A unique Stradivarius experience
Jeremy Pound visits the Ashmolean Museum's summer exhibition
The first thing I learn as I am being taken round the Stradivarius exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is to banish any romantic notions of being taken back in time. The instruments on show here may date from as early as the 1680s (such as the 'Cipriani Potter', right) to the 1730s, but there is not one Stradivarius in the world – not here, not anywhere – that looks exactly as it would have done when it left Antonio Stradivari’s workshop.
All of them, explains my guide, the exhibition’s curator Dr John Whiteley, have had parts replaced at some point, or been altered in one way or another during ‘restoration’. One particular culprit was the French luthier and restorer Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798-1875), who adapted a number of Stradivarii to meet 19th-century playing styles and aesthetic tastes. At the neck end of the instrument, Vuillaume’s alterations might involve a bit of lengthening here, a re-angle there; lower down, he’d often leave his mark with the addition of an ornate tailpiece.
‘A cultural vandal?’ I ask. While some might choose to judge him that way, responds Dr Whiteley, it’s a bit of a harsh verdict. That said, as we inspect the cherubs on the tailpiece of the 1716 ‘Messiah’ Stradivarius (below), I get the feeling that even he isn’t convinced by Vuillaume’s feel for design.
The Ashmolean exhibition, which runs until 11 August, has 21 Stradivarius instruments on display – largely violins, but also cellos, a viola, a guitar and a mandolin – plus tools, moulds and patterns used by the great man himself. Though only consisting of a couple of rooms, there’s a lot to see – once you get into the intricacies of just what makes a Stradivarius a Stradivarius, you’d be astonished at how much there is to discover.
Dr Whiteley and I spend over 90 minutes looking at and discussing the various instruments on show. All sorts of questions come to mind, and all are expertly answered. Why are some Strads considerably more ornate than others? Why are the fronts of some of these well crafted instruments so clearly asymmetrical? What was it that made Stradivari’s ‘Golden Period’ (c1700-20) become known as that? It’s fascinating stuff, and the answers are frequently surprising. Those 90 minutes could easily have turned into twice that length…
As I have come equipped with my dictaphone, I also ask Dr Whiteley to answer a few questions into a mic – you can hear the results here. Most visitors to the exhibition won’t, of course, enjoy the privilege of having the curator show them round. They will, however, doubtless find much of interest. I’d highly recommend it.