The Cooper

Published in The Strad Magazine Vol. 103 No. 1230  October l992



Plaque in Catherine Street, Salisbury,unveiled by Iona Brown

With the first edition of my publication on Benjamin Banks swiftly approaching its end, and many people over the last two years or so asking a formidable number of questions appertaining to it, it seems an appropriate moment to record some of the salient experiences.  Although this is a light-hearted approach, I started with the premise that if an author does not give ample proof of a statement then it is liable to be a fiction, so here are a few of my reminiscences.

            I knew over 40 years ago that two Banks violins had been bequeathed to the Salisbury City Council, so decided to investigate.  On arrival at the old public library in Castle Street, the librarian, without leaving his desk, pointed to a tall bookcase opposite:  “There, on the top: help yourself,” and continued writing.  With the assistance of a chair, I was just about able to bring down an ancient twin case with at least an inch of library dust on it: no exaggeration.   My hanky was totally inadequate to cope with the situation, but had to do.  When the dust had settled and after much ado getting the case clasps working, I confirmed the two violins inside were certainly by Banks and good examples, but in a dilapidated condition.  It was my first encounter with his work, so with reverence I returned them to their “sarcophagus” and did my best to clean up their resting place.  My “thank you” was received with no more than a nod, but when I reached the door my taciturn friend looked on and said with a twinkle in his eye “next time you come, bring a couple of dusters!” - he wasn’t such a bad chap after all!

            In 1985, having made a private vow to put Banks securely on the map, I found the same twin case and one of the violins in the care of a local amateur player and in good playing order.  The other was missing but what I had overlooked all those years ago, tucked away in the top of the lid, hidden by 19th century tousled fabric, was a very fine bow, obviously by John Dodd but branded by Banks.  These two items eventually formed part of the exhibition.

            So much of Salisbury is as it was in the 18th century.  Without this stability, the fascination experienced in tracing Banks’ environment would have been minimal.  For instance, many of the same buildings are still standing in Catherine Street, where a plaque, unveiled by local violinist Iona Brown, now marks the Banks’ premises and workshop.  It was a relatively simple matter to establish that James Banks sang in the cathedral choir for three years and was probably educated at the day school for choristers from the Cathedral Library records. Earlier researchers certainly laid some false trails.  For instance, when checking Banks’ marriage date nothing was found by following the accepted premises that it took place at St. Martin’s church; could this be due to a missing page in the register?  The puzzle was solved on examination of St. Edmund’s church register where it was plainly stated.  I was nearly tripped up here, as it was about then that the calendar year changed from 1 April to 1 January,

            Salisbury, I believe, has a unique system that divides the city into squares that are called chequers.  The poor rates ledgers reflect this in their quarterly title pages and make-up.  They are a very important source of information.  In Banks’ case they tell us exactly when he took over his uncle’s business, when he died in 1795 and the transfer of the business to James and Henry the same year, also when it changed hands in l811.  The burning question still remaining was with whom did Banks serve his apprenticeship?  Only after much more searching was this information found, but not locally.

            Very few people seem to know about the Apprentice Books at the Records Office, Kew.  I certainly didn’t until my first visit. Fortunately in the 1920s some kind soul, bless him, rescued them from the Inland Revenue vaults and voluntarily undertook the gigantic task of cross-indexing the 79 huge ledgers, so large that they are brought on a trolley to the only area capable of holding them for inspection - the map room.  They cover just over 100 years of tax collecting on Apprenticeship Premiums.  Without the index, the task of pinpointing would have been nigh on impossible.  As it was, I needed four visits to achieve a result; suddenly, there it was: “Will Huttoft of New Sarum, Wilts. Instrument maker - Benjamin, son of John Banks, June 24th 1741. Premium £20.  Duty paid ten shillings, July 26th 1742.”  The tranquillity always associated with such “holy places” was shattered by my oral excitement.  “If looks could kill”, seemed to be on the countenances of adjacent readers…

            The two largest estates in Wiltshire are Wilton House and Longford Castle, both within a few miles of Salisbury. No research is allowed at Wilton House but it occurred to me on more than one occasion that the Banks family could have lent a helping hand in the carving of the violin motif that adorns the famous violin cabinet there? (No offence to Chippendale of course, but the Earl of Pembroke was a customer after all.)  The Earl of Radnor at Longford Castle was more sympathetic, so that through his archivist Nancy Steel, direct references to Benjamin Banks came to light; for instance, his charge for tuning the harpsichord and many other musical items from personal diaries that have survived.

            By now I had acquired a typewritten copy of Benjamin Banks’ Will and codicil from the Hill archive, so there seemed no reason to obtain another except that originals always have the aura of their own.  Just one visit to the Record Office, Chancery Lane, soon located Banks’ index entry, so a Photostat copy was made.  The actual Will, drawn up in 1791, carried Banks’ usual neat signature whereas on the codicil of 1794 his signature is reduced to an almost unreadable scribble, indicating a serious decline in health, so the visit to the office paid dividends.  One might ask what this has to do with violin making?  Very little but anything that enhances our picture of the subject must be of importance.

            It has always been my contention that, except for the Banks silhouette, we have no likeness of any violinmaker prior to photography.  The claim that John Joseph Merlin, whose portrait by Gainsborough is at Kenwood House, Hampstead, is a candidate must be rejected.  Although instruments do carry his label, they never state ‘made by him’. (His experiments, endeavouring to make Steiner model violins sound like those from Cremona are well known. Many English makers, including the Forster family, made for this very ingenious inventor.)

            The material kindly loaned to me by David Hill included photographic copies of Banks himself and Thomas Cahusac in silhouette form.  These were given to the Hill family in 1931 by the last known relative of the Banks family, Mrs. Isabel Banks (Thomas Cahusac married Banks eldest daughter Ann in 1770).  So far so good.

            I checked out the Banks silhouette with two leading Sale Rooms (they had better remain anonymous) who both considered that the style of collar, etc. indicated that it could not be earlier than 1805-10.  This was a serious setback, so much so that it seemed sensible to get further advice and in writing.  The Victoria and Albert Museum and The National Portrait Gallery had no such illusions; they confirmed that it was consistent with dress of the 1790s and that the subject would have been about 60 years of age.  Back to square one, with a great sigh of relief.

            Sometime after this episode my friend and colleague Andrew Dipper rang to say that a Mr. Peter Cahusac had telephoned asking for information regarding his ancestors, so would I ring him.  As it turned out Peter Cahusac was to be of much greater help to me than I was to him.  His own research had already led him to a relative, Mrs. Betty Simmonds (nee Cahusac) now in her early 80s and living in Buckinghamshire.

            My first meeting with Peter Cahusac produced only a casual remark that Betty Simmonds had some photographs of her ancestors but nothing earlier than the 1860s.  However, since she may have personal recollections that could be useful, a meeting would do no harm.  After all she was the most immediate ancestor of the Banks family alive today, in itself an unexpected bonus.  After lunch it was time to see all the photographs that had been laid out for our inspection.  One of particular interest was Isabel Banks, who in the 30s had donated all the material in the Hill archives.  Well, it looked as though Peter Cahusac was right after all.  Then, almost as an afterthought, our hostess then produced from a cabinet one silhouette and three miniature paintings.  For a few moments I was speechless: before me lay the original Banks silhouette plus three miniatures of Ann, his wife, Ann, their eldest daughter and Thomas Cahusac.  Could this be an hallucination?  As I was coming to, someone said, “Are you alright?”  It took a few moments to compose myself enough to give a suitable reply.  Yet there was another surprise to come.  Betty Simmonds left us still marvelling over this incredible find and returned with the family bible, printed in 1585.  As is customary, family history, mainly births, were recorded here, the first in 1651.  A statement at the end signed Benjamin Banks’ grandson Henry in 1810 confirmed my own research, but from a different angle.  The Bible was almost saying  “I told you so” - it was a gold mine!

            The Simmonds family were fully aware that Benjamin Banks was a relative by marriage but had no knowledge of his calling or his importance within the English School of violin making.  Inscriptions on the back of the silhouette made no mention of this, however the artists trade card enabled Phillips miniature department to track down the name of the artist and where it was executed in ten minutes flat.  It’s a remarkable fact that the originals and copies of all this material lay within but a short distance of each other for so many years.

            I had now struck up a relationship with the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.  My suggestion that if Cremona has Stradivari and is making the most of him, Salisbury has Banks and should follow suit, was received with bemusement and not a little scepticism.  However, the curator, Peter Saunders, saw my point and eventually the museum machinery stated to roll.   In the presence of many friends and devotees Emanuel Hurwitz launched a full exhibition at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum on February l0, 1990.  The archival section of the Banks exhibition centred around the material from Betty Simmonds.  Conducting her through it seemed a totally inadequate way of saying thank-you for such an important contribution.  It has been a great privilege to make a contribution to the history of the violin in the form of the Banks exhibition and publication.  The museum owns four instruments by Benjamin Banks; two violins, a fine viola purchased from J. & A. Beare in the 1970s and a Stradivari pattern cello.  An earlier bequest is the fine coloured double silhouette of Benjamin Banks’ grandchildren George and Eliza, children of Henry Banks, cut by Aug. Edouart in 1837.  A request to view is by appointment through the museum’s visitor’s office.

The Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum is situated in King’s House, 65 The Close, Salisbury, Wiltshire.  SP1 2EN    Tel. 01722 332151