Richard Tobin? Well, School of . . .

Posted By on January 17, 2010

English violin

Look at this. It’s just gorgeous. I bought it at a regional auction where they had all sorts of junk, and the pre-sale estimate was £500/800. Some violins just stand out for their quality. Apart from being amazed by the beauty of the varnish it was immediately apparent that this was most carefully and tastefully constructed. The scroll and pegbox were outstanding. There was no label, but it had two different numbers stamped into it – probably old dealer’s numbers – one on the button (217) and one by the end-pin, which looked older and had been made with a bigger die (94). It was in essentially fair condition, although showing signs of long neglect, with the neck loose and the fingerboard adrift and so on. The strings were very old gut, and the pegs were of those nice old English boxwood design with large pearl dots inset into the ends.

There was, I think, only one other bidder, a local antique dealer, and he chased me up to several times the estimate, but still far less than I was prepared to pay. A bargain.


English violin

After the sale the other bidder asked me what I thought it was, and I told him that it was English, circa 1840. He asked why, and I told him about the pegs and pointed out that the linings were butted up against the corner blocks and that the bottom block looked rounded. But apart from that I had no good answer – that’s just what I thought it was. It felt something like a Fendt to me, although there were one or two features that were not quite right for either Bernard Simon or Jacob Fendt. Oh, and the button was not right at all, looking, if anything, German.

English violin As I had now paid for the violin, I asked the auctioneer if they could tell me anything at all about where it had come from. It took a few days for them to reply that it was formerly the property of a minor public school, having been used by the music teacher. It had probably not been played since before the war. Perhaps the numbers had something to do with a school inventory.

On getting the violin home I compared it with a genuine violin by Bernard Simon Fendt, and became certain that it could not be by the same maker.

English violin

In Colin’s workshop the front was removed. It was immediately apparent that this was not the first time that this had been done. The neck had been forced into a shallower angle by a poor workman at some stage, and the button had been clamped to suit – which explained its inconsistent appearance. The same bodger had made a muddle of a bass-bar crack repair. It needed to have the neck re-set, new top and bottom blocks, the bass-bar crack repaired properly and a new bass-bar. The bottom rib needed reinforcing where somebody had tightened a chinrest clamp too enthusiastically and it needed a little attention to the edges and so on. Also the original pegs were too worn to be useable, and had to be replaced. By the way, this does not contradict my statement that it was in essentially fair condition. There is nothing at all amiss with the back, and the damage described is pretty much normal for a violin over 150 years old. Maddeningly, there were no clues to the maker inside: no helpful brands or signatures. Perhaps the earlier workman had removed any such signs, for the underside of the table was oddly clean.

English violin

On pages 136 and 137 of The British Violin there are pictures of a violin that might be by the same maker. The varnish looks identical and the scroll is very similar to mine, although the instrument in the book is of a different model. That one was made for Arthur Betts in 1837, and the text states that, with several makers working for Betts, the true maker of their instrument may never be known. However, one of the men who supplied Betts was Richard Tobin, and that possibility fascinates me. Tobin was born in 1766 and died in 1847. His work is often unmarked, and, apparently, generally varnished by whichever dealer he was making for. Tobin is noted for the neatness of his work, and the beauty of his scrolls. Also he is noted for the particular care he took with his pegboxes. The British Violin states that he used a Forstner bit for these – but that cannot be correct, as Benjamin Forstner, an American, patented his invention long after Tobin’s death, in 1874. Nonetheless, Tobin pegboxes are unusually clean, with very flat bottoms and straight sides . . . exactly like the pegbox on my violin.

The British Violin further states that “The very finely-cut nicks of the soundholes are a useful recognition point”. Thankfully, the soundholes of my violin have not been interfered-with, and the original nicks are indeed tiny.

English violin

How I wish there were a pencil inscription inside, like the one illustrated on page 67 of that wonderful book.
English violin

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