Published in The Strad Magazine Vol. 95 No. 1131 July 1984
THE FINAL TOUCH
TRACING THE HISTORY OF SOME HIGHLY ORNAMENTAL FITTINGS ORIGINALLY IN THE POSSESSION OF J.B. VUILLAUME AND THOUGHT TO HAVE ONCE ADORNED THE “MESSIE” STRAD.
Since acquiring two Jean-Bapiste Vuillaume violins and a set of carved fittings in 1955, I have been fascinated by decoration of this nature. I am prepared to admit that any addition to the violin’s prerogative of purity of line is ‘gilding the lily’ and may do little to enhance the instrument. However, the Napoleonic fittings discussed below have their own charm and character and are worthy of more than passing interest.
Originally in the possession of J. B. Vuillaume, these fittings were passed to his friend and colleague Georges Chanot (1801-83) and then to his son, the third Georges (1830-95) who started the English based firm of the Chanot family. Continuing the British link they went to Georges Adolphe Chanot (1879-1923) of Manchester. I bought the fittings from G. A. Barnes, the last member (by marriage) to carry on the Manchester based business. Exhibitions featuring the ‘Chanot’ fittings include the Leeds Centenary Exhibition of Master Violins in 1958. The purified board made by G. A. Chanot, on which the fittings are mounted, and the guarantee of G. A. Barnes both state that the fittings are the work of Stradivari. Even though this cannot be true, the claim that at one time they adorned the ‘Messie’ Stradivarius is unlikely. They are in fact of French make but it will probably never be known who actually carved these furnishings. A brief look at the history of French furniture from the 17th to the 19th centuries shows that decorative artists introduced many classic motifs taken from the antique art of Rome and Greece. While mass-produced furniture was on the increase by Vuillaume’s time there were still some fine craftsmen available to undertake the delicate nature of this work.
Ernest E. Doring’s editorial footnote to Harvey S. Whistler’s treatise on J. B. Vuillaume, published by Lewis in Chicago, l947, says that although it cannot be confirmed that such tailpieces and pegs originated with Vuillaume, it probably is the case; he also says that they were later taken up by other makers. Corroboration of this comes from David Hill of W. E. Hill & Sons who informs me that a dozen or so sets were made in their workshops during the 1920s, some being fitted to their own five copies of the ‘Messie’. The Gillot - Emperor Stradivarius, 1715, overhauled by Hills in l910, was fitted with one of their sets at about that time while owned by Jan Kubelk. Hamma’s Italian Violin Makers illustrates this superb instrument and clearly shows the fittings as they are today. Replacements are not necessary because of wear of the peg shanks but, as relief carving in boxwood is vulnerable, the pegs’ main attraction of crispiness soon becomes blurred, even with everyday handling. Victorian beards have played havoc with some tails.
The close-up of the ‘Chanot’ tail seen on this month’s front cover shows the quality of carving well. This design is a variation on the Orpheus theme - he is not with his lute but with his violin - first realised by P.A. Maffei in Gemme Antiche Figuate (Rome, 1708) and subsequently used by Jules Galley as the frontispiece to his publication Italian Luthiers of the 17th and 18th centuries (Paris 1869). Orpheus is in fact depicted playing to wild animals, hence the figures at his feet. The ‘Chanot’ pegs, which are surrounded by deep relief carving of leaves and scrolls terminating in a rose, complement the tail perfectly. The centre is left plain except for the facets left by the carver’s tools (no sandpaper or rubbing down here), adding a certain simplicity to the design, as well as being practical. Some Napoleonic pegs have a somewhat extended rose giving a distinctive emphasis to the design. The endpin with its turned boss, which is slightly recessed to leave a centre button, completes this display of fine miniature carving.
The fittings that adorn the ‘Messie’ today (see line drawings) are conceived around the nativity. The story surrounding the ‘Messie’ is too well known to be repeated here, save that Vuillaume must have been guided by its history when designing this particular tailpiece. The association is apt and cannot be put down to coincidence. The fittings are of a light hue with an ebony string saddle, whereas the ‘Chanot’ version is a deep chestnut with a box saddle. The peg designs are identical. The mounts of the Alard Stradivarius (this may be seen in the Hill Antonio Stradivari) are similar to the ‘Chanot’ except that the animals are missing. Altogether there are at least five designed variations with matching pegs. It appears that J.B.V. fitted Napoleonic mounts only to the cream of the Cremonese school and to a few of the masterly creations (typical examples of two such violins, Nos. 2541 and 2556, dated 1864, may be seen in the Musee d’Art, Geneva), from his own workshop although I have yet to find a del Gesu so equipped. On the ‘La Pucelle’ Stradivari, 1709, J.B.V. struck a more patriotic note using Joan of Arc as the subject. The ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivarius, 1721, has mounts made and fitted by W. E. Hill & Sons in 1922. Surprisingly, Paganini appears not to have been portrayed, confined, as he is to darker regions, peeping from the inside of bow frogs. At least eight more sets, either with full or part decoration, may be seen in Goodkind’s Iconography but whether these all originate from Vuillaume it is difficult to say. Violas and cellos seem to have escaped attention completely.
Napoleonic fittings in boxwood must never be confused with the numerous ebony tails that were manufactured to satisfy Victorian taste. The fact that violin fittings can be so easily changed gives this part of the survey an ephemeral quality, which is unavoidable. When did the modern tail with its now conventional gut fitting come into being? The ebony tail by Betts (below) gives us a clue. On this tail the gut is threaded through two steel staples driven into the underside and made secure by either clinching or riveting. This operation is screened by the inlaid silver starfish, its tail ascending to an elegant and probably original design to receive the strings: no gut is visible from the front and this tail carries no string saddle. That the Betts family were in business until c.1840 indicates that the transition to the present tail format was well under way by the middle of the 19th century. Therefore, it seems natural that Vuillaume’s inventive mind seized the opportunity and reinstates in a ‘modern’ way the old decorated tails of the Baroque period with their marginal stringing etc. If Vuillaume were creator of the modern tail we can be sure that it would have been recorded along with all his other inventions. Certainly, machine tools played a vital role in its production. Milling out the underside to take the tail gut lends itself to this method and would be a laborious task otherwise.
Like so many of Vuillaume’s ideas, for one reason or another carved and decorated mounts have fallen by the wayside. However, they do bear witness to sumptuousness of a past age and give pleasure to present day enthusiasts. They must also excite the admiration and interest of all those associated with the arts of carving and violin making.
My thanks to David Hill for the fine line drawings and his patient answers to many questions.