Once considered the crowning achievement of Guarneri’s career, this instrument has pristine golden-orange varnish

King Joseph violin

1737 ‘King Joseph’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ violin

American collector David L. Fulton had a passion for collecting fine instruments, specifically old Italians, and over two decades his collection grew to become possibly the 20th century’s finest owned by an individual. The Strad Calendar 2024 brings together twelve of these extraordinary instruments, described here with comments by Fulton and others.

  • 1737 ‘King Joseph’ Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ violin

The 1737 ‘King Joseph’ violin by Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ acquired its name in the 19th century because it was considered to be the crowning achievement of Giuseppe (Joseph) Guarneri’s career. The tone quality in particular came in for praise, but the instrument itself is almost matchless in its craftsmanship. In order to describe the pristine golden-orange varnish in his 1875 book The Violin, the expert George Hart was compelled to quote Lord Byron’s description of the colours of twilight:

Melted to one vast Iris of the West,

Where the Day joins the past Eternity;

…all its hues,

From the rich sunset to the rising star,

Their magical variety diffuse:

And now they change; a paler shadow strews

Its mantle o’er the mountains; parting day

Dies like the dolphin, whom each pang imbues

With a new colour as it gasps away,

The last still loveliest, till – ’tis gone – and all is grey.

Fulton agrees with Hart’s sentiment: ‘Even the finest photographs fail to capture the actual beauty of the fiddle,’ he says. ‘Holding it in good afternoon sunlight, it looks like a living flame in your hand. The violin is in superb mechanical condition with minimal repairs or restoration. This is, of course, thanks to its 71-year slumber during the early 20th century. Consequently, the instrument has no notable “wolfs” or tonal unevenness. Though not quite as easy to play as the “Lord Wilton”, it still speaks readily without excessive bow pressure. The violin’s tone is golden, warm, powerful and ingratiating.’ The top is made from two pieces of spruce with narrow grain broadening towards the flanks. The back is of one piece of slab-cut maple with a prominent curl ascending from left to right. The original scroll and ribs are of quarter-cut maple with medium curl.

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American collector David L. Fulton amassed one of the 20th century’s finest collections of stringed instruments. This year’s calendar pays tribute to some of these priceless treasures, including Yehudi Menuhin’s celebrated ‘Lord Wilton’ Guarneri, the Carlo Bergonzi once played by Fritz Kreisler, and four instruments by Antonio Stradivari.