‘Our man in Hampshire
a profile of Albert Cooper’
by Anne Inglis

‘Our man in Hampshire a profile of Albert Cooper’  by Anne Inglis published in The Strad magazine October 1992 and reproduced
with their kind permission.

Albert Cooper might have retired from the fiddle business some years ago but you'd never guess. A familiar face at the auctions, happy to dispense advice to the next generation - he loves the company of younger people - and a mine of information on his subject, here is an instrument aficionado who just can't leave his subject alone. So much so that recent years have brought a new interest: writing on players, makers, and instruments, both in THE STRAD and recently in book form with his gratefully received work on Benjamin Banks. Way ahead of his time, he delights in discussing the complexities of instruments, identification, history, and idiosyncrasies. Refreshingly, then, no secrets here.

After writing so much about the work and lives of others, it seemed appropriate to give Albert Cooper himself some well earned recognition. In his lifetime he has seen vast changes in the instrument dealing world, and has a fascinating story to tell, from his early days in pre-war Southampton, the opening of the London scene through his friendship with Kay and Emanuel Hurwitz and his enthusiasm for Paganini, to his interest in and championing of younger players and dealers. Albert operated in the days long before instruments rose in price to become collectible, and was able to buy, sell, and keep on the basis of whether he liked something or not. 'Rather recklessly,' he explains, 'I have always tended to put quality before price when assessing an instrument or bow, and a real mistake can be sobering, particularly if your friends and colleagues hear about it.

'But walking down Bond Street one day, having laid out £150 for a Tubbs violin bow when the average price was £45, I couldn't help thinking I must be mad. I then consoled myself with the fact that it was, after all, a gold-mounted, engraved birthday bow in mint condition.' Consoling stuff, indeed. He was born in 1913 into a close knit community close to Bugle Street, Southampton. In these pre-war days Southampton contained more of a soul than it does now. An early memory is 51 Bugle Street, bought by his grandfather Albert Edward for several members of the Cooper family. 'A complicated network of stairs took one either to the upper floors or down to the cellar and finally to the back parlour. The cellar, which ran the length of the house, had an exit which opened up in the back garden and which emitted all kinds of smells. After 60 or so years of speculation I am now told that these were simply due to the making of very strong cheese - not the brewing of some potent and mysterious concoction.'

Memories of special holiday treats on paddle steamers, Southampton and its seafaring community, and an awareness that his grandmother Ellen ran a soup kitchen in nearby French Street were part of a childhood which ended at 14 when Albert left school to enter an engineering apprenticeship shortly afterwards. Already he had started violin lessons, 'My teacher arranged for me to play on a Maidstone violin - 30 shillings a set for violin, bow, and case, and lessons were six pence each'. After leaving school it was obvious that the ability wasn't there to enter the playing world professionally, but it did set him on the road to appreciating music, particularly the great violinists of the period. He tried to buy all the 78s featuring players such as Kreisler, and remembers the excitement about the imminent arrival of a young star in the UK.

'On the horizon there was always one name which we hadn't heard in this country - he had still to come here - and that was Yehudi Menuhin. The papers were full of it. One felt that a great genius was going to appear on one's doorstep at anytime.' Later on, after the opening of the Guildhall in Southampton in 1936, there were the international celebrity concerts, promoted by Harold Holt, when all the great music names visited for two years including Kreisler, Menuhin, Horowitz and Richard Tauber. He was fortunate to meet these and many other artists by courtesy of the Guildhall manager who knew his strong liking for musical performers. It was an astonishing atmosphere with every seat taken on stage, leaving just enough room for the soloists. Then it was customary after recitals for an attendant to collect programmes from admirers to have them signed, and taken them into the green room. In Kreisler's case no one except me could produce a pen for him to use. But after signing 40 programmes the pen was returned without a programme for my own souvenir. This omission was immediately corrected, and I still have the programme - and the pen. In more recent years the last concert experience of this kind was David Oistrakh's recital in the Royal Festival Hall. Here again the whole of the stage was filled. In my own time I have greatly valued the friendship of Albert Sammons.'

On a less dizzy level Albert himself used to play in the Southampton Philharmonic Orchestra. It was in this kind of environment he had earlier met Linda, his wife-to-be. Her singing ability more than matched many local talents at the time. They married in 1936 when his take-home pay was just £2 a week. At the start of the war he entered Folland Aircraft as a maintenance engineer and remained there for six years. During the heavy raids on Southampton in 1941 he missed a delayed action bomb by as little as 10 seconds. In 1942 a daughter, Celia, was born.

Towards the end of the war he decided to respond to the local demand for a fiddle repairer because he was getting more work in this way than in his full employment in the aircraft business (this was during the Japanese offensive after the European war). 'The message came through loud and clear to have a go - from the Southampton violin maker Wilfred Thorn and many local string players, teachers and the music shops of Wiltshire and Hampshire. After the war so many people wanted bow rehairing and other small jobs.

'The first workshop was the front bedroom of our house. An incendiary bomb had penetrated both roof and ceiling and I decided to carry out organised destruction and turn it into a workshop. I had already made a couple of violins and a viola. It was an amateur approach until I became professional simply by doing a full-time job.' Winchester College was one of his first assignments, a school which remained on his books all the way until retirement. A great deal of work came from the local education authority, and many violins a year were imported to cope with the demand. 'During this probationary period I realised that there were two musical cliques in Southampton whose leaders, to my knowledge, never crossed paths. Both were established after the first world war, one led by Edgar Mouncher, the other by Freddie Long. Mouncher was a Sevcik pupil, young and fresh from the great teacher. He opened up studios in Southampton, the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and London, and was friendly with Harry Dykes - through him Harry and I later became great friends. Long, on the other hand, was a pupil of the Joachim school, and it seemed that nothing would bring the Joachim and Sevcik schools together.

'It was a coincidence that there were two teachers of such calibre in Southampton at the time. I would be repairing, and in touch with and working with their pupils. But it was Mouncher I knew more about since he had a very large area to cover, and there was an aura about him with his direct link to Sevcik.' Roaming around the area looking for instruments was a necessary part of Albert Cooper's working life. One of his frequent ports of call was Tibbalds in Brighton, 'an Aladdin's Cave if ever there was one'. In 1953 Bert Tibbalds died and Albert was called in to help to wind up the estate, identifying instruments, meeting the claims of sale or return, and generally sorting out the stock which took up to six months. 'Eventually I brought everything to a satisfactory conclusion. Seventy odd claims were met, and I was able to purchase the remaining stock at a price - that I have remained friends with the family testifies to the nature of the agreement.'

What did this stock contain? 'Nothing of importance except for a very fine bow by J.B. Vuillaume which we found when we cleared the bench. All the dealers visited the shop on a regular basis. Obviously if you had a sale of such contents today it would be fantastic, but in those days bow hair was £1 per pound rather than £250 plus.' Through the conversion of these run-of-the-mill fiddles he was able to build up his own stock which now forms the basis of a collection encompassing all schools. 'If I sold an instrument which cost only £5 for £20 or £30 and something came along which I liked I might keep it. But that is at its simplest level and it generally wasn't as easy as that. I was running a business and had a family to keep.'

In 1954, on their daughter's birthday, they moved from Southampton to their present address. This gave easier access to London and the surrounding counties. But, except for the odd visit to Harry Dykes at St Giles's Circus, he still remained primarily a dealer in the provinces, circling the south of England. One day a chance meeting in Southampton with Kay Hurwitz - as a professional violist she had come down to assist the local orchestra - led to a lifelong friendship with both Kay and the eminent violinist Emanuel Hurwitz, a friendship which led Albert away from an exclusively provincial life. Through Manny (Emanuel) he met many professional London players, struck up a friendship with the Langonets, and became a frequent visitor at the salerooms. 'The Langonets - father and son Charles and Alfred - were an important connection for me as they opened up an entirely new field of fine restoration and the availability of fine instruments then going into their hands. I also remember an occasion which, looking back, seems typical of the London environment 40 years ago. Manny and I were walking down Bond Street and went into Hills. We were welcomed by Phillip Hill who said, "Now you boys" (I remember the words exactly), "Come with me and I'll show you something really fine". We were taken below to the practice room, the large safe was opened, and a violin case was gently put on a seat and opened. We were looking at the Alard Strad.'

Rather than value and cash return, it was the admiration of instruments, their varnish, their different qualities, that stand out for Albert as forgotten ideals of a former age. He loved roaming round the salerooms looking at examples of instruments and talking to people with years of experience in the trade. 'Joseph Rylatt, or Joe as he was known, was something of a father figure to me, always ready to suggest a solution to an identification problem, whether the instrument was to be sold at auction or not. He was Puttick & Simpson's auctioneer for around 40 years and through them must have sold more instruments than anyone else in the trade.

'On his retirement he kindly typed out for me a list of all the J.B. Vuillaume instruments that either passed through his hands or that he had had contact with. A complete detailed list of all these instruments, 193 altogether, is to be recorded in my next publication which is now underway.' Ted Stollar, Phillips' senior musical instrument expert, came into Cooper's orbit soon after he started visiting London regularly in the early 1950s. 'Visiting Ted was always tinged with excitement. What would he produce this time - would it be a fine Dominic Peccatte bow or run-of-the-mill stuff (my bread and butter in those days)? I still value his friendship and expertise.'

In a long life devoted to the fiddle business it is writing that has taken up Albert Cooper's time during the last 10 years. He has delved into archives and carried out research with meticulous attention to detail, producing some highly worthwhile documents. He started with contributions to his local Hampshire magazine on familiar subjects - articles on William Retford, for instance, who was born in the New Forest not far from Albert's home, and on Paganini to coincide with a three-day festival built around the 150th anniversary of the virtuoso's visit to Winchester — all of which he organised.

Then the contributions to THE STRAD began, adding a much needed authoritative note to the magazine at the time. But his real work was his book on Benjamin Banks the Salisbury maker, which he researched and wrote himself, and which is a very welcome addition to the violin maker's and player's library. Now another book has been started, documenting many of the instruments, bows, and accessories which have passed through his hands. Every STRAD reader will wish him well in this latest ambitious project.