The Cooper

Published in The Strad magazine Vol. 104 No. 1233  Jan. 1993


A tale of copies and collusion
Muses on the facts and fiction surrounding a violin copy by the Vollers

Violin by the Voller Brothers.


Back Length 141/2”, 362mm
Top Bouts 6 5/8”, 168mm
Middle Bout 4 ½”, 109mm
Lower Bout 8 ¼”, 210mm

Photographs by David Cousins

Many years ago a client of mine asked “Does the name Voller mean anything to you?”  My answer was limited to the fact that they were violin makers, lived in Streatham, in South West London, and that the only example to come to my notice was a violin that had been on display in J. & A. Beares’ Wardour Street, premises at sometime or another.  Naturally, I was curious to know what prompted her question, as she seemed the last person to know about such a matter; her answer was simple.  As a child her family lived opposite them in Streatham and because her elder brother had talent in writing, script form in particular, he made and copied labels when they were required.   The sixpence he received for each one was a bonus in times when every penny counted.

The history of the subject of this article, a violin by Voller, is a fascinating one.  It starts in Bournemouth, the hometown of Charles Fletcher, a violin teacher.  He was well known in local circles as a ‘collector and fiddle fanatic’.  His name frequently appears in THE STRAD before the First World War.  In their obituary of him in January, l916, THE STRAD states that he had both an eye and ear for a fiddle and that a large number of Cremonese instruments passed through his hands; he was 70 years-old when he died.  It was generally accepted that he left ‘fiddles and debts’.  Let’s hope one cancelled out the other.

Charles Fletcher commissioned this violin from the Voller Brothers, while he was in possession of the original Stradivari of 1691, known as the ‘Red Cross Knight’. (It was about this time that he also acquired the ‘Cassavetti’ viola of 1727.  His quartet of Stradivarian instruments was then complete.) This would have been during the early part of the century, certainly before 1909, as by then it had become the property of a young and very talented pupil, Edgar Mouncher from Southampton, who was about to start a three year course of study with Seveik in Vienna. Fletcher made one condition ‘on no account must you be tempted to part with it while abroad.’ In fact Mouncher kept it until 1965 when it came into the author’s possession.  In 1990 it went to Stuttgart for a seminar on ‘Replica and Copy Work through the Ages.’

Thanks to Charles Beare’s research, photographs of the original Strad turned up in his archives.  They show how near the Vollers came to the original, including simulated cracks on the top plate, varnish that does them great credit and the initials T.S. centre back.

Another violin of 1691 has brands “T.S. 1720”.  This is “The Hilton” on view at the 1988 Stradivari Exhibition in Cremona and illustrated on pages 52/3 in the catalogue.  Here 1720 is clearly discernible on the button with the initials “T.S.” above but none on the centre back.  Charles Beare mentions the other violin of 1691 but was, of course, unaware at the time that the Vollers had made a copy.

Who was this individual who deemed it necessary to brand instruments in this way?  Thomas Shuttleworth c.1690-c.1750 is the most likely candidate; all the signs and qualifications are there in abundance.  Sir John Hawkins in his History of Music 1776 gives details of him and members of his family: “Besides being a competent teacher of music and a viola da gamba player, the copying of Corelli Sonatas into legible English afforded Thomas Shuttleworth a foundation which gave him financial security.”   Sir John then goes on to record that “he was living in Spitalfields in the year 1738 and by his industry in this practice was enabled to bring up a numerous family.”

Nothing unusual in that you say, however Hawkins’ entry regarding Shuttleworth’s eldest son, Obadiah, is most revealing, Here we are told that ‘he was the son of old Mr. Thomas Shuttleworth who had acquired a little fortune by teaching and as a copyist. Obadiah’s three brothers were all accomplished violinists and a sister a harpsichordist, Obadiah himself played the violin to such a degree of perfection as gave him a rank among the first masters of his time.’  His name crops up again in Hawkins account of the Thomas Britton concerts. ‘Mr. Obadiah Shuttleworth, a fine player on the violin frequently performed there.’

Having searched diligently for other possible candidates, I can find none other than Thomas Shuttleworth to fit these tantalising initials.  Were they a security device? Even in those days the great Cremonese violins did not come cheaply and there were at least two in the family, if not more.

It would seem that Charles Fletcher knew a thing or two when he conditioned his young prodigy not to sell the Voller on the continent. Balfour & Co. by 1901 had already set themselves up as violin experts but in fact were shipping passenger and commission agents with little knowledge of the violin world.  They claim to have discovered a “Stradivari of 1692, the finest in the world for sale at £2,000.”  Balfours’ exploited this ‘find’ in a remarkable way; certificates given with enthusiasm and florid descriptions were gathered from Silvestre-Maucotel, Gustav Bernardel, Nestor Audinot, C.A. Chanot, F.W. Chanot and the wholesale firm of Beare & Sons - George Hart, J. &A. Beare and W.E. Hills & Sons were conspicuous by their absence.  These certificates with translations surround Balfour & Co.’s general guarantee document.

The 1906 August edition of THE STRAD carries a photograph of another Balfour find, this time a cello said to be the only one made by del Gesu.  The accompanying article by Vincent J. Cooper, a director (no relation of mine I hasten to add), goes into great detail in support of his claim.  Horace Petherick backs it with a long and detailed certificate.  The following month F.W. Chanot tore the two statements to shreds.  In the November edition a long letter by Walter Spencer probably hits the nail on the head when he observes; ‘I will only say that I can name a maker now living in London whose copies of the old masters have been certified as genuine examples by both English and French experts’ - an obvious reference to the ‘Balfour’ Strad, first illustrated in 1901.  It is well known now that this instrument is the work of the Voller Bros.  So what was going on?  They must have known all along that the so-called ‘Balfour’ Strad was their work.  Why did they keep silent, or were they in collusion with Balfour & Co.?  It seems to me that the latter explanation is the more likely.

Generally speaking, the ability to deceive someone does rank very high.  However, in spite of this, the Vollers - father and two brothers - have left some remarkable examples of the copyists’ art.  For this we must be thankful, providing one is capable of recognising them!

Many thanks to Charles Beare for research into his firm’s archives.  A publication is currently in hand, which will illustrate this violin more fully.