An Incomplete History of the BVMA

The British Violin Making Association was founded in 1994 and formally incorporated in the following year out of the belief that there should be such a society in Britain to promote a fellowship between makers and all those interested in the history of violin making. In other countries, national associations of violin making took the form of professional organisations with barriers to entry for those who didn’t have the required training, but in Britain there has always been a very strong tradition of amateur making that includes both very talented makers, and amateurs whose background in other fields, as musicians or in such fields as acoustics and engineering has provided extremely valuable cross currents of information and learning. This philosophy had already been proven successful in the forerunners to the BVMA, most notably the Facta Britannia Violin Competition that ran from 1981 to 1986 and the Tiverton Violin Conferences which ran from 1986 to 1989. As a result, it was decided that the association should be open to anybody who shares an interest in its goals, whether they are a violin maker or not, with the proviso that membership of the association should not be regarded as a mark of professional standing. At the same time there was concern about what constituted Britishness. Amongst the founding members of the association were makers who had trained in Mittenwald and Brienz, and makers who came from Ireland, France, Germany and Switzerland. Added to that the violin making schools of the 1990s in London, Newark, Leeds and Wales all attracted a phenomenally international group of students, who would leave the country after a few years to pursue their careers in other parts of the world - not necessarily even their home countries. It has always seemed a little unfortunate to call the BVMA the British association, when a British trained violin maker or a violin maker working in Britain could come from absolutely any part of the world.

Shortly after its creation, circumstances turned out in favour of the BVMA with the opportunity to mount a major exhibition, The British Violin: 400 Years of Violin Making in the British Isles at the Duke’s Hall of the Royal Academy of Music. British violins of all ages had largely been overlooked by comparison to French and Italian instruments, and the exhibition provided the opportunity to get some important conversations started about these instruments and just as importantly about the direction of modern making. As Charles Beare remarked in the introduction to the catalogue, British making had gone in a kind of “W” with peaks of extraordinary making in the early 1700s with Daniel Parker and his contemporaries, in the Betts workshop with the influence of Vincenzo Panormo around 1800, and yet again in the 1990s with British makers understanding more than ever before about the nature of the Cremonese violins that they sought to copy. The catalogue of the exhibition which took until 2003 to publish remains a landmark publication that set the BVMA’s reputation for world-class excellence.

Meanwhile, inspired by the Tiverton Violin Conferences of the 1980s, the BVMA re-established the model at Dartington Hall, providing an annual conference and get-together of the violin making community each year from 1996 to 2008 when rising costs put an end to the tradition and as with Tiverton, transcripts were published each year following the conference (see the forthcoming BVMA digital library). The annual Maker’s Day was also established, first of all at Guildhall School of Music, moving gradually to The Old Session House in Clerkenwell, the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, before finding a home at King’s Place in 2017. Maker’s Day serves as an opportunity to showcase the craft of violin making, and members of the BVMA from around the world gather in London to display their work to the public, helping to promote the industry and give confidence to musicians in their search for instruments.

Through the early 2000s the major strength of the BVMA was publishing books. After the 2003 The British Violin catalogue, John Dilworth, Andrew Fairfax and John Milnes published on the most enigmatic of English makers, The Voller Brothers: Victorian Violin Makers, and David Rattray published the encyclopaedic Violin Making in Scotland, 1750-1950. Derek Wilson and John Milnes’s The Hill Bow Makers 1880-1960 rounding off the major books to date. The association ran its first violin making competition in parallel with the Menuhin Competition at the Festival of the Violin at the Royal Academy in 2004. Along with periodic study days the association’s membership continued to be healthy. Another major introduction to the BVMA was the Violin Making and Bow Making and Repair courses that take place biennially at West Dean. The first course was in 2007 and was a response to the successful Oberlin Workshops supported by the Violin Society of America, allowing professional makers from around the world to work together under the tutelage of leading experts. The West Dean Course has become one of the most significant training courses for advanced professionals in the world.

In 2015 the BVMA’s 21st anniversary coincided with the 40th anniversary of Newark School of Violin Making, with a joint birthday party at the Newark Town Hall. This included a mini conference, and an informal exhibition of seventeenth-century English making that kick-started a new direction for the BVMA. The following year with the publication of the Hill bow book, the BVMA met at Oxford for a study day that attracted over 180 participants - roughly half its members, and set the course for a new series of conferences to take the place once filled by Dartington, but benefitting from the presence of the Hill Collection at the Ashmolean Museum. 2017 saw a major international conference Messiah 301 building on the research that had emerged following the tercentenary celebrations of Stradivari’s Messiah, and future annual conferences are planned. The quarterly Newsletter was reissued in full colour to fulfil a need in contemporary violin literature for articles of greater scope than monthly periodicals allow for, but without the requirements of peer reviewed journals. As we approach our 25th anniversary, the BVMA will be launching a curriculum of professional development courses to bridge the gap between college and the requirements of the trade, as well as to provide violin makers with refresher courses and more of an arena to discuss best practice. The years ahead look bright for the BVMA, but they rely on your membership, your enthusiasm and your willingness to engage with our projects and help make them happen. The management committee are violin makers, restorers and enthusiasts just like you. They don’t get paid, they share the love. Join today.