Philip Kass reviews a history and analysis of the British violin making firm’s legacy

W.E. Hill & Sons: Violin Makers 1880–1936

John Basford, Tim Toft

128PP ISBN-13 9781916271500

Colley Books £95 (standard) £275 (deluxe)


Mention W. E. Hill & Sons to most string players and they will think immediately about the bows. They exist in both high quality and great quantity, and have found their way into many if not most instrument cases. Most, though, will not think of the violins, violas and cellos made under this label. They, too, are of high quality, but are easily overlooked in the vast sea of 20th-century lutherie. That oversight, however, has now been carefully and critically examined by John Basford and Tim Toft, the authors of W. E. Hill & Sons, Violin Makers 1880–1936, which deserves to find a spot on the serious violin enthusiast’s bookshelf.

These days, there seems to be a flood of new violin books dealing with every topic, but those taking on historical subjects always seem to face the same problem. Violin books, you see, tend to be a lot like a certain popular American magazine: people buy them for the articles, but they really only look at the pictures. The authors might work hard at writing biographical texts, and with good analysis, but the handful of readers who actually look at them will read just what they think they need to know for identification. The only thing that they consistently look at are the photos of instruments or bows, mostly just for the purpose of figuring out whether they can use the expertise in their work. So what’s an author to do?

The answer, perhaps, is to do what Basford and Toft have done – they’ve put their text into a form that is conducive to quick skimming. The lengthiest text consists of two sections, both based on timelines, one giving the biographies of the makers concerned and the other a list of events concerning the Hill family and the manufacture of Hill violins. The biographies include the Hills themselves, but also the individuals who were engaged in the making of violins at Hills throughout the years. The timeline concerning the Hills gives the reader an outline of the family, of how the making of violins came about and the events that influenced their construction. This is a rather useful way to include in the text the many extraneous but related events that pertain to the whole picture, matters that would probably require lengthy digressions or large footnotes, and as a result might distract from the book’s intent.

However, the book is far more than just this. What follows is a well-written and fairly thorough account of the firm’s history and significance to new making. This endeavour seems to have arisen as much from the connections the firm now had to Mirecourt (Alfred and Arthur both studied there) as from the desire that the firm should offer new instruments as well as old. The dealing in old instruments, however, strongly influenced the nature of their new making. This is presented very clearly in the subsequent chapter, concerning the instruments, many of which were made in imitation of some of the great classic instruments that passed through their hands over those years.

No book on this subject would be complete without an extensive analysis of the instruments and what distinguished them as Hill violins. The text includes all manner of useful added information: the variety of models used for violins, violas and cellos, which included those badged as workshop instruments.

And finally, we get to the instruments themselves: 25 in all, of which 22 bear the Hills’ label. The authors point out the different models that were used to create these instruments, but supplement this with photos of the actual patterns and forms on which they were created. They also discuss in great detail the specific characteristics of construction, such as materials, layout, thicknessing, internal construction and varnishes, all matters of great importance in understanding the workshop. Where possible they include anecdotal information passed along by sources who knew the Hills or were contemporary to them. One can note some of their faithful models after the great instruments that passed through their hands, as well as a distinctive slab-cut maple that seems particular to the early years; and several varieties of varnish, also specific to particular periods.

Towards the end, they inventory and illustrate many of the models and patterns, as well as many of the tools and even publications related to this phase of their commerce. A variety of parts were made but never varnished; this applies particularly to the scrolls, a good sample of which are also illustrated. In fact, they almost have too much to illustrate: the back cover includes a variety of bridges made by William E. Hill in his last years – something of interest, no doubt, but also something that falls outside the bounds of this book.

By this stage you are probably wondering whether you need another book of this sort, rather than waiting for the next big tome on old Italians. Well, I think I can speak for many of us when I say that most dealers’ stocks-in-trade will consist of instruments like these rather than those old Italians. To be able to compare them against the examples in the book and to be able to place them in a proper context: this is reason enough to add this book to your library.