Published in The Strad Magazine Vol. 95 No. 1138 Feb. 1985
GEORGE WULME HUDSON
George Wulme Hudson, above, made more than eight hundred instruments, most of them violins. He was a fast worker, turning out one violin a week during his early days at Withers. Here, too, he learnt the art of copying, a skill he used to advantage throughout his life. He always signed his instruments inside, even if he included a fictitious label.
A handsome violin by George Wulme Hudson bearing the maker’s label dated l933, and another violin with a similar description dated l921, but showing a facsimile label of Joseph Rocca, were included in a 1983 Phillips catalogue compiled by Edward Stollar, Phillips expert and a connoisseur of many years’ standing. Over £4,000 was realised for two instruments. Bearing in mind the excellent services most retailers offer - setting up, sale or return, plus, of course, VAT and a profit margin - one would expect the price tag to rise at least 50%. This makes a handsome sum, showing the respect Hudson now commands.
George Hudson was born in London on 1862 (the Wulme, probably a family name, was added later when it was realised that another maker in Skegness was his namesake). The family came from the north of England, where Hudson senior was a freelance violinist much in demand for balls and dinner functions. George Hudson lived most of his life in London, moving to Surrey only in his later years. His working life started at twelve years old in a pawnbroker’s shop on the Hackney Road. ‘Living in’, with his bed under the back counter, gave Hudson constant access to the scores of instruments, from penny whistles to violins, pledged by their unfortunate owners. One of his assignments was to a Mr. Payne, a respected expert and dealer, and father of Arthur Payne, onetime leader of the Proms Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood, who later gave violin lessons to Hudson at the Guildhall School of Music.
Moving in the world of handling and dealing instruments at such a young age left its mark. In 1897 Hudson fitted a new neck to a Benjamin Banks violin and made his first violin. Fifty-five years later the same adrenaline was still flowing. By 1897 Hudson had become a freelance violinist and conductor with many musician friends. When he became a fully-fledged violinmaker, they gave support by commissioning not one, but many instruments. The recitals he attended by Kreisler, Sarasate, the Joachim Quartet and a host of others added fuel to the driving force and established a tonal ideal in his mind. He observed that Sarasate, with his ‘silvery’ tone, played with a tight bow. It was Thomas Jacques Holder, the Blackheath violinmaker, who after seeing the 1897 violin, advised Hudson to go professional. In a private publication Random Recollections (1940), of which only 100 copies were printed, Hudson expresses his debt to Holder.
Although George Hudson was over thirty years old when his first violin saw the light of day, it must not be assumed that he had no previous knowledge of tools. At a very early age the use of keen edged tools was acquired naturally, and he became a fast worker. Copying suitable articles in the pawnbroker’s shop while he was ‘in residence’ served as an apprenticeship in carving. He occasionally exercised these skills in later life: the miniature grandfather clock is a typical example of his craftsmanship. Worked in maple with mother-of-pearl decoration, it also has a finely wrought mother-of-pearl escutcheon, which completes the door, itself carved from the solid. The clock stands 101/4” (260mm) high and bears Hudson’s full brand.
For over twenty-five years it was traditional for George Hudson to start making a violin on Christmas morning. Was this indicative of Hudson’s working capacity and keenness to get on with the job, or was it to keep the wolf from the door? A little of both perhaps. The following story from eighty-year-old Archibald Smith of Blackheath sheds some light.
“It was 1916. I was twelve years old and in need of another violin. George Hudson took six months to make me a Guarneri del Gesu copy. On my way home on Saturday mornings I would call in to see how my violin was getting on. Eventually it was finished, oil-varnish and all, and my father and I called to collect it. At £10 the violin was mine - my father wanted to pay £5!”
The ticket said Gio’ Carressi l917. Obviously Hudson did not give a twelve- year- old’s violin high priority.
The name Giovanni Carressi has nothing to do with any known maker, and was, in fact, taken from a London shop sign. Was it an attempt to give his work an Italian flavour? This is doubtful, as with this trademark Hudson’s own name or initials are always present. It was not a method of grading, either. The mystery remains: labels and brands seem to have been inserted simply as the whim took him. Almost invariably his full name or that of Carressi appear on the inside bottom block above the endpin. Sometimes a label is added which may bear either one or both names, or a more simple label with the Carressi trade name and Hudson’s initials. There are probably other variations too. All labels are printed and, as far as is known, dated. This is the only means by which we can follow Hudson’s progression; unlike the meticulous J. B. Vuillaume he kept no records. Some early instruments without any identification are referred to below.
George Hudson’s working life falls into roughly three periods. The first was the formative time spent in the pawnbroker’s shop. It was then, at the age of fourteen or so, that he was introduced into the world of commerce by helping the junior assistant, aged sixteen years, to make new violins look old by all sorts of devious means. By doing so he earned an extra copper or two. Hudson admitted this was all good harmless fun, but this period must have sowed seeds for his future.
Making violins is one thing, selling them another. The second period, a relatively short one, places Hudson in the professional violin world. His association with the firm of Edward Withers in Wardour Street was of profound importance. Not only was it the outlet for his first instruments, but it started a lifelong friendship with the Withers family. These first instruments for the trade were the only ones unsigned by Hudson - two of them were furnished with Withers’ trade labels. They were all made at great speed. It was customary for Hudson to borrow from Withers an example of good Italian work, Grancino or the like, on one Friday and return it the following Friday with an exact replica. To achieve this he probably had roughed out parts ready for assembly and adaptation. The agreed was £8 and Withers then retailed them for £10. (Another outlet for a quick return was through Glendenings London Auction Rooms: a reserve of £5 sometimes brought surprising results.) Only on one occasion was Hudson persuaded to supply a violin in the white for an unknown customer of Withers. The amount he received, £20, was without doubt the reason he broke a golden rule never to do this. The order was placed by George Robey, the music hall comedian, and Britain’s ‘Minister of Mirth’. Withers received £25 with strict instructions not to divulge the customer’s name. It is said the Robey varnished his instruments in the theatre dressing room - if so a more hazardous place is hard to imagine.
When Hudson had to increase his price to £15 for a violin, the instruments became too expensive for Withers. But this did not affect the friendship.
By the 1920s Hudson was beginning to be recognised as an important maker. Besides his early musical associates more affluent people, some very affluent, came knocking at his door, laying the foundations for the third and last period.
It was Cyril Jacklin, the London maker, dealer and Sotheby’s expert, who came into Hudson’s orbit during this time. They had an excellent working relationship for the next 30 years, with Jacklin providing an important link with the trade. He relieved Hudson of all repair work (a task Hudson would not undertake except to service his own instruments) and supplied all fittings and accessories, first from his own business and later through his involvement with Albert Arnold Ltd., of Gerrard Street, London. Through these channels many violins and violas found a home. The 1949 February edition of THE STRAD carries photographs of a fine copy of an Omobono Stradivari, dated 1929, then in the collection of Albert Arnold. But Cyril Jackilin’s requests for instruments in the white from Hudson always met with the same reply: they arrived varnished and ready for use. By now he was able to keep to his own fundamental principles in instrument making from which he never wavered or cut corners. In my experience Hudson’s violas are always over 16” and of fine quality. But Hudson probably found making violas irksome and made only to order. It is more likely, however, that the lack of demand for violas also curtailed his activities here.
A commission to compile a series of articles on violin making for THE STRAD was a focal point in George Wulme Hudson’s career. They started in l933 and ran for 18 consecutive months: quite a marathon. As a young man he may have read through Heron Allen’s book on violin making, but it did not influence him in any way. He had an individual solution to every obstacle, as these articles clearly show. In the preface he makes clear his basic views: “Varnish does not make tone, figure does not make tone, sound construction, good wood, good workmanship does”. He also rightly condemns the practice of purchasing instruments in the white for a pound or less, varnishing them and claiming by inserting a label that they are your own make - a pursuit too common in his day.
The foundation of this treatise is simplicity backed by copious photographs and illustrations. A strong emphasis is placed on a ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude where tools are concerned. For instance, his bending iron on which he claims to have made nearly six hundred instruments, is made from a suitably shaped iron bar, one end clad with copper, the other end to be clamped to the bench after heating over a gas ring. Instructions are given for the making of small planes, a purfling marker, a purfling ‘pick’ (a small chisel waisted to clear the sides of the trench), the tempering of steel for knives and chisels, etc. The sides of the purfling trench are cut with knives after the marker has done its work. When working into the outline curves after the knife, wooden rollers, on which is stuck one of various grades of sandpaper, are used to finish off. Rollers of different diameters must be made to fit the various curves. Hudson is very particular regarding glue and wants ‘nothing to do with patent glues’. French, Cologne, or Russian glue mixed with good quality white opaque glue, one part white three parts of one of the others, is ideal.
As far as making a violin itself is concerned the suggested final measurements of the plates are:
back 3/16” at centre, graduating to 1/16” full at the edge of the vibrating area:
the front is 1/8” all over and 1/8” bear at the edge.
These measurements are to vary according to the density of the wood. He is not too keen on tuning the top plate but suggests prolonging the belly arching a little, both lengthwise and across the breast, so that the fibres are kept as long as possible. All Hudson’s instruments are made on an inside mould. Instructions on making one are well done.
On varnishing he had no option, without disclosing his own methods (these are discussed later), but to advise on the application of one of the proprietary brands then on the market. After the final rubbing down, he is against damping: a few light coats of linseed oil, followed by a little clear golden varnish thinned with turps, is the recommended base. Later in these articles he does give recipes for varnish making, discussing the problems of blending. For this reason alone he suggests relying on a professional chemist and varnish maker because of the complexities. I suspect he felt obliged to say something on varnish making, if only to avoid being accused of ducking this very controversial subject.
To colour the neck, Hudson advises rubbing in linseed oil, wiping and working in red ochre in water. When dry this should be papered off and coloured with saffron and water, walnut stain if a darker hue is required, papered with fine glass paper and finished with French polish. These are just some of the salient points made in Hudson’s comprehensive survey, which runs into approximately 22,000 words. Unlike most books written during this period, the articles are free from any pet theories, totally practical and they come from a craftsman at the height of his powers. It is greatly to be regretted that his work was never published in book form. In these articles George Hudson states that he had completed nearly 600 instruments by l933. For an article in The Listener (September 1937) celebrating Stradivari’s bicentenary, Alfred Hill states that he considers Stradivari’s output to have been around 1,100 instruments, of which 700 still exist. Considering the entirely different conditions between then and now, Hudson’s output in the region of 800 plus, compares favourably, although it must be borne in mind that Hudson made no cellos. A sturdy octogenarian, he was working well past his eighty-fifth year. A violin of 1945 vintage shows no signs of frailty; indeed it quite the reverse. The instrument is full of vigour and steady of hand and the varnish is applied with skill.
One would have thought that writing the treatise on violin making would have kept Hudson fully occupied. Not a bit of it: he became embroiled in a long exchange with Arthur Dykes, the London dealer, in the correspondence column. To our advantage this reveals a glimpse into Hudson’s working life. The storm broke when Dykes, in one of his many STRAD articles, said that some of the 18th-century makers, Duke, Forster, Kennedy etc. used foreign maple in their best instruments. Hudson hotly repudiated this, and the battle raged for several months. At one stage Dykes inferred that Hudson was unknown to him. Dykes with his verbose manner and flowery prose, and Hudson, with his earthy approach, make a provocative juxtaposition. At one stage Hudson almost challenged Dykes to a duel, certainly a violin making duel, when he suggested they both make instruments and leave others to judge. In these arguments Hudson revealed that English sycamore was being retailed as Italian maple, after passing through T.J. Holder’s hands. To further support his case he referred to a fine viola by Kennedy made from English sycamore. Kennedy lived in Coopers Gardens, Shoreditch, and was buried in Shoreditch churchyard, which was surrounded by many large timber yards. Hudson considered that Kennedy would most certainly have used facilities so close at hand. He also said that he had planks cut 30 years previously from specimen sycamore trees grown in the West Country.
ALFRED HILL - correspondence
Unbeknown to both parties the benign figure of Alfred Hill was taking it all in. His most instructive letter came down on Hudson’s side, and read as follows:
I have read with some interest and amusement the discussion which has been going on in recent numbers of your paper, in connection with the employment by English violin makers of sycamore as contrast with that of foreign maple, an it occurs to me that I may possibly be able to elucidate matters.
Richard Duke, senior, as well as junior, invariably used English sycamore in the construction of their instruments; the Forsters frequently made use of it, and for their best instruments; it was likewise employed by John Betts, John Dodd, the Fendts, Panormos, Banks, Hills and others and I very much doubt that in the XVIII century, foreign maple was imported into the country in any considerable quantity.
When satinwood was in vogue, cabinetmakers likewise employed sycamore, which, then, as now, was described as “Hardwood”.
As a matter of fact, violin-making has never been a remunerative craft, and the old English fiddle-makers, not being in affluent circumstance, naturally made use of the wood obtainable at the cheaper price and I would add, fine English sycamore such as is procurable from time to time, compares very favourably with foreign maple, which latter wood, taken as a whole is obviously superior to the former; it is, however, incorrect to affirm that an instrument made of maple should, on that account, prove superior to one in the making of which sycamore had been employed, inasmuch as it is the happy combination of certain recognised features which goes to make the perfect instrument!
The editor then closed the discussion. It is refreshing to read both Hill’s and Hudson’s regard and acclaim for the old English School making.
Mallinsons, the timber merchants in Hackney Road, were George Hudson’s main suppliers of maple and sycamore. The manager of Mallinsons, who guided Hudson through their enormous stock, was Alex Smith. He received instruction on violin making and turned out some creditable instruments. Another source was from planks left after veneer cutting, from which, ‘a few fine “Italians” were made and fooled some of the leading experts’. For the top plates Tyrolean pine was used until about 1905, and after that Canadian cedar. Its ruler-straight, evenly spaced reed is easily identified and is a distinguishing feature of Hudson’s work. Hudson was, however, probably the first maker to introduce a synthetic material into the craft. This took the form of black fibre as a substitute for the traditional ebony or coloured white wood employed in the making of purfling. Made up into laminated sheets with a birch core and cut to the required sizes to produce purfling of extreme flexibility, it can in fact be tied in a knot. Whalebone was probably used by a few of the earlier makers for the same reason, although this can produce a more prominent outline than is desired because of its ‘shine’. Hudson preferred a birch wood centre with its warm texture and colour
f-HOLE PATTERN COLLECTION
George Wulme Hudson’s addiction to detail is underlined by a collection of f-hole patterns amassed during his career. Every new example that came his way had to be recorded first by a paper and pencil rubbing and then transferred to any suitable stiff material, such as card, rib wood, veneer or cigar box mahogany. Those illustrated are from a collection of over 100 which includes Antonio and Omobono Stradivari, a special favourite, Guarneri, Amati, most of the classic Italian makers and it even takes in a more remote maker, Angelo Soliani, Modena 1790. The Gagliano family are also well represented. The French makers do not escape notice, with a J.B. Vuillaume and one by Jacques Thibout. The only English f-hole is an example of a John Lott ‘del Gesu’. The presence of one f-hole taken from a Bernardel cello is surprising. Does this indicate that Hudson may have contemplated making a cello at some point? Exact measurements and makers’ names are on most f patterns. In some cases a pair have been taken in-situ. The precision with which these patterns have been executed give them interest outside their main function.
Every maker has his critics and Hudson is no exception. But when a maker employs such enormous versatility it is dangerous to be dogmatically critical. However, some Strad models made in the best period are massive in a few respects, not in the measurements which are faithful to Stradivari, but in the impression given by leaving the rims a little thicker and by making the centre rib joints with the end grain of both ribs exposed. Some mitres are finished with a black mastic (Jacques Thibout, the French maker whose mitres are invariably massive, seems to be the inspiration here). Other mitres look more elegant with a thin slither of ebony dividing the two ribs. The delicately inlaid purfling with the Strad half-dowel feature maintains a good balance in spite of a slight squareness to the outline of the head: a consummate skill in carving is in evidence here. The scrolls are bold and assertive, the pegbox is practical with strong sides and easy access to the strings, and the fluting flows from the back of the pegbox to the scroll in a most natural way. The result is that these instruments have a masculine character that enhances their overall beauty.
Hudson left the maximum amount of wood in his plates, some say too much, but it is to his credit that he would not budge from his principles to get quick results. His violas have come in for criticism in this respect. As years go by his tonal aspirations are being realised and recognised by many discerning players.
When it comes to exact copy Hudson has few equals. Every aspect is taken care of: the rib mitres are feathered to conventional form, rims are normal etc. A Joseph Gagliano copy for instance takes in all the character of that maker. In the case of Gragnani or Gabrielli, a metal brand would be made. All this has led some critics to dub Hudson a mere copyist, a faker, and the like. Hudson had no illusions about this and his views are summed up in his own words: ‘Although dealers, experts and others have decried the making of copies, fakes etc. there is no denying that to make speculation violins is not only interesting but profitable, for as a rule a copy will sell quicker than a new one. So many players prefer an instrument that looks old, and a copy or reproduction can be a good fiddle if it is well made of good wood and not ruined by acids etc.’
It can be observed in Henley that after due praise Hudson is castigated for his copy work, while a contemporary, Annibale Fagnola 1865-1939, receives only acclaim for his splendid replicas. One is tempted to ask, what exactly is the difference? Common sense dictates that replica and copy work are the same and legitimate, only when labelled deliberately to deceive do they become fakes and unlawful. Hudson seems to have enjoyed some leg pulling in this area. How else can his habit of making and printing fictitious Italian labels of names such as Marezzi, Galieno etc. be explained? The insistence on including his own name somewhere in the interior defeats any attempt at deceit and is perhaps best described as harmless hoodwinking.
Hudson’s work in copying those makers outside the mainstream of the Italian school is probably unique - it is almost tantamount to an obsession. It is worth observing here that copy work must be closely allied to fine restoration as far as ground work (colours) are concerned. Perhaps the copyists are doing a better job than we give them credit for.
An ability to vary the texture of varnish to match a particular school of making plus access to many fine instruments over a long period and his own keen sense of observation, gave George the edge over many of his English contemporaries. His shaping of the neck and fitting up were impeccable. He always made a neck graft in his own way. The butt joints where the graft terminates in the pegbox take a downward trend. These joints were never feathered (one and a half hours was considered ample time to do this). Unless it was to contrast the figure or use up off-cuts there seems no logical reason for this. A number of violins are capped with ebony. Although this is neat and tidy, nothing sets a back off better than a distinctive button. Immediately the eye is attracted to this small but very important finial.
OIL AND SPIRIT
In the 1893 edition of THE STRAD, William Atkinson, the violinmaker from Tottenham, London, fastidiously claims to have solved the mystery of Cremonese varnish. He was one of many. From then on and until the present day, varnish has been a constant topic for discussion and argument - mainly argument. No matter how good an instrument is in the white, its outer skin is crucial. George Hudson knew that if this problem was not solved to his own satisfaction then all would in vain. It is certain that ‘Tommy’ Holder (as Hudson called him) with his Paris connections would have no formula for reference. All we know for certain is that four different grades of oil varnish were used, and to build up colour and patina about 40 thin coats were applied alternating between spirit and oil. The ameliorating influence of the oil is very much in evidence. Although some instruments have produced a slight crazing over the years, the overall effect is eye-catching, particularly where a little shading has been introduced. Never do they become stereotyped or lackadaisical. The concept is not allowed to ‘sprawl’: Hudson’s eye for a compact and virile arching is impeccable. Here then is the heart of the matter, the element that gives his work poise and dignity. Throughout Hudson’s career, tone was always of major importance. The violinist, Stanislas Fryberg, a fine recitalist of the 1930s, used a Hudson violin with great success. The London critics were unanimous in their praise regarding tone production on a violin ‘but four months old’. His own practical music making, plus a careful study of strings before the acceptance of the steel E, made important contributions to his knowledge of acoustics.
George appears never to have advertised his instruments. Trading methods were confined to the advertising of materials and templates (the master templates from which paper copies were produced were made of thin sheet zinc, a malleable material which lies flat and is very flexible) etc. and it is from this source that many would-be makers seeking instruction came, becoming friends. A one-man, part-time school of making best describes the set-up, of which he was justly proud. The confines of a very small, one-room workshop would not allow for a full-time apprentice even if he had wished it, which is very doubtful. One such would-be maker was John Edward Hardwicke, a wood carver by trade who adapted his craft to construct violins. Although perhaps it is more correct to say he learnt violin making so that he could use the violin as a vehicle for his carving skills, the result was an instrument of some incongruity and totally lacking in discipline. However, with Hudson’s guidance his straight work fared much better.
The maker closest to George Hudson for many years from 1930 until 1952 and who assisted his wife Emily in the administration of Hudson’s estate after his death was John Maurice Vernon, l901-70. Vernon carried off the bronze prize at the international violin making competition held to celebrate the 1951 Festival of Britain. He had the added advantage of owning some fine Italian instruments, J.B. Guadagnini among them, from which he made copies. His talent was such that he could have gone professional had he wished it. After reviewing Vernon’s works during the mid-l930s Arthur Hill declared he would be more than willing at any time to take him into the firm’s workshops at Hanwell. Vernon was rightly proud of this compliment.
John Wilkinson 1889-1961, strictly speaking a pupil of Holder, but a close friend of Hudson’s, completes a trio of talented London makers with Hudson & Vernon. We have to thank him for many splendid copies, which regularly come on the market totally devoid of identification. They have and still do cause some confusion even among the experts. In a future article a profile of Wilkinson and his work will help to elucidate and clarify his position today.
In 1931 the Ideal Film Company of Wardour Street, London, engaged Hudson to make a film on violin making for their magazine division. A film star overnight? Not quite, but it must be the first time a violinmaker appeared on film. His workshop and paraphernalia were transported to Wardour Street, as his own room was far too small. The filming produced a seven-minute documentary in which George demonstrated the main aspect of the craft and played on a finished violin.
It is doubtful whether Hudson received more than £25 for a violin, with a little more for a viola. Here are some of the prices realised at auction since 1970 - except for small fluctuations the trend is always upwards:
1972/£240, 1974/750, 1975/£720, 1978/£1,500, 1979 (viola) £2,900.
In 1980 four instruments all fetched well over £1,000, and a viola topped £1,900. In 1983 £2,300 was reached. In 1984 a fine violin bearing Hudson’s full name dated 1930 was sold for £2,100, and another, bearing the Carressi label dated 1919, realised £2,000. The 10% buyer’s premium must be added to the more recent prices.
George Wulme Hudson is certainly proving a sound investment for those who had faith in him. He now takes his rightful place in the English School of violin making. To claim him to be among the finest makers that emerged during the first half of the 20th century is no exaggeration, but a simple statement of fact.
The author is grateful to many colleagues for supplying information and particularly to two octogenarians, Cyril Jacklin and Edward Withers.