Forty years ago, as a somewhat timid 18 year old, I started my training at the Newark School of Violin Making.
We were the first intake in the new building, the old Westminster Bank building on Kirkgate, Newark. In those days the school was much smaller than it is now – an intake of twelve students in two out of three years, so the year I arrived there was a first year and a second year of 12 and a third year of just two.
It was competitive to get a place; I believe that over 100 applied so I was really lucky. We had to do a practical test and an interview, and I was recalled for a second interview and test so I guess I was borderline. In those days, there were far fewer women than men on the course – just two women in my year. Now it’s about 50:50.
It was exciting to be part of a great bunch of people, with students from Iceland, Australia, America and the Netherlands. My contemporaries included Andrew Fairfax who spent most of his career with J&A Beare, Patrick Jowett who had a distinguished career teaching at Newark as well as running his own making and repair business, Hans Johansson from Iceland who has built a reputation as a fine maker in Iceland and Luxembourg, and Koen Padding from the Netherlands, who went on to become internationally recognised for his expertise in the field of varnish. The year above me included John Dilworth and Roger Hargrave, both well known as makers and writers for the Strad.
Our teachers were Maurice Bouette, the school’s founder, Glen Collins and Robert Payn. Later Paul Bowers joined the teaching staff.
In the first year we learnt to make instruments. The school pattern was the ‘Messiah’ Stradivari which is part of the Ashmolean Museum collection, and is probably the best preserved Strad in existence. By coincidence, in mid-September I’m going to a conference run by the British Violin Making Association re-assessing this important instrument. I think I made three violins from this model in class time and two at home in the evenings and weekends. It was challenging to learn how to sharpen tools really well and then how to look and to develop hand-eye coordination. But great fun. We were a close-knit, happy bunch of people who were delighted to be doing something we felt so positive about.
The second year was spent learning repair techniques, set-up and varnishing under the tutelage of Glen Collins. The final year was spent developing skills in your preferred field, so I specialised in making. During my three years at Newark I made about 13 instruments, violins and violas (the cellos came later).
I have immensely happy memories of my time at Newark. I’m still in touch with quite a few of my contemporaries, and friendships were made that last a lifetime. I have my file of notes and dimensions, added to over the years, which I still refer back to.
The world of violin making has changed considerably since I started; there are far more makers around and expertise is shared much more readily than it used to be, when a Victorian attitude of ‘don’t tell them too much in case they get better than you’ prevailed in the trade. We have the benefit of the internet, fantastic photography and instant communication. But it was still great to be at the beginning of a lifelong and fascinating career.