I grew up in Hampstead, North London, in a flat above my father’s motor repair business. An elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Baker lived next door. Ernie Baker was born in 1902, and had been a cabinet maker. In his youth has worked as a violin maker, but apparently there had been no future in that. Some of his tools were in the communal garden shed and I have used one of his gouges on every one of the scrolls I’ve made. He died in 1980.
Ernie came with my parents to one of the open days at Newark when I was a student, and during that period, he gave me the parts of an unfinished violin, based on the ‘Tuscan’ Stradivari of 1690 that he had made: a beautifully carved, delicate scroll, the finished back and the front, which was partially thicknessed and f-holes not yet cut. If there had been a rib assembly that was long lost. While I was a student I bought a set of rib wood, but that’s as far as it went.
While I was packing up my workshop in the new year of 2020 prior to major building work (the subject of another blog), I came across the Ernie violin and realised that the time I’d be spending working temporarily in the house was the perfect opportunity to finish the violin, and timed neatly for the centenary of when I guess it had been made.
The big challenge was to make ribs to fit the outline of the back and front, when normally I make the ribs first and draw round them to determine the outline. I decided to build the ribs directly on to the back, a technique I use for my small size cornerless violins and violas. The back and front corresponded quite well in shape, so I cut the blocks to fit the back, glued them in place and then cramped the front in position and adjusted the shape where necessary. This worked well and I was able to make the ribs fit both plates within an acceptable margin of error.
After checking that the back thicknessing seemed sensible and finalising the front thickness, the next challenge was the f-holes. The circular holes had already been cut which determined the spacing and positioning, far from the photographs I had from the Tuscan. With some juggling I came up with a design that fitted the constraints and had at least a nod to Stradivari.
Then the bass bar, gluing on the front and fitting the neck, and as you see, an old violin reborn, or in fact born a hundred years after it was started. I’ll write about the biggest challenge in a later blog – varnishing. The front is possibly cedar and the colour is incredibly dark. The head was also very dark, partly with ingrained dirt, but without a major refinishing of the wood I couldn’t change that. I gently scraped the surface of the back to remove the superficial dirt but it remained a nice golden colour. The ribs were new but as the wood was already at least 40 years old, they soon coloured quite well in the ultra-violet tanning cupboard. So it will be an interesting project to try to homogenise all these different colours.
While I was working on the violin, I tried to find out more about the company Ernie had worked for, the British Violin Maker’s Guild. I had a publicity booklet produced in 1920 about it which by chance had been given to me years ago by the late Wilfred Saunders. This company had a shop at 35 South End Road, Hampstead, just round the corner from where we lived when I knew Ernie. And with the help of my mother’s excellent diary keeping, and my brother-in-law Christopher, who is expert in family history research, we were able to piece together Ernie’s dates, more information about the Guild and a rough idea of when the violin must have been made.
The British Violin Makers’ Guild saw the light of day in 1915, founded by Albert John Roberts. The shop had been listed in local trade directories as a Pianoforte Salon prior to 1916, when the British Violin Makers’ Guild joins the listing. Mr Roberts only lived until 1924, and by 1928, the shop is listed as the Hampstead Music store. So from this information I estimate the date of Ernie’s violin.
Albert Roberts had great ambitions for his shop. He predicted that it would “mark the renaissance of the best traditions of violin making in this country”, and stated that “We have secured the services of scientific experts, who advise upon and conduct in their own laboratories the experiments by which we hope to arrive at a perfect varnish. Timber experts have also been successful in locating sources of supply not only in Italy but elsewhere… We believe that the finest publicity in the world is that afforded by an excellent instrument in the hands of a gratified customer. From such recommendations we have already sold nearly 2,000 instruments.”
He was also keen to establish a centre for violin making in Great Britain with rather a disdain for foreign production (remember of course that the company was founded during the First World War). The booklet lists violins ranging in price from 25 guineas for a Joseph Guarnerius model (“…we believe this violin to be the highest achievement of the 20th century in British violin making, and that it will become to posterity what the Strad and Amati are to the present generation.”), to 6 guineas for an Imitation old violin (“…it is thoroughly well made throughout and invariably far superior in tone to the Continental product at this figure.”).
The shop in South End Road, which still exists, is relatively small, and it is probable that most of the work was done by outworkers. I’ve no idea if the photograph shown, from the publicity booklet, was at South End Road or another location.
Christopher unearthed an interesting reference from the collection of Hampstead Antiquarian and Historical Society. Apparently, one Abraham Birnbaum, a wood carver and cabinet maker established in Berlin, came to London in or around 1911. Abraham was apparently taught to make stringed instruments by a Mr Channon, and worked from home as an outworker for the British Violin Makers’ Guild. Maybe Ernie did the same.