English violins of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are popular alternatives to Italian instruments for musicians seeking value. One of the best exponents of English violin making in the period of 1750-1800 was Benjamin Banks, who worked about 75 miles from London in the town of Salisbury. He trained as a musical instrument maker with his uncle, and eventually concentrated on the instruments of the string quartet: the violin, viola, and ‘cello.
Musical life in the town of Salisbury, where Banks worked just 75 miles from London, revolved mainly around the church. Banks produced violins, violas and ‘cellos that were mostly in the style of the Amati family, with a quality of sound that best fit these smaller venues. He also had an agent in London who sold instruments to a larger market, and for that Banks successfully produced many violins in the Stradivari style.
The excellent tradition of English craftsmanship in wood is evident in the joinery, carving and finish of Benjamin Banks instruments. The backs and sides are made from English sycamore with a narrow irregular flame, and English pine was used for the tops. Both woods were in plentiful supply near his home. Benjamin Banks’ varnish was thinly applied, with a very concentrated red-brown color and good transparency which makes the figure of the backs seem to dance.
Banks carefully considered the problem of viola size and produced successful designs extrapolated from Nicola Amati’s “Grand Pattern” violin, a model of wide proportion with very round upper and lower bouts. His violas were made to be comfortable to play, barely approaching the size of sixteen inches. He achieved the necessary air volume in the body for a dark viola tone by maximizing the height of the sides.
Benjamin Banks instruments share sophistication with those of the best London makers and take attributes from the Italian masters, while remaining uniquely Banks with their heavier and more robust interpretation. His sons James and Henry continued the family business in Salisbury until 1811, when they relocated to Liverpool.
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