Every year, the British Violin Making Association organises a Makers Day in London, a one-day exhibition of contemporary work. At this year’s event I found myself eating my hurried lunch sitting next to Ben Hebbert, the BVMA chairman. He whipped out his phone and showed me photos of an extraordinary viola. “I think you should make a copy of this”, he said, “I’ll lend it to you.”
The next time I was in London, I took up his offer of the loan and came home with this viola. It’s made by the Scottish maker Matthew Hardie, who worked in Edinburgh in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But he didn’t just start as we usually do, with fresh raw wood, he made his viola out of a viola da gamba by the London maker Richard Meares, c.1647 – 1725.
To us this seems like cannibalism, and completely unethical, but these were different times. Hardie was working at a time when there was a growing class of gentleman amateur players; Haydn’s string quartets had been published in the UK and these players needed instruments. If you could get one, a fine old Italian was of course the pinnacle, but if not, the English viols had a pretty good reputation, musically they were obsolete, and this one had a fair amount of woodworm, so if it hadn’t been so drastically adapted it might just have ended up as firewood.
So this is what Matthew Hardie did. He took as his model an enlargement of a long pattern Stradivari violin, made new ribs and scroll and cut the back and front of his viola from the Meares viol. Viols have flat backs so he had to mould the wood of the back to an arched shape in a former using hot sandbags to bend the wood, and then patched the middle of the back. The thickness of the edges of both back and front were built up by adding extra wood on the underside. The front was already arched but also had to be squashed and squeezed to shape. The decoration of the original viol survives, but on the front it is scraped away to give the arching shape down to the edges. Extraordinary.
I spent some time looking at the viola in my workshop, getting to know it and weighing up if and how I might approach it. It ticked a number of boxes; I make a lot of smaller violas, it has a bent rather than carved front, as do all viols, and this is a technique I often use, and I’m also familiar with decorating instruments. However, the model is very different, much narrower than I usually make, and the arching lower. The viola works, it’s been used by Peter Sheppard Skaerved to record Hans Werner Henze’s viola sonata http://www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com/2016/06/henze-sonata-for-viola-piano/
Although most of my work is commissioned these days, I keep a little time free each year for the opportunity to try something different. So, ever up for a challenge, I decided that this is to be the one this year.
I made a new mould and templates for the viola, and then bent the ribs. Although I’m usually dubious that the narrow width works well for violas, I’m taking a chance and keeping to the original width of the body. It’s interesting to see that the viola has long C bouts, associated with a darker quality of sound, so I’m hoping this will compensate. Stradivari perhaps had this idea in mind with a cello that fascinates me, the late de Munck (which Steven Isserlis had on a long loan). That’s an exceptionally narrow cello, but again has long C bouts.
Ribs finished, I’ve started work on the back, using quarter-sawn figured maple as the original. But in one respect I’m not copying the original viola; rather than bending the wood for the back, I’m carving it from a solid piece. I’ve never really understood the value of bending the wood for backs (fronts are another matter) as the figure in the wood means the grain is already unrelated to the shape of the arching, so carved or bent, it’s much the same.
At the same time as working on the ribs, I’ve made the scroll. Again, I’m deviating from the original viola. Matthew Hardie made a scroll with shoulders for this viola – although it’s delicate and light, I’ve found that nevertheless players prefer scrolls without shoulders. So I’ve worked up a different scroll based on photographs of another Hardie viola.
Back to the back and front. The front is made from fine-grained spruce, as good a match as I can find for the original viol/viola, and I have steam bent the basic shape as I often do, so also a similarity with the original instrument. Having finalised the outlines, I’ve fitted the purfling round the edge. I gave quite a lot of thought to what materials to use. Violin makers are real nerds when it comes to purfling; we like to try to work out what wood was used on the original instruments and often to replicate it. It looks to me that the Meares decoration is made using probably either boxwood or spindle wood for the whites, and perhaps ebony for the blacks. Hardie’s contribution is different – a softer wood for both blacks and whites.
So I’ve gone for a compromise. Spindle wood for the whites, which has a lovely ivory-like sheen. Then for the blacks, dyed pear, which is easy to bend. I’m hoping that this will be a good combination and will work well on the tight curves of the decoration on the front. I’m feeling my way with this one…
With the purfling fitted round the edge, I have now almost finished the arching, ready to finalise my drawings for the decoration and start work on that.
I decided to start with the front. I spent some time over the drawing; on the Meares/Hardie viola the decoration has been lost on the edges of the upper bouts, a casualty of reshaping the viol front to the viola. You can faintly see the echoes of the knife cuts where the purfling was inlaid, so I traced that as well as the intact drawing, and also worked from photographs of an original Meares viol which is thankfully still intact.
That done, I scanned the tracing and pasted the scan in position on the front.From there, I cut round the lines with a knife, being careful not to go too deep, and then marked a parallel line with dividers, which I then deepened with a knife. After that I could pick out the waste wood between the lines and was left with a channel to inlay the purfling.
Then the fun part. The decoration has some long lines with very tight curves, a challenge to bend and fit. For these I used the black-white-black sandwich of the purfling as little strips not yet glued together, and bent them as tightly as possible round a small drill bit heated in the hole on the top on my bending iron. Then I had to glue really carefully and slowly, inserting the three strips held with little tweezers, being ultra-careful to make sure that each strip seated properly in the channel; it’s all too easy that one of the black strips slides upwards on the curve and doesn’t get glued in. All went reasonably smoothly, and once the glue had dried I could cut off the surplus purfling that was proud of the front and clean off the paper to reveal the decoration.
After that, the back should be easy, I thought, just straight lines. Again I pasted the drawing onto the wood, and cut the channels with a knife against a ruler. It was however surprisingly laborious to fit all those little interwoven strips in place, I have lost count of how many there were… But highly satisfying to glue the last strip in place, like completing a long and complex jigsaw. And a pleasant and soothing occupation for a hot Friday afternoon.
All that remained for the patterns was to cut down the purfling flush with the arching and to finish the final shape of the arching witch scrapers. After that, I finalised the thickness of the back and front. For this I work carefully with planes and then scrapers, checking weight, stiffness and how it sounds when tapped until I’m happy with everything. Finally I cut the sound holes.
The work on the body of the viola is drawing to a close. I’ve fitted the bass bar, which helps support the weight of the bridge and reinforces the lower range of the viola. Then finished the interior surfaces of the ribs, and glued them to the back. Before gluing the front on I put in my label.
With the body finished, I had a final job to do on the decoration before fitting the neck; the cross-hatched filling of the decoration, done carefully with a sharp knife and a flexible ruler. The knife-cut lines will become more visible when they fill with varnish. It’s interesting that even without varnish, the look of the decoration is changed a lot with the cross-hatching and looks darker. I can’t wait to see how it all looks when the viola is finished.
I’ve now fitted and shaped the neck, and the viola is finished ‘in the white’ ready for varnishing.
At last, finished! I’ve used a golden-brown oil varnish over a golden ground, and put in a little wear and patina, which I though suits the character of the viola. I also, unusually for me, fitted boxwood pegs, which I think are in keeping with historical English instruments. And it sounds great! Even and powerful, with a lovely dark quality of sound and a highly responsive C string.