The Nippon Music Foundation and the ‘Lady Blunt’

By Andrew Hill

The Hill family has been in the instrument business for nearly 400 years.  Mr. Andrew Hill, The Nippon Music Foundation’s instrument advisor, as he himself has said, had a slightly unusual career so far; he has served as President of the British Antique Dealers’ Association, as President of the International Confederation of Negotiators in Works of Art (CINOA) and also President of the International Society of Master Violin and Bow Makers. He started as an apprentice, at the bench in the Hill firm over fifty years ago, spending a year in the Paris workshop of Etienne Vatelot in 1960.

The accompanying presentation case by W.E. Hill & Sons, London.

Writing this article reminds me that it is some seventeen years since my first meeting with representatives of the Foundation, when the aims of the organisation were outlined to me; since that time the Foundation has acquired a fascinating collection of instruments.  Some of them are old friends from long back, others heard of but never seen by me before, out of reach perhaps, in foreign lands.

If we go back 150 years in time, when some Stradivaris were already two hundred years old, all the major instruments would be found in France or England.  The two countries had the wealth and interest in music that allowed violinmaking and particularly dealing to flourish, and all the knowledge and instruments were to be found in Paris and London.  The market in the USA was still in its infancy, China and Japan were closed communities to the rest of the world, but with the turn of the century, it all began to change.   I understand that Western Music was first introduced to Japan during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).  It is surprising to think that then the fastest means of travel was a train hauled by a steam locomotive, cars scarcely existed other than as a sort of ‘horseless carriage’ and flight was still some years off, but by 1914 that had been conquered.  Europe spent its wealth on conflict, and the 1920’s saw an accelerating trend for the musical instruments to travel west, and by the end of the 1930’s they were taking to the skies as well.  The world had become a smaller place, demand for the best instruments was rising; Mussolini, the Italian dictator was trying to buy the 1690 ‘Tuscan’ Stradivari from W E Hill & Sons, but it all went wrong again in 1939 and Europe bankrupted itself in vicious conflict once more.  After 1945, the trend for exports from Europe to the USA intensified, and more and more instruments emigrated to wealthier climes; there was no real money left in England and elsewhere to keep them, and gradually all the patrimony became depleted.

During the period of 1850 to 1950, the inheritance of fine violins and other instruments, had been carefully nurtured, largely as a result of discerning collectors and responsible makers and dealers; in the Hill firm, I can think of many examples of my sernios saying that ‘so-and-so’ should not be shown that fiddle, ‘he will only wreck it.’  What they were foreseeing, was that insensitive hands would mistreat something superb that had come through the previous three centuries virtually unscathed; all the training and tradition was aimed at preserving the instruments above all else.  Never was the expression ‘if it isn’t broken, do not fix it’ more apt, coupled with the constant reminder that we are all only temporary custodians, and therefore there is a duty of care that falls on all of us.  Sad to say, there have been recent instances where thicknesses of the top or bottom plates have been reduced, because some idiot thinks he knows better than Stradivari or Guarneri, examples of whose instruments have indeed been vandalised, for that is what it is.

Unfortunately, accidents do occur, which is another matter, and in much the same way that we seek expert advice from a specialist if we need complicated dental treatment, or have suffered a broken limb, so it is with any violin restoration work; you try and see the top person for whatever is needed.  The very best instruments must have experienced hands to look after them, and this is one of the subjects that occupies much time in the International Society of Master Violin and Bowmakers; to try and encourage suitable youngsters with the necessary ability to develop their expertise.

The years from 1945 onwards have seen an increasing interest in music, shared throughout the world; increasing prosperity in countries that had no previous instrument market, has led to increasing demand; sadly inevitable that the greater the demand, the greater becomes the pressure on prices; not very encouraging for an aspiring student with their career in front of them.

People often ask what is involved in looking after such valuable art objects, and the answer is common-sense, really; never put away an instrument in its case before it has had the rosin dust lightly removed, do not handle it other than by the neck, do not allow any fluids such as perspiration to get on the varnish.  It is also a good plan to show it to an experienced maker who will see if there is anything likely to need attention in the near future, such as correcting wear on the ebony finger-board.  Sometimes the pressure on young artists leads them to take short cuts with the proper care of their instruments, which brings us back to the beginning of this article.

The bridge, bearing the stamp of W.E. Hill & Sons, London.

What was impressive to me when first hearing of the Foundation’s aims, was the generosity of buying and lending out superior instruments to younger players to help with their career development, but at the same time, insisting that the instruments had to be properly looked after and cherished; and it was the preservation element that made me realise what had been missing before.  This has required a truly immense effort in time and money on the part of the Foundation, for which we and the instruments should be profoundly grateful.

Some of the highlights over the last seventeen years have been the ex Heifetz ‘Dolphin’ of 1714, which is one of the most outstanding Stradivaris, and the 1830, ex Feuermann violin cello.  When acquired, it was understood that it would have to come to pieces to correct some slight deformation in the rib at the bottom edge, and the inside of the instrument was a revelation.  A well-preserved example outside, the inside was virtually as it had left its maker nearly three centuries earlier, even down to the original neck block with its original nails put in by Stradivari; a tribute to the care taken of it for all those years before.

And then there is the latest acquisition; the ‘Lady Blunt’ of 1721.  This extraordinary violin is in much the same condition as when it left its maker’s hands, and it can be placed alongside the ‘Messie’ of 1716, that is in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, England.  My family donated the ‘Messie’ to the museum, as we realized that it was the only Stradivari left in ‘as new’ state, and we felt it should be preserved as a yardstick for future makers to learn from.  I am now very happy to say, that thanks to the Foundation and dutiful custodians throughout the violin’s history, the ‘Lady Blunt’ remains in similar condition for all to see, admire, and hopefully give inspiration to new generations of violin makers.

None of us could have foreseen the appalling catastrophes that have fallen on Japan, and whatever one might have wished for before, has now to be looked at in a different light. I was asked by Yohei Sasakawa and Kazuko Shiomi which one of their collection could be considered for sale as a gift to the Disaster Funds; I was somewhat overwhelmed to learn that their generosity would go so far as letting the 1721 Lady Blunt be their choice. Now that it is to be offered at auction, I hope the violin will find new and appreciative hands to care for it, and for a sum that will make a significant contribution to the help needed.


The underside of the original Stradivari fingerboard. The red varnish puddled in the under-edges confirms that the violin was varnished with the fingerboard attached. The writing on the left is that of Alfred E. Hill, the writing on the right, J.B. Vuillaume.


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