the violin was made

Of course, Stradivari’s violins have gained their fame not just for their appearance, but especially for their unparalleled tonal merits. Very little has been written about the sound of the ‘Lady Blunt’, but this is notsurprising as it is one of the few Stradivaris which, thankfully, has not been put to regular use. The violin retains its 19th-century set-up and even the bridge remains from W.E. Hill & Sons, who have been most closely associated with the violin since they first purchased it in 1896.

We are fortunate that the ‘Lady Blunt’ has experienced few of the deleterious effects of constant playing that most 18th-century violins have suffered. Perspiration, wear, accidents, and unscrupulous repairs – even the most careful of musicians will leave his or her mark on a violin over the years. It is common knowledge that violins sound at their best when they are played regularly but the notion that they will spoil when they are unplayed is fortunately a myth. We are indeed lucky that the ‘Lady Blunt’ has been so well preserved and retains its full acoustic potential for future generations.

The known history of the ‘Lady Blunt’ continued with its sale by Vuillaume on the recommendation of Leopold Jansa to his student, the Lady Anne Blunt, daughter of the Earl of Lovelace and granddaughter of Lord Byron. Lady Blunt treasured her violin for over 30 years and sold it finally through Emil Hamma to the German dealer Edler in 1895 just prior to his death. It was purchased by W.E. Hill & Sons the following year and sold immediately to their most important client, the collector Baron Johann Knoop. Arthur Hill wrote in his diary at that time:

Baron Knoop has purchased from us the Strad violin that reminds us so much of the ‘Messie’, as the varnish is of similar colour. It is in a very fine state, and for years we have cast longing eyes upon it. It is dated 1721, and Lady Anne Blunt bought it off Vuillaume of Paris. We have made drawings of the original fingerboard and bar of the violin, which are fortunately preserved for our Strad book.

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The original button, traces of the original iron nails used to secure the neck to the upper block and the locating pin beneath the path of the purfling

Knoop parted with the violin in 1900 and shortly thereafter it was sold by Hills to Mr J.E. Street of Caterham, a celebrated amateur violinist and underwriter of Lloyds. Street purchased the violin for his son Edmund, who was a promising young violinist. The younger Street tragically died in the First World War and thereafter the violin was sold again by Hills in 1915 to the most important collector of his time, Richard Bennett. On Bennett’s death in 1930 the violin was purchased by Hills and remained in their collection until 1941 when they sold it through the dealer Robert Bower to the Swiss dealer and collector Henry Werro in whose possession it remained for nearly 20 years. Werro produced a small monograph on the violin of which only 200 copies were published. It was next sold in 1959, again by Hills, to the noted American collector, Sam Bloomfield of California, who later offered it in 1971 at Sotheby’s auction. It sold then for the record price of £84,500.00 ($200,000 at the time) to Hills on behalf of Robin Loh, the collector of Singapore. Loh lent the violin to the 1987 Stradivari exhibition in Cremona organized by Charles Beare and kept the violin until 2000, when it was sold by Andrew Hill to a private collector.

The violin was more recently sold to the Nippon Foundation again by their advisor, Andrew Hill, and sold on their behalf by Tarisio in 2011 for an again record price of £9.8 million ($15.9 million). All proceeds went to benefit the victims of the Japanese tsunami and earthquake.

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The ‘Lady Blunt’ bears no neck mortise and the top edge remains uncut. The neck is original and has been re-angled at the heel by J.B. Vuillaume

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