Strad Magazine Vol. 96 No. 1143 July l985
AGAINST THE ODDS
The psychologists inform us that there are two contrasting themes in the human make up, the introvert and the extrovert. While most of us come somewhere in between, there are extremes, some of whom are violinmakers, for example, the Rev. Charles L Tweedale who followed the latter trend. He not only incorporated a photograph of himself on his labels, but also claimed in his book on the occult News from the Next World (published 1940), that while he was preparing and making varnish, Stradivari was in attendance and guided him to the ‘Cremonese secret’. Colour photographs of the Alard Stradivari next to a Tweedale violin (side views only) are included in this extraordinary book. Then there is Walter Mayson who ‘gilded the lily’ by carving intricate designs on the backs of at least 12 violins and wrote a book on violin making. No doubt both were colourful characters.
At the other end of the spectrum there were makers such as the subject of this article, John Wilkinson, who never had a label printed nor introduced his name into his work in any way whatsoever. To make him even more remote, there is no mention of him in any dictionary of violinmakers. The only reference in print is his obituary, written by William Beare, which appeared in the October l961 edition of THE STRAD. The intention of this article is to elucidate at least some aspects of his output and to bring his work into focus.
Charles John Wilkinson, known as either Charles or John, and to his close friends simply ‘Wilkie’, was born on 17 April, 1889 and died on 20 August, l961 aged seventy-two. His whole life was spent in the area of Catford and Camberwell, south east London. He became a professional violinist while still a teenager, playing in the theatres and music halls, as had his father and elder brother before him. It was at this time that the violin making became a hobby.
During World War 1 while serving with the Royal Sussex Regiment in the Battle of the Somme, 1918, John Wilkinson sustained injury to his left wrist, which shattered his wristwatch, and pieces of the watch and bullet became lodged in the forearm. Dr. Peter Clein has assisted me with a medical analysis of the case: ‘As a result of infection (Osteomyelitis) which would certainly have occurred in those days, amputation was talked about at one stage. On healing, the wrist was completely frail, with no stability. The fingers developed a flexion contracture so that they could not be straightened, but some movement was retained so that Wilkinson could contract his fingers tightly, and it seems was able to grip and hold objects between the contracted fingers. Consequently he wore a T-shaped iron which splinted the wrist, the fingers gripping the top of the ‘T’, this splint with round cross bar had a flat shaft which was secured to the wrist with a heavy leather strap. With the use of finger flexion he would have a strong grip on materials which would then be worked with the right hand.
‘The anatomical explanation is that he probably shattered both forearm bones at the wrist which resulted in a false joint. As he could grip between his fingers the ulnar nerve must have been intact but the median nerve might have been severed, interfering with the thumb. The main complication would have been the development of a contracture of the forearm muscles from interference with the blood supply - the so-called “Volkmann ischaemic contracture”. This shortens the flexion muscles of the fingers, the fist becomes clenched and the hand finishes up withered, wasted, claw-like and useless’.
Realising that violin playing was now out of the question, Wilkinson turned to the possibility of a career in violin making. His brother submitted a scroll that young John had made a George Wulme Hudson. As a result Hudson advised that he go to Ernest Holder, the violinmaker of Blackheath, London, for advice and instruction as he obviously had talent. In fact, Wilkinson went to Thomas Jacques Holder, whom he had known as a violinist. Thomas Jacques was the most experienced craftsman and older than his brothers Thomas James and Ernest L. Holder. Through his close connection with the head of so talented a family of experts he not only received instruction in violin making, but also acquired considerable knowledge of the old Italian makers and their methods. Some co-operation with Thomas James Holder took place from time to time. However the similarity between Jacques Holder’s and Wilkinson’s Guarneri replicas seals their working relationship. The varnishing of both makers shows a striking similarity.
The great challenge for Wilkinson was how to overcome his severe handicap. By introducing the iron splint, and with practice using it, he eventually taught himself to grip small objects between the first joints of the clenched fingers. The object to be worked upon protruded from the back of the hand. By this method and using his healthy right hand he set about ironing out all of the problems that violin making presents. He was a great improviser where tools were concerned, and resourceful in the use of materials. The standard bench vice carefully adapted helped considerably to overcome his disabled left hand. His young son John at the early age became adept at sawing into planks many billets of wood from all kinds of sources: old mangle rollers for their beech, sycamore and birch, part of furniture for pine, fruitwood etc. John Wilkinson’s eye for a fine piece of wood was impeccable and a great deal of his success must lie in his ability to recognise tonal wood, particularly pine. He developed the practice of tapping wood for tone to an unusually high degree.
In his early days John Wilkinson supplied instruments and undertook repair work for the London trade, including George Withers of Leicester Square, London W1. At this time trade instruments of the old Bavarian type were ‘converted’ with a new neck and bar for the princely sum of £2. 10s. 0d. (£2.50 now). However, his main and lasting connection was with John & Arthur Beare, then of Wardour Street, London W.1. For nearly four decades he sold instruments through them and carried out restoration work, but always at home. His workshop, a small room usually full of wood shavings, was host to no one, except his wirehaired terrier Peter.
A typical working day was long sometimes well into the evening when perhaps a client would call, and over a glass of wine would place an order or make a part payment on a violin already underway. William Beare recalls, “I enjoyed many after work sessions with ‘Wilkie’ and always found his anecdotes and views on life well worth listening to. In spite of being poor, he was a happy man”.
John Wilkinson was probably the last of a very long line within the outworker system, stretching back as far as the 17th and 18th centuries, when key figures such as Peter Walmsley, Richard Duke, John Betts, the Forsters, and many more, made full use of it. It was convenient for all concerned and extended far beyond violin making. Glove making in England’s West Country is a good example of how successful it could be. Within this system there are many unrecorded makers, a challenge to any researcher who is willing to delve into the record office archives and study in depth the social history of the times. His only son, John, at the age of fourteen entered the workshops of J. & A. Beare. Except for the war years, he remained with them from 1938-62, and received training in the art of restoration.
Every copyist sets out to create an illusion, but though most enjoyed mild deception they also hope for recognition and to be complimented for their efforts. While John Wilkinson preferred to remain anonymous it must be stressed that he had a strong sense of humour and enjoyed telling the following incident: A violin was brought to him by a violinist of repute asking whether he, Wilkinson, could identify the maker. The owner was intrigued by an instrument that had all the hallmarks and tone of a fine Italian but had been told it might be by Wilkinson. Wilkinson feigned ignorance and never revealed that it was in fact made by him; egoism came very low on John Wilkinson’s list of priorities.
To supplement the confusion, a leading London orchestral violinist, now retired, sold a Wilkinson viola for £400 in 1970. Imagine his surprise when a month later it was on offer to him from a north of England source at £2,000 as a fine, unnamed 19th century instrument of Italian origin. The question must be asked, would Wilkinson have identified his work had he known that such dishonesty would arise? The answer must surely be, yes. In all innocence he never for one moment considered his work would attract so much wrong attribution. Not being infatuated with fame blinded him to the realities of life. Although it was a backhanded compliment, he could not be expected to realise that when prices rise, temptation also rises. Even towards the end of the life in 1960 it was becoming increasingly evident that some less scrupulous dealers were passing his work off as Italian. J & A. Beare decided something must be done. They were right in their decision to have labels printed at their own expense and with the maker’s consent insert them wherever possible. Unfortunately relatively few have this important addition.
Wilkinson himself now gave labels to customers who had bought from him - ‘They could have them inserted if they so wished’. He also has a nom-de-plume label printed which states - Gennaro Lanari Fecit Napoli Anno 19--. These in light block letters. The importance here is that a dated instrument bears no relationship to when it was made. Unless it has its own provenance there is no way of knowing its exact date. For the same reason it is not known exactly how many instruments were made; it is certain that only one cello was constructed and this probably on an experimental basis as this area was never explored. William Beare in his obituary on Wilkinson states that ‘he made a great many violins and close on a hundred violas.’ Since then it has become evident that the total viola output is considerably more than this. By the law of averages and some simple arithmetic his total output is likely to exceed 900 instruments. When under pressure he was capable of making and varnishing one instrument a week. A 4 a.m. start to the day was not uncommon, and as soon as it was light he would certainly be at his bench. This was the regular pattern he pursued throughout his working life. A weekly visit to the J. & A. Beare premises was the only ‘day off’ he considered necessary for relaxation.
By 1946 John Wilkinson’s fame was spreading. A letter from Kenneth Warren, the well-known Chicago dealer, opens as follows.
I spent some two months in England this past summer, buying fine violins and bows. On several occasions, I saw instruments made by you, and while I was not fortunate enough to get the instruments you made, my examination of them served to acquaint me with the fine work you do. I was particularly intrigued with the Pressenda copies. Truly they are remarkable instruments, and if in the hands of the unscrupulous, they would constitute dangerous copies.
Kenneth Warren then asks whether a 161/4” viola in the style of Pressenda and a copy of Joseph Rocca or Guadagnini can be supplied to be exhibited in his shop ‘as works of yours’. Although Wilkinson did not take up this offer his instruments have found their way to America, mainly through visiting orchestras.
John Wilkinson’s ability to search out and employ only the finest timber of the top plates an important part in the reputation he enjoyed, not only during his lifetime but to the present day. When it could be found, pine with a fine straight grain that incorporates a curl across the belly was his ideal. It is a feature often found in the old English School, as well as in many fine Italians.
It never occurred to Wilkinson to make a ‘straight’ instrument. What he saw before him, instruments with 200 years of wear and tear, set his standards. Replicas of the Italian masters Guarneri del Gesu in particular, came in for close scrutiny which resulted in some very fine copies. In fact perhaps Wilkinson’s greatest achievement lay in these replicas. They are true in measurements of the originals. He did not do as so many did and fall into the trap of thinking that by making them larger he could improve on the master. Only a few Strad copies were made; he seems to have preferred the more rugged approach. On all his instruments the lower ribs are in two parts, with a simple butt joint at the bottom block.
On a Storioni replica, Wilkinson produced simulated wear adjacent to the neck caused naturally by the left hand when in contact with the rims and rib. This is regrettable as it only hastens a repair which cause problems for the restorer and very considerable cost to the owner. However, counterfeit cracks and abrasions were never part of Wilkinson’s technique. The back buttons on some instruments are fitted with heavy ebony insert. Those that are not have chamfers which blend well with those of the back, thus giving the button an identity of its own. This small feature does so much enhance the instrument viewed from the rear.
The introduction of purfling is executed with consummate skill. Even the last viola shows no evidence of falling standards; bee stings on the Strad copies are finely laid in the trench. Heads were finished either ‘straight’ or with bushed peg holes and a grafted neck, which were always spliced into the peg box, never as a butt joint. Necks at the base and graft were varnished after the instrument was completed and varnished. Thus the impression is given that the graft is of a later date.
It is the treatment of the rims and corners that gives distinction to an instrument. In this area of Wilkinson’s work there is considerable variation. Some rims are barely above the commencement of the arching, with very little tough, probably done to give an impression of continual usage, while others conform to normal treatment. Most Guarneri del Gesu replicas receive an excellent finish, the corners being worked with special care and attention. A lot of versatility is displayed in this important region.
Wilkinson’s interior work is not fastidious. The side linings are very slim simply crimped to fit the contours, but this is not immediately apparent, as by looking through the f-holes the centre bout linings always seem to be more substantial. In places the knife feathered the linings to a dangerously fine edge. The linings may be of any wood, one viola, for example contains three different kinds. The centre blocks are also pared to a minimum, but the top and bottom blocks, those that take the strain, are by comparison of massive proportions. Up to eight elongated studs reinforced the centre joins of the back and front. The thickness of the plates on a 169/16” viola are as follows:
back, 3/16” full at the soundpost area, with only a slight taper to the edges
top plate; centre 5/32”, reduced to 9/16” at the edges.
With his interiors Wilkinson revived a method of lesser Italian makers, Testori, Grancino for instance, in their cheaper instruments. Unfortunately many of these Italian interiors have been replaced by the more conventional “Strad/French” type, so much character has been sacrificed for expediency.
Wilkinson never used a mould, building the instrument up off the back instead. Consequently there are occasional small discrepancies where the top plate attaches the plates to the ribs, hence the frequency with which some instruments have come apart (fortunately this is easily rectified by competent restorers). A very high air temperature was considered necessary before important gluing was undertaken, so the workshop became rather a hothouse on these occasions. The interiors were left either with a ‘grey’ wash or untouched by any colouring matter. His handicap almost certainly determined the method of interior work assembly. Instruments that are known to be of a later date have more substantial interiors, no doubt due to a greater facility and skill acquired as he gradually gained greater control over his left hand.
In addition to replicas of specific violas, Wilkinson also introduced his own design into many productions. The f holes on these do not seem to vary and are short for the size of the viola. A typical example measures:
Back 161/2”, string length 141/2”, top bout 77/16”, middle bout 55/8”, lower bout 10”, ribs 11/2” - 13/4” at the bottom block.
Viola heads are finished in a similar way to violins - no cello influence is introduced here. The varnish on these instruments tends to be of a pale transparent nature with very little shading. An overall bland effect is created, which is not without its admirers.
This hybrid viola section is where Wilkinson felt completely free to add a contribution to the ‘viola controversy’ (after all Lionel Tertis started it). Those that I have seen are tonally excellent and made in his best manner; they admirably fill the modern professional requirement. Wilkinson had the sense not to transfer the del Gesu concept to the viola, thereby avoiding an anachronism which does nothing to please the eye. In fact very careful consideration and many discussions with professional viola players went into solving the viola problem of tone in relation to size. The result was that Wilkinson came as near to perfection in this difficult field as any maker in modern times.
One of the fascinating aspects of the old Italian School is to be found in the variability of scroll design from one maker to another. Subtlety in this area is enormous and most elusive to imitate. Every maker leaves his ‘hand writing’ here, thus creating a great challenge, an almost impossible task bearing in mind that a scroll in the white looks quite different than when coloured up and varnished. Wilkinson’s achievements have come very close to perfection, as the ‘Testori’ viola head indicates. Made from plain maple it makes a contrast to the ribs which are of beech. This is a common characteristic of the old Milanese School.
Being a professional violinist in his youth John Wilkinson left nothing to chance where setting up was concerned. Special mention must be made regarding bridges. Only the finest were used and they were meticulously fitted. Even after half a century many can still be found erect and in fine fettle. Anonymity is maintained in that no bridge carries Wilkinson’s name, but recognition stems from their dark colour and the quality of the beech. Arthur Beare, head of John & Arthur Beare with whom Wilkinson had connections for many years, was considered to be among the finest bridge fitters of that time. It is possible that some instruction here is the source of Wilkinson’s expertise. The instruments supplied to J. & A. Beare were unfitted; these were then set up by them with fine quality furnishings, and the bridges bear the familiar J. & A. Beare brand.
Setting out to give an instrument the appearance of age and yet not affect the tone is perhaps where John Wilkinson was more successful than many other makers. His varnish has not faded, and although it appears to have depth and is well shaded, in fact it is quite thin. An indication of how thin it is lies in the lower rib joints where it rarely ‘fills in’. Any secrets he may have had (and this is very doubtful) would lie in the treatment and sealing of the virgin wood. Colours can range from a pale orange to a deep rich brown. On a Guadagnini viola replica an excellent deep red was employed, while on a Strad model the ‘broken’ top varnish laid on an even golden base is most effective and convincing in its intention to create a feeling of age. Most of John Wilkinson’s varnishes have a patina and sometimes a coagulated texture, rather than the bright shiny finish that is so often seen. Perhaps the ideal is somewhere between these two extremes.
It would be foolish to suggest that John Wilkinson’s work did not vary. Of course it did, as most makers before and after him have done. It is the standard below which he never fell that is important. Every instrument is acceptable in its own right and has something to say. On the other hand it would be wrong to separate his work into compartments 1st class, 2nd class etc. It is more correct to say that quality depended to some extent on the time factor and expediency. After all it is encouraging to know that your work is needed and that a deadline has to be met.
John Wilkinson’s output can be roughly dated in an unusual way. His work improved with time. The instruments known to be of a later date clearly show this maturity. There is no falling off of standards due to age, quite the contrary. Like George Wulme Hudson, his contemporary, he seemed only capable of maintaining and building on past experience, to some extent this is conjecture, however it certainly seems to be the case. Some of Hudson’s finest work was accomplished when he was in his mid-eighties. In this respect John Wilkinson’s is cast in the same mould.
The financial assets of Wilkinson’s output are quite impossible to assess. It is known that in 1939 he was receiving as little as £4 for a violin. By the 1950’s £20/£25 for a violin and viola respectively was the going rate. The viola mentioned earlier, sold for £400 in the 1970s, is a good indicator although a very flimsy guide to today’s prices.
In the preparation of this treatise it becomes increasingly clear that central to Wilkinson’s career was J. & A. Beare’s eminent position in the trade, which ensured access to a constant flow of fine instruments for study and close examination. The results of this accessibility are to be found in Wilkinson’s output. Keen observation and the constant handling of instruments, whether they be in pieces or as a whole, is essential. Only by this means can accomplishments grow and be maintained.
All the owners of Wilkinson’s instruments it has been my pleasure to meet are proud of their possessions. The war wounds that John Wilkinson sustained stopped him from being ‘just another violinist’ and he was able, in spite of a severe handicap, to meet the challenge and make an important contribution to the art of the luthier. His precepts and practice were of a high order.
The author gratefully acknowledges help from John Wilkinson junior, William Beare, Vincent Howard, and Peter Clein.