By Inge Kjemtrup
On the wealth of stringed-instrument resources within walking distance of my Marylebone home’s front door
Since moving to London 18 years ago, I’ve lived in Marylebone, the area bounded by Oxford Street in the south, Edgware Road in the west, Marylebone Road in the north, and, depending on whom you talk to, Regent Street in the east. It has always been a musician-friendly area—thanks to its proximity to Wigmore Hall, one of the world’s finest chamber-music venues, and to the Royal Academy of Music—and in recent years it has become a vibrant hub for stringed-instrument dealers.
J&A Beare, Bishop Instruments & Bows, and Tarisio Auctions are right on Marylebone’s doorstep, while J.P. Guivier, Ingles & Hayday, and Stringers are just a short walk away. London string players know that when they’re in the market for an instrument or bow, or need a rehair or a new case, heading for Marylebone is the next best thing to one-stop shopping.
So let’s take a walk around. From the Bond Street Tube station, we cross Oxford and Wigmore streets to find Queen Anne Street and our first stop, J&A Beare.
Renovations are underway in several rooms so we head for the showroom on the second floor, which is in a traditional style with rugs, dark wood, and a library table, and looks out on Wigmore Street.
At the west end of Queen Anne Street, there’s a blue circular plaque on the front of a building commemorating a visit from composer Hector Berlioz in 1851. Although London is liberally dotted with such plaques, and has statues of musicians here and there (Bartok stands near the South Kensington Tube station), along with the Handel House Museum, in general the city is not inundated by monuments to musical glories of the past. In my opinion that’s a good thing—the city’s musical culture is focused on the here and now, which is why performers from all over the world come here to study and make their living. (We’ll see if the Brexit referendum, in which 52 percent of British electorate voted to leave the European Union, changes this.)
John & Arthur Beare is at No. 30, a late-Georgian building like most of the others on the block. The front door—like the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street—is jet black. This lends it a particular gravitas, further enhanced by an equally distinguished metal name plate. Step inside, and if it’s a rehair, repair, or quick consultation you’re after, you’ll transact your business in the main reception area. (The repair work is done in busy workshops on the second and third floors of the building.)
But should you be in search of an instrument, continue up to the graceful second-floor showroom, with its red oriental carpets, fireplace, high windows, and wall of violins, violas, and cellos. It’s a room that speaks of tradition, and indeed J&A Beare, or Beare’s as it’s usually known, has been in business since 1892.
These days, Beare’s is run by Simon Morris and Steven Smith, who first met each other in the National Youth Symphony of Great Britain. Many years later, their violin-dealing business, Morris & Smith, merged with Beare’s and in 2012, they took the helm as joint managing directors. That year Beare’s also sold the “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesù for over $16 million, a record for a private sale.
Morris traces Beare’s history for me, describing how the shop had been on Broadwick Street in Soho for decades, but the steady transformation of Soho into a dining and nightlife destination curtailed walk-in traffic and upped the rent. In 2000, Beare’s relocated to the more spacious building on Queen Anne Street, taking with them a reputation for expertise in valuing and selling instruments at the top end of the market. As Morris notes, the job of valuing and certifying instruments is made easier by the fact that “Beare’s has records going back decades.”
Leaving Beare’s and turning right, we make our way to Bishop Instruments and Bows. Bishop’s is in a building visible from Marylebone High Street, the bustling shopping street that turns more upmarket every day. So why did the firm’s director, Sean Bishop, move here? “I was a viola student at the Royal Academy of Music in the early ’90s, and knew the area well,” he explains. “Plus, the minute I saw it, I just thought it would be a perfect place for my shop. And the space itself is big enough for me to have annual master classes with well-known musicians, and we can fit 45 guests.” (Those guests, and the customers, always remember the distinctive purple sofas in the main room.)
Australian-born Bishop studied violin and viola, playing viola professionally with London orchestras before realizing selling instruments was his real passion. “Everyone knows someone at music college who was always buying and selling instruments—that was me!”
Unsurprisingly for a former pro violist, Bishop says that he has some insight into what violists are looking for. “I also have a good knowledge of bows, having recently bought bow number 700,” he adds. “Modern Italian instruments are also a big interest and I feel certainly confident in my knowledge of these areas.” Bishop’s offers rehairs but not general repairs.
The new kid in the Marylebone center is Tarisio Europe, located on Wimpole Street, a short stroll from Wigmore Hall. I’m given a tour of the building by Naomi Sadler, who is the head of Cozio, the encyclopedic instrument website owned by Tarisio. Renovations are underway in several rooms so we head for the showroom on the second floor, which is in a traditional style with rugs, dark wood, and a library table, and looks out on Wigmore Street. But that is about as traditional as Tarisio, famed for its pioneering online auctions, gets.
Looking to expand from its original New York location, as co-founder Jason Price tells me, going to London “was the logical choice” for the company in 2007. From small offices in Islington to a brief stint on Queen Anne Street across from Beare’s, the firm recently settled at Wimpole Street, where it hosts online auctions in March, June, and October, and also offers private sales—the latter an “important but small part of the business,” says Price. Sadler explains Tarisio’s philosophy: “We’re careful about what we sell, and we blazed a trail for more transparency.” There is for example, the “first in, last out” policy, where an early bidder, if successful at auction, receives a 2 percent discount on the commission.
While contemporary makers are represented in the Tarisio catalogs, most of the instruments are antique or modern. In June 2011, Tarisio sold the “Lady Blunt” Stradivari of 1721 for an auction world record $15.9 million, and in May sold a G.B. Guadagnini cello, the “Ex-Havemeyer,” for $1.5 million, setting the auction record for a Guadagnini instrument. Tarisio also offers a special auction for the trade called T2.
Aten-minute walk west from Tarisio’s offices and across Regent Street brings us to J.P. Guivier, which wins the prize for the longest time in a single location—it has been at its Mortimer Street site since 1941.
Guivier also has a fair shot at the title of “Best All-Around,” because it caters to everyone from pint-sized kids whose parents are looking to rent pint-sized violins up to professional players and collectors in search of high-quality instruments. It also has eight expert repairers and restorers onsite, working in rooms at the very top of the building. (Dealer Peter Biddulph occupies the third floor.)
The nerve center is the ground-floor shop, where the walls are lined with instrument cases. Behind the counter a large collection of strings are displayed in a large rack. It’s busy in the shop, and as I wait for Richard White to help a customer who wants a bow rehair and a valuation of her viola, I have a chance to admire the grandfather clock, stood to one side of a disused fireplace that is graced by a charming mantelpiece clock flanked by several metronomes.
I am also getting a behind-the-scenes look at Guivier’s famous window display. It’s August, so the centerpiece is a bright-red BAM violin case and a summer hat resting in a lawn chair, with a Pimm’s bottle and a glass with straw nearby. The complete British summer idyll.
I go up to another eye-catching second-floor showroom to speak with Richard White, now a director of Guivier along with Robin Hamilton. Founded as a string manufacturer by Jean Prosper Guivier in 1863, the company has a long and varied history in London. “We’re the oldest in London now, something to be proud of in many ways,” says White, who came to Guivier 30 years ago and worked with long-time owner Alan Wilks.
White has seen changes in the neighborhood, its increasing prosperity leading to the closure of long-standing fixtures such as the George pub, which was nicknamed “the Gluepot” because of its connection to the violin business. The actual gluepot that was in situ has, apparently, vanished.
Afew streets west from Guivier sits Ingles and Hayday on Great Titchfield Street. Co-director Tim Ingles notes that the location is far enough away to avoid the high Marylebone rents, yet close enough to Sotheby’s, where Ingles and Hayday holds auctions and public showing days.
Ingles and Hayday was spun out from Sotheby’s, as part of the famed auction house’s decision to concentrate on its core business of auctioning jewelry and paintings.
With co-director Paul Hayday, Ingles left Sotheby’s in 2012 and opened the company’s doors, first on Wigmore Street. Ingles explains that they retain a close relationship with Sotheby’s, still working as consultants. They hold two auctions a year that emphasize high quality. “We try to keep it small, clean, and well-curated,” he says.
In addition to these auctions, the firm also sells instruments privately, and offers verbal valuations as well as written valuations and certifications. Like Tarisio, the stress is on antiques, but Ingles and Hayday presents post-1900 instruments as well, including modern Italians and a few contemporary makers.
With white walls and blond-wood flooring, the Ingles and Hayday premises are a marked contrast to the other shops on this tour.
The large main showroom is well lit by a skylight, though Ingles assures me the many instruments on display are never directly hit by the sunlight, although I feared slightly for the impressive shelves of instrument-reference books.
To get to the final shop on the tour, I walk to the Oxford Circus Tube station and take the Bakerloo line north, disembarking at Marylebone Station. I emerge into one of the loveliest Victorian-era stations in London, all curvy white metal frames and glass.
Making my way to the west entrance, I walk up Lisson Grove, passing one of London’s best fish-and-chip shops, the Sea Shell. Stringers used to be nearer to Marylebone, but left to find greater space (and customer parking—not a common amenity in the center of town). The shop is bustling with customers, especially on Saturday mornings when parents and children line up for advice about finding that first instrument or upgrading to the next size up.
Stringers is the London outpost of a shop started in Edinburgh in 1992 by Maureen Morrison (née Stringer), a remarkably fitting surname. The shop caters particularly to students, but also has strings, cases, accessories, and instruments for more advanced players.
For most people, buying an instrument requires a visit to a shop for a hands-on experience and this is the strength of having so many places to try instruments within a short distance. Buying strings, accessories, and sheet music is often done online, and Stringers has an online store (the recently launched “Stringer’s Shack”) for these necessities, as does Guivier.
While it might seem that online shopping could eclipse the brick-and-mortar music shops of Marylebone, they are more likely to be imperiled by increasing rents, in which case they may all start to pick up sticks and go elsewhere. Nonetheless, there seems to be a willingness among the Marylebone dealers to roll with the changes. They keep up a (mostly) friendly rivalry that sees them get together for an annual Christmas party, where they mark another year of keeping London’s string players going strong.
Meet the Dealers
30 Queen Anne St, London, W1G 8HX
+44 20 7307 9666
Bishop Instruments & Bows
2 Hinde St, London, W1U 2AZ
+44 20 7487 5682
99 Mortimer St, London, W1N 7SX
+44 20 7580 2560
Ingles & Hayday Ltd.
77 Great Titchfield St, London, W1W 6RF
+44 20 7042 7337
Stringers in London
99 Lisson Grove, London, NW1 6UP
+44 20 7224 9099
86-87 Wimpole St, London, W1G 9RL
+44 20 7354 5763