Nicolas-François Vuillaume cello, Brussels, 1862

This 1862 copy of the ‘Servais’ is an impressive example of Nicolas-François’s powers as a Stradivari copyist

The Belgian violin maker Nicolas-François Vuillaume is overshadowed by his more famous elder brother, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. However, the relationship between the two siblings was more equal than first appears. After Jean-Baptiste had established his business empire in Paris in the 1820s, his brother expanded it by setting up in Brussels, the next great city of the Francophone musical world. Eventually he became luthier to the Royal Conservatoire, spreading the influence of his family name. Surviving letters reveal that a close business relationship existed between the two brothers throughout their lives.

As a maker, Nicolas-François was strongly connected to his brother’s workshop, and even after he moved to Brussels in the 1830s he was making instruments for his brother to sell. Instruments survive by Nicolas-François that are labeled as made in Paris during his numerous visits to the city, and his name is occasionally found written on the bottom of Jean-Baptiste labels.

Cello by Nicolas-François Vuillaume, 1862. Photos: Tarisio

While these instruments demonstrate Nicolas-François’s skill with the Stradivari model, in Brussels he appears to have been influenced by local interest in early music. He was probably inspired by the musicologist François-Joseph Fetis and the collections of early instruments that were being assembled by Victor-Charles Mahillon, which would be turned over to the Royal Conservatoire (eventually forming the Brussels Musical Instrument Museum). The result was a preponderance of violins inspired by the Brescian makers Gaspar da Salò and Maggini, made for the Brussels market. These instruments, with their ornate double purfling, unusual modeling and often outsized proportions, are often less commercially interesting but are no less brilliantly made.

In Paris, Jean-Baptiste understood the importance of associating himself with the most celebrated instruments known to Parisian society. Hence, although he never owned Paganini’s ‘Il Cannone’, it became one of the principal models for his Guarneri copies. The same applied to the 1711 ‘Duport’ Stradivari cello, which became the chief influence for his cellos. For his brother, that role was fulfilled by the Stradivari cello belonging to Adrien-François Servais.

Cello by Nicolas-François Vuillaume, 1862

Servais’s cello was a Stradivari of 1701 made to the model Stradivari described on his paper templates as ‘Violoncello di Venezia’, with a slightly longer back length of 78.8 cm (31 inches). A giant of a man, he had no problem playing a large instrument and it escaped the common 19th-century fate of being reduced in size.

This 1862 ‘Servais’ copy by Nicolas-François Vuillaume (pictured above) is an impressive example of his powers as a copyist. The choice of maple superbly echoes the ‘Servais’ and the extremely wide-grained spruce used for the top is likewise reminiscent of the original. The deep-red varnish captures the essence of the ‘Servais’, although this remains in near-pristine condition on the original, while Vuillaume’s copy has aged gently over a century and a half of use.

Tarisio sold this fine Nicolas-François Vuillaume cello in 2013.

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