Posted By on May 17, 2011

This violin was catalogued in a specialised violin auction (Gardiner Houlgate, March 2011) as “Late 19th Century . . . ” with no further attempt to narrow down the attribution. It was estimated at £100/150 and was in a very neglected state. I was pleased to get it for £448.40p.

It ‘s much earlier than that. There’s a good graft joining the new neck to the pegbox, and every detail screams mid 18th Century. The utterly extraordinary soundholes are unforgettable, which is why I remembered the same ones in Millant’s book about Vuillaume – plate 3 shows the table of a violin by the famous Jean-Baptiste’s great-grandfather – Claude Francois Vuillaume. There were apparently no less than four members of the family called Claude Francois during several generations. The one in question, the second of that name, was working between 1730 and 1770.

Here’s how it looked when I got it home – absolutely filthy. This is just a snapshot – but I’ve bought a new camera and I’ll do a far better image when it has been restored.

Now, I remember having doubts about Millant’s plate 3. The violin shown there has a Vuillaume brand, but is such an exaggerated Stainer-type thing that I wondered if it might not be from Mittenwald, say, and merely have a fake brand? But Millant states that these violins are invariably oversized – which would be unusual for Bavaria, and more normal for Mirecourt at this time.

I never expected to see one, but in in the spring of 1987 one turned up at Sotheby’s, and it became Lot 157 in our sale of the 30th April. In those days we only illustrated the backs of the less-expensive instruments, but even so one can recognise the dark brown varnish (again, like Bavaria) and the very short corners. Also that one was identically oversized, like my one (both 36.3 cm.), and that one had the same curiously-positioned very large pins in the back – to the right of the end-pin and to the left of the button, both being well inboard of the purfling. In the workshop, with the table off, we noticed that the linings extend both over and into the corner blocks, and that the centre bout ribs are butted up against the top and bottom ribs, giving the impression of pushing the corners out, rather than being mitred together at the corners. All this is very French. Millant must have been correct.

Millant’s example only shows the table, but the one in the 1987 sale shows the whole back, including the scroll. Mine, though, has a carefully carved animal’s head. God knows what it’s supposed to be – in could be a lion, but Gardiner Houlgate had it as a griffin. (A griffin should have a bird’s beak, though: this doesn’t. Forgive the pedantry.) Whatever, it isn’t quite the same as the usual Bavarian carving – it’s rather better. Also this example has curious slab-cut wood for the back and ribs. I suppose one could call it bird’s-eye maple, but in truth it hasn’t the usual small knots that one expects – rather it’s burr maple, and maybe from the root. The single piece isn’t big enough for the whole back, and the lower bouts have wings on both sides, and the upper treble bout also has an extra slice. All wings are original, and the maker’s studs joining the pieces are visible through the soundholes.

At first I thought to have it restored in baroque condition, then I thought to leave it alone – after all, the (modern) neck is perfectly sound . . . but now I’ve decided to get it back into its original state, after all. It’s so unusual and odd – it’d be a shame to try to make it more conventional.

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