By Glenn P. Wood
It could be argued that the golden-period violin cases were made by Stradivari but an equally powerful argument could be made for those created by W.E. Hill & Sons between the years 1887–95. These were the years when the firm occupied premises at 38 New Bond Street in London and was consolidating its victory over Paris as the premier world center for the high-end violin business. In 1895, Hill & Sons moved to 140 New Bond Street, perhaps to be a little closer to Fabergé across the road at No. 173. This was truly an era of elegance, opulence, and clients desirous of the best that money could buy.
In those years, W.E. Hill & Sons offered two types of cases to their best clients. Both were for single violins but differed in shape and concept. In the Hill catalogue in 1895, Hill explains:
We have erected a special workshop for the production of violin cases of fine workmanship and high artistic merit. In our opinion, the case containing so fine a work of art as a good violin should be pleasing and indeed beautiful.
The usual form of case, though somewhat wanting in beauty of outline, has the advantage of smallness of size and great portability. We continue to make cases of this form, but we endeavour, by the use of choice wood, and ornamental inlaid bordering, and the highest quality workmanship throughout, to make them as beautiful as possible, and receptacles worthy of fine violins. The internal fittings are also carefully considered, and the cases are lined with plush of a colour to suit that of the varnish of the violin.
The following comments will be of interest to case makers today:
The most careful attention has been paid to every detail of construction, and the locks and flush-bolts are all specially made after our own patterns. We may mention that the lock is so made that if it be damaged it can be taken out without disturbing in the least the woodwork or the lining of the case. The button that holds the bow is lined with cork in order that the mountings of a good bow may not be damaged. The loop to contain the point of the bow is stiffened to protect the head. Without enumerating further details we think we are justified in stating that no such cases as these have ever been made before. To show that these cases have already met with some recognition we may mention that the beautiful violin case of mahogany and satinwood in which a Stradivari violin was presented to Dr. Joachim on the occasion of his jubilee, was made by us.
Probably modesty restrained him from mentioning that Pablo de Sarasate owned an early version of this case, manufactured while the Hills were still in Wardour Street. The case accompanies the 1713 Stradivari violin, which Sarasate acquired from the Boissier Collection in Geneva. The case and violin are now in the Conservatorio de Musica in Madrid, Spain.
The highest-quality case is described in the catalogue thus:
The wood of the outside and of the inside can be varied but in the illustration the outside is of mahogany and the inside is of satinwood. An ornamental inlaid pattern is added around the outer edge. It is usually made of ebony and boxwood and is of what is termed the “herringbone” pattern.
The reason these cases have survived in good condition is because they could be supplied with a protective leather cover, lined with red velvet (as was the case above).
Now comes the second type of case, described by Hill as “Art Cases.”
Recently we have reproduced an old form of case, which is not only pleasing in its proportions but specially convenient for holding the bows and which supplies ample room for small lockers for strings, rosin, etc.
We have spared no pains in bringing this case to completion as a true work of art. The finest specimens of wood are selected and the case is bordered by lines and patterns of highly finished inlaid work. The lid of the principal locker is ornamented with a finely inlaid trophy, while the plush for the lining of the case, as well as all the brass and other fittings, are most carefully selected.
We specially invite an inspection of these Art Cases, which are certainly worthy to be regarded as true ornaments in any drawing room or music room.
To appreciate the full beauty of these cases, they should be seen in person. Unfortunately, very few were ever made and no two are the same. However, they all share the so-called “trophy” inlaid into the main compartment cover.
Page 16 of the 1895 catalogue shows an illustration of one of the very rare leather-covered Art Cases.
By diligent research and a modicum of good luck, this exact case has been traced to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, where it was acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1981. It is made of wood and covered with leather, which has been liberally decorated. Prior to 1920, the case was owned by Edward F. Searles (1841–1920) of Methuen, Massachusetts. In 1920, it was inherited by B. Allen Rowland (1910–91) of New Castle, New Hampshire. In 1981, it was gifted to the MFA by the estate of B. Allen Rowland, then of Lawrence, Massachusetts (accession date: January 22, 1992).
The final page of the 1895 catalogue provides a rare glimpse into Hill’s case-making workshop at Hanwell with what appears to be this same case under construction at the back—a busy workshop for the creation of very fine pieces of art indeed.
Special thanks to Mads Hjorth of Hjorth Violins, Copenhagen, for the gift of the 1895 catalogue of “Cases for Violins, Violas, and Violoncellos made by W.E. Hill and Sons.”