Obsessive, compulsive or simply passionate about the luthier’s craft: individuality and rigour underpin the ethos of the Newark School of Violin Making. Richard Bratby pays a visit, and nearly stays there
From the outside, it looks like a broom cupboard. But behind the door, mirrors line the walls, lit by the blue glow of UV tubes. Violins, violas and cellos dangle on lengths of cord; some varnished, some still white. A violin peg on a piece of string serves as a light-pull. ‘It’s a bit like the tanning shop down the road’, explains Peter Smith, director of the Newark School of Violin Making. ‘It’s basically our way of simulating the effect of an Italian summer, here in Newark.’
Which answers one question – because whatever reasons violin-maker Maurice Bouette may have had, in 1972, for founding a violin-making school in the Nottinghamshire market town of Newark-on-Trent, it wasn’t because of any climatic resemblance to Cremona. The School is next door to a kebab shop on one of Newark’s main shopping streets, in a florid Victorian pile that looks like a bank – and actually was a NatWest before the School moved in. (The bank’s walk-in vault now comes in useful as an ultra-secure wood store).
And there’s a delightfully unpretentious air about the whole place. People mill about in aprons, and right up to the loft, almost every room contains at least a couple of violin makers – it’s hard to distinguish between students and tutors – bending over a workbench. Antique moulds decorate the walls, and in one room, a filing cabinet rescued from a nearby RAF base houses plaster casts of instruments by Stradivari, Guarneri and Maggini. ‘It’s about connecting with history. We’ve a student upstairs who’s really – to put it politely – getting into our friend there, Gasparo da Salò,’ says Peter.
As you walk around the school, you hear about more and more of these private passions. Student Felipe Ruano, from Spain, is working on his varnish. He’s trying to match the exact pigment of an instrument from the Golden Age for his current project – something that looks, at first glance, like a particularly stubby 1/8-size cello.
‘It’s a Violoncello da Spalla,’ he explains. ‘It’s played under the chin. I saw one in Brussels and I just fell in love with it. There are maybe only three originals in the world – I want to discover how it works. The scroll is a reduced Amati scroll for a five-stringed instrument but the front and back are modelled on a Strad. I’ve learned stuff as well; I try to add something personal.’
You quickly realise that ‘something personal’ is at the heart of what goes on at Newark.
‘You do your best work when it’s something you’re passionate about,’ says Peter. ‘Most of our students are in their twenties, but youngest we’ve had is 17 and the oldest at present is in their mid-sixties. Everybody mixes together, people from France, Germany, Spain, America, Japan – a real mixture of generations and people from all over the world.’
Are they all string players? ‘It’s very useful to be able to play, but many violin makers don’t. The main thing is the craft. Being obsessed with detail, working for hours to get things right and then keep re-doing them. I always joke that the main qualification is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.’
Starting from scratch
And if you have the raw talent, you don’t even need woodworking skills: a foundation year gives students the basics. Then, in the first year of a three-year course, students complete two violins in the white. The second year is about varnishing and setting up those instruments, and the art – vital for any professional maker – of repairs. By that stage, students are developing their own interests; they might make violas, cellos or – like Felipe – something altogether more unusual. The third year ends with a five-week exam in which students make two violins to be assessed by specialists from Beare’s of London.
‘That’s unique to Newark,’ says Peter. ‘It gives evidence to the trade that our students are capable of coming in, nine to five, every day and doing professional-level work.’ The results are striking. Every member of the current third year already has either a violin-making job or further study lined up.
Ben Schindler, a third year student from Cottbus in Germany, is off to a major dealer in New York. But, he explains over lunch, he’s sure he wouldn’t have got there without Newark’s unique combination of rigour and individuality. ‘In Germany, violin-making schools are interested in instilling a specific tradition. Here, we’re encouraged to have our own workshops at home, and by the third year, the teachers are really only there for support. There are a lot of strong characters in the school, and there’s a freedom. It means you have to learn to interact with people!’
‘Who wants an instrument that is just the same?’
Students are even encouraged to haggle with wood-dealers, and discussion – about techniques, traditions and aesthetics – is lively, friendly and continual. People keep mentioning ‘Garri’s tenor viola’, and Svavar Garri Kristjánsson – an Icelander who began as a cabinet-maker, and has made beautifully-decorated handles for his tools (‘they should last as long as I do’) – talks me round his work. ‘It has a lot of oddities in it, and maybe it’s not 100 per cent in proportion – but who wants an instrument that is just the same?’
And at the next workbench, under a sign reading ‘Purfling Powerhouse’, I meet Drew Evans – the Gasparo da Salò enthusiast. ‘Brescian violins predate the Cremona school. The biggest difference is that there’s no mould – it’s very free, quite a liberating style of violin making.’ The back of his viola is a flourish of rococo swirls. ‘Decoration comes with the territory. That took me about one and a half days: you have to keep getting up and going for a walk, otherwise your eyes just fix on one point!’ A small crowd of fellow-students and tutors has gathered, all evidently just as intrigued by – and proud of – the way this young craftsman is finding his own path.
Finally, it clicks: visiting the Newark Violin School is like entering the world of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It’s a supremely practical institution in a very English town, and yet somehow, in the most positive way, it has the feeling of a community of medieval craftspeople – working, living and learning together, students and tutors alike. There’s respect for the past – but also for individual creativity and innovation. And, as with a great performance of Die Meistersinger, you go away feeling that you’ve experienced something timeless and transforming. Garri sums up what, you sense, every member of the School feels: ‘Making instruments is just the nicest thing I could imagine.’