Celebrating 50 years in the violin business –
My first few years in the real world (1972 – 1982)
It is hard to believe that 50 years have passed since I arrived fresh-faced and not a little apprehensive at Newark Northgate train station to embark on my first year of study at the newly opened Newark School of Violin Making in Nottinghamshire. In fact, I was in the very first intake of 12 students on the brand new course that started in September 1972 with tutors Maurice Bouette, Wilf Saunders and (slightly later) Glen Collins. I was also one of the two youngest, at not quite 16 years of age.
I recently wrote a brief recollection of my three year spell at the school for The Strad magazine to compliment their own article – it might still be online. I have many happy memories there mixed in with a little teenage anxt, and though I probably didn't quite appreciate it at the time I’ll be forever grateful for the wonderful support and guidance I received from our wonderful mentors, Maurice, Wilf and Glen.
Following Newark, it was not at all easy to find a work placement in the violin trade. I had hoped that Bert Houniet in Scotland might take me on but in the end he decided he preferred to continue working alone. However, in a wonderful full circle, I came to know him over 20 years later as a trusted friend and colleague. In the end, I was very lucky to find a job at a leading violin shop in West London called Ealing Strings.
Ealing Strings had been founded in 1966 by three ex-employees of W.E. Hill & Sons. I’ll always be grateful that they had faith in me – a very inexperienced and nervous 19 year old. Most of my time there was limited to varnish retouch, setting up and some minor repair work. However, it was an invaluable time and a wonderful first step into the violin business.
I remember one occasion when a cello fell over in the shop as it was being collected by the customer, snapping the neck in two. It was a Friday and it was desperately needed by Monday for a concert. Brian, one of my bosses who specialized in restoration, had the new neck prepared, fitted and glued on Friday, finished it off on Saturday and it was fully retouched and ready for the customer by Monday morning! Brian’s preparation was so precise that you could almost see the saw cuts on the neck graft joints. It was very impressive…
Half of the first NSVM intake circa 1974 at business studies class.
Left to Right: Richard Hague, Andy Mills, Jurgen Baranzek, Guy Della Verde,
Albert Nelson, Les McAllen, Fred Smith teacher (front).
Adam and Glen at the NSVM 30th reunion 2002
Adam and 2nd violin circa 1975
Cranston Workshop, circa 1977
One of those I worked with at the shop was a violin maker called James Robinson who had himself graduated from the Cremona school of violin making where he had studied with makers such as Morassi, Bissolotti and Conia. Jim was employed purely in making new instruments and I remember being particularly impressed not just by his enthusiasm and skill but by the speed at which he worked (he also spent a great amount of time on varnish experimentation). I think this was drilled into students at the Cremona school. He told me once that early on in his time at the school, one of the tutors came up to him and his nearly finished violin, inspected it briefly then threw it to the floor and destroyed it. I understood that the idea was not to become too attached and precious about your work. It does seem a bit extreme though!
Around 1977 Jim had decided to leave the shop to do his own thing and shortly afterwards asked if we could meet up. He had met a lady called Norelle Hardie who was a sculptor and teacher at a private art class he had been going to. She had a career as a woodcarver working on monumental sculpture in churches but also high class art work for department stores such as the famous Liberty’s in London’s West End, well known for its connection to art and culture.
Somehow, she and Jim had come up with the idea to start a new violin shop in London, giving the opportunity for young people to work together in an artistic field and Jim had recommended me. She would be the managing director, but we would each have an equal share of the responsibility and decision making of the shop. We just needed one other craftsperson to make it possible, and as luck would have it, Martin Godliman who had worked for many years at W.E.Hill & Sons as a maker and restorer was able to join us. I somewhat nervously gave in my notice at Ealing Strings – they had been very kind to me but this was an opportunity that I didn't want to turn down and regret later.
Premises were eventually found in the famous Portobello Road near to Ladbroke Grove tube and after many exciting meetings and preparations, in Autumn of 1977 we opened the doors to the latest violin shop in London – ‘Cranston Workshop’ (actually Norelle’s middle name).
Portobello Road landed itself firmly on the world map in 1999 due to the film Notting Hill - but of course its other claim to fame is the Notting Hill Carnival which takes place every August bank holiday weekend. This came as quite a surprise to us – not that we weren’t aware of it, but perhaps we hadn’t quite grasped what it was like to be at the epicenter of so much noise and frenzied activity! It was our good luck that the police usually cordoned off our bit of the Portobello Road to manage the extreme crowds.
Adam in the showroom, Cranstons circa 1978
Cranston Workshop circa 1978. Jim, Martin and Adam
Jim Robinson working on a new cello at Cranstons circa 1978
The aim of the new business was to do new making, restoration and dealing in equal measure. Jim with his Italian flair from Cremona (actually he was American), Martin with his solid experience working at one of the most famous violin firms in the world, and me from Newark – still young and inexperienced, but full of enthusiasm and a determination to do well. I had the added bonus of being able to play the violin, which would be useful when dealing with customers. Also, through my father, violinist Herbert Whone, I had access to many musicians. As such, my first job was to send out a letter alerting as many string players as possible to our existence. I remember very well the excitement of creating something new and throwing my whole energy into it.
The shop was quite unique I think in our desire to break down the barrier between the shop front and the workshop that was so prevalent in most violin businesses. The shop counter and the workshop were in the same space so that customers basically walked into the workshop with just a light screen between us at our benches and the entrance with its small counter.
Amongst many highlights of my time there was making a copy of a wonderful C.G.Testore cello for its owner, a fine cellist called Bobby Kok. The Testore had been in for repairs and since we had the table off, it was also an ideal opportunity to obtain accurate measurements. In fact after that commission, I made another 5 cellos in fairly quick succession and had ideas of being known as the “Cello man”.
Adam working on Montagnana Ce scroll circa 1979
It was definitely a steep learning curve for us all, particularly on the expertise and dealing front. However, we did manage to do some good business with antique instruments, and having three heads to put together was a great help. We religiously attended every auction, always made notes and learned as much as we could from studying the instruments we saw. But we also had our mishaps.
On one occasion, one of us (no names mentioned but it wasn’t me) visited a particular restorer/dealer who had offered us a ‘very fine’ violin for sale. It was purchased for cash under slightly dubious circumstances and brought home. I remember it being explained that the seller had been enjoying (and sharing) some rather suspicious cigarettes and everything had become a little bit shall we say - blurry (well it was the 70s). When we looked at the ‘fine violin’ together in the cold light of day it turned out not only to be a nasty instrument, but also had horrific internal repairs. A total rip-off but a good lesson. Thankfully I think it was our only serious blooper.
Martin and Adam with newly completed instruments circa 1979-80
Testore copy back (in the white)
Adam's Testore Ce copy (back) circa 1979
Adam's Testore cello copy (front) circa 1979
Adam's Testore cello copy (front) circa 1979
Over the five or so years that the shop ran, there were ups and downs but at the time I believe it was unique in its breadth of experience and the open-ness that we wanted to achieve with our customers. It was genuinely a fresh breeze in the violin world and we gained many wonderful customers and friends during the years that the shop existed. In particular, I’m forever indebted to Norelle, our managing director. She threw her life into the whole enterprise and was not just a great friend but an important mentor who kept me (and my colleagues) on the straight and narrow during some challenging times.
Adam and Martin, Cranstons
One of the hardest moments was when Jim had to permanently leave the UK for various reasons - but fortunately we were able to find Paul Ayres and Man Seng Chan to become part of the team which saw the shop take on a new energy until it finally closed in 1982. Paul had previously been at Ealing Strings and Man Seng had been studying viola with John White at the RAM who had encouraged him to follow his obvious natural ability as a craftsman. The end was sad, not helped by the loss of the shop in Portobello Road and a difficult move to Fulham, but probably inevitable due to differing views as to the future of the shop.
Great customer: Violist Harold Harriott in the workshop
Adam with original Montagnana Ce, circa 1981
Adam at 5 Blagrove Road W11, circa 1983
Paul Ayers, Adam Whone, Man Seng Chan and Martin Godliman
Cranstons, circa 1979-80
Cranston Workshop circa 1979 Paul, Adam, Man Seng and Martin
Following the closure of the shop I worked from my home near the Portobello Road until moving to Acton in West London after which, in 1987, I got wind of the imminent sale of one of the most important and longest surviving violin shops in the UK – Edward Withers Ltd.
But that’s another story!