Published in The Strad Magazine Vol. 93 No. 1114 Feb. 1983
THE CASE FOR NICOLAS LUPOT
RESPONSE TO ROBERT LEWIN’ CASE FOR J. B. VUILLAUME
It seems strange to have to come to the defence of Nicolas Lupot, arguably the greatest of the French luthiers. Robert Lewis in “The Makers of the French School” (May Strad, page 22) subtly promotes J. B. Vuillaume to this position, thus carrying on a modern trend which, I suspect, is motivated more by commercial than aesthetic considerations. The introduction to Roger Millant’s J. B. Vuillaume sa vie at son oeuvre opens with the following: “J. B. Vuillaume is, to my mind, the most illustrious French violin-maker of the nineteenth century” and goes on to say that the talent of Lupot, “no matter what one thinks of him, did not leave such a striking mark on the world as did Vuillaume”. I would say that as a businessman this is true (Vuillaume being without question the greatest entrepreneur of all time) but as an artist it certainly is not.
Surely no-one will disagree with the premise that Lupot was the first maker, together with his colleague Francois Pique, to recognise and establish beyond doubt the superiority of the Stradivarius model and to endow his own work with many of the Italian characteristics, including a very fine varnish, while, at the same time, retaining his own identity. Vuillaume, on the other hand, went for commercial attractions inherent in the quickly growing popularity of the Stradivarius design, prompted in the first place by Lupot, during the first quarter of the 19th century.
I have yet to see an instrument that is entirely the work of Vuillaume, although some must exist from his Mirecourt days. Had he not set up a vast commercial enterprise and remained an individual maker, such as Pierre Silvestre of Lyon, would he be so acclaimed today? I doubt it. J. B. Vuillaume takes the Mirecourt system one step further and promotes it to Paris, whereas Lupot, on leaving Orleans and arriving in Paris in 1794-5, embarked on elevating the finest examples of the Cremonese School, not by slavish copy work but by imbibing the essence of the Italian school. The close liaison between Lupot and Pique is the nearest Lupot ever got to commercialism.
An important factor in Vuillaume’s set-up was his employment of makers already established in their own right. This was sound common sense on Vuillaume’s part. At the same time, the craftsmen probably found it more congenial to work with, rather than against, Vuillaume, as they would have had to do on their own. This system may be indicated by the example of a violin known to the author made by C. A. Maucotel in 1848, four years after leaving Vuillaume. The varnish is so like Vuillaume’s that it explodes the theory that Vuillaume preserved the secrets of varnishing; if you were to remove the label you would have an unlabelled Vuillaume. C. A. Maucotel was a product of Mirecourt (1820-58); he worked for Vuillaume from 1839-44.
Henley points out the following: “Lupot, it is asserted, made every instrument bearing his name and deservedly he becomes the greatest French maker”. The Conservatoire violins bear this out with their transfer decorations, and a varnish of remarkable depth and transparency, something never seen on an instrument of any other French maker. A Lupot violin gives the comforting feeling of being always genuine. However, nowadays quality and ethics do not always see eye to eye. For example, if a violin by Stradivari is found to be not wholly his work, but shows the influence of, say, a pupil or even the hand of one of his sons, then this is immediately reflected in the value; whereas a violin made by Derazey and varnished by Vuillaume is accepted without question as being by Vuillaume.
If further evidence were needed about Vuillaume’s methods of working, it is to be found in Roger Millant’s startling statement that the violin maker Telesphore Barbe supplied Vuillaume’s requirements from 1870 until his death in 1875 (It is quite a different matter when the maker is apprenticed to a master craftsman and is solely a product of the firm for whom he works, as in the case of W. E. Hill & Sons. The name of the actual maker then becomes an internal affair rather than one of public scrutiny). Vuillaume, like John Betts in England probably used the outworker system. John Betts made full use of the Barton family, George and John, and many others in and around London. It is also interesting to note that like Vuillaume, John Betts never states, “made by” on his labels. According to the Hawkes & Sons brochure of “Modern Violin” published in 1914, Mirecourt was studded with such outworkers who made violins more or less complete, preparing them for a commission agent who would then advertise himself as the actual maker. When considering the French school, it should be remembered that the French were the most advanced in the allocation of each part to specialist craftsmen.
Lupot undertook repair work like most makers. The illustrated inscription in Lupot’s own hand is testimony to us. Besides making a violin each year for the Paris Conservatoire Prize he was also under contract to keep in order all instruments at the Conservatoire. The violin illustrated by Nicolas Lupot is a copy of a late Stradivarius. This demonstrates clearly Lupot’s intense interest, not only in Stradivari’s golden period, but also in the later and arguably the more intriguing work of the master.