So, how did I end up here?
The Seventies…At the age of fifteen I made a classical guitar. This wasn’t unaided, it was with the inspiration and considerable help of my art teacher, Austen Bankhead. He was an amateur guitar maker, and arranged matters at school so I could do it as an art project.
It was made from wood salvaged from a smashed piano on the local dump. Something of a turning point for me, as I really enjoyed the whole process and, importantly, found I had a talent for working in wood more meticulously than the Woodwork syllabus encouraged.
First guitar and first instrument
And yes, I did learn to play it…
The Eighties…After finishing a degree in Fine Art I became the apprentice of Maestro Liutiao D Barry Oliver. Barry was himself the apprentice of Lawrence Naisby of Liverpool, a graduate of the violin making school in Cremona, and subsequently was taught by/worked as assistant to G B Morassi, P Sgarabotto and F Bissolotti.
G B Morassi, P Sgarabotto and F Bissolotti
Barry also worked for Ealing Strings prior to returning to Washington, Tyne and Wear.
With him, I learned to make violin family instruments within the Cremonese method and style, to restore, to set up to a level satisfying the professional and what makes a good rehair. I was also exposed to some very fine instruments which came through the shop, which developed both my eye and expertise.
Barry Oliver’s chapter in the 1978 book “The Violin Makers” by Mary Anne Alburger
After finishing the apprenticeship with Barry and working with him as his assistant, I was approached by Robert Archbold at the Violin Shop in Hexham, to see if I would be interested in taking it over as he was retiring. It was a tiny shop, with only enough space for two or three customers to stand, with a slightly larger workshop to the rear. I liked the connection to the processes of making and restoring this gave clients standing in the shop – so much better than impersonally handing your instrument in at a counter and picking it up weeks later.
In the original Violin Shop, Hexham, c1988
A chance to move to a bigger shop two doors away came up after some years. David Mann, who was assisting me, and I took the opportunity to become partners.
The Violin Shop, Hexham, Northumberland
During this period I made/collaborated on many instruments and was privileged to work on some first class instruments too, including Guarneri, Amati, Testore, as well as moderns like Fagnola, the Antoniazzis and the Deganis. The Violin Shop became in this period – and still remains under Mr Mann’s directorship – the go-to shop for professionals in the area.
I was brought up in North Wales, and had always had a yearning to move back. As the new millennium began, events began to work out to facilitate this happening. In September the family moved to a cottage high on a mountainside across the valley from Snowdon. The ruined barns that had once been the cottage’s when it was a smallholding were bought back from the farmer and turned into a workshop, a room with machine tools in and a clean room for the main hand work, a wardrobe sized ultra violet cabinet for varnish work.
I re-connected with those I had known when growing up here, and made new connections too – it was a delight to be back in Wales. My Welsh had gone a little rusty, but was still there.
I had, since childhood, played folk music on various instruments and had while on Tyneside operated in many bands. Back here in Wales various musical projects happened – I joined the Aderyn Prin Band, and I played as a duo with Cass Meurig. Cass and I released two CDs which were both well received and influential.
Violin work thrived too, and as well as local clients, others would travel long distances, initially on recommendation but becoming regular clients. Reliable bow rehairs seemed to be problematic for some, too, and I soon found I was operating a postal rehair service. My clients went across the musical spectrum – folk, bluegrass, classical – all united be a common desire to have their instruments playing optimally, or be playing the optimum instrument.