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English Violins of the Eighteenth Century: Benjamin Banks of Salisbury

Benjamin Banks Violin

English Violin, Benjamin Banks, Salisbury, c. 1775, Auctioned for $20,145

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.

Benjamin Banks Viola

English Viola, James and Henry Banks, Salisbury, 1800, Auctioned for $7,110

Benjamin Banks Viola

English Viola, Benjamin Banks, Salisbury, c. 1775, Auctioned for $7,110

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12 thoughts on “English Violins of the Eighteenth Century: Benjamin Banks of Salisbury

  1. I have a violin that I have had for 30 plus years. It came from an elderly couple in rural Missouri that said they brought it from “the old country”. They had no children and made it a gift to my sister-in-law because she had been robbed while traveling in their town and had nothing left but the pajamas on her back. I acquired it from a bank that she had rented a safety deposit box from. She had put my name on the account and when she did not pay her rental they drilled the box. The bank kept it for several years before contacting me. They said it was wrapped in green velvet fabric and they thought it might have sentimental value to the family. I paid for the drilling of the box and they gave me the violin. I would like to have this violin appraised but I have no idea where to take it. I live in rural Oklahoma. Can you advise me on where I might get this appraisal done? It has a label inside the violin but I cannot read it with my naked eye. I had some old fiddle players look at it. They played it and said it was the nicest sounding violin they had ever seen but knew nothing about it. Your help and suggestions will be greatly appreciated. I saw you on PBS Antiques Roadshow from Washington DC.

  2. I have a Benjamin Banks 1776 violin, St. Catherine Street, Salisbury, England; my father bought it for me in 1968, and was wondering how I could get it authenticated and appraised.

    Thank you,

    Stewart Miller

      • I have a violin with a handwritten label inside
        James Banks Maker London
        No 47 AD 1900
        It was bought for me in 1969 in Salisbury Wiltshire England and wonder whether it has any connection to the famous Banks makers
        Many thanks for your kind attention

        • I too have a James Banks violin. The label says:

          James Banks Maker no. 27 London 1898

          Since yours is 2 years later and no. 47, I think this confirms that this, later, James Banks was active then. I think I found a Banks family tree in Encyclopedia Brittanica decades ago which said he was the last of the family to make violins, but I haven’t found anything about him on the internet. My grandfather bought it for my auntie Phyllis when she was a girl, i.e. about 1914. My Dad bought it from his sister for me in about 1948.
          It is a pretty violin and sounds nice, but I was never a good enough player to know whether it was anything special. regards, CS

    • Hello Stewart,

      I’m interested in the B. Banks violin you mention, and wonder from whom your father purchased the violin? I had one when I was in college, in Muncie, Indiana, 1964-1967, but it was stolen out of orchestra class by a fellow student; either Bill O., or Roger G., and wondered if your father bought your instrument from either of these two men. They both attended Ball State but were from upstate New York and Brooklyn.
      It has been a long time and there are probably no records left to indicate the information on the Banks I owned, but I’m just curious.

      Thank you,
      Penny

    • No, there are really no unique characteristics that alone define the English schools, other than the use of native English woods and some of the features of Italian violins tend to be a little bit exaggerated and heavier. Another generalization may be that their varnishes tend to have less transparency and a texture that is somewhat leathery in appearance.

  3. I have a violin with a label reading Richard Banks, Ambergate, near Derby and dated 1881 (I believe, it’s unclear). Is is possible that Richard is a descendant of either James or Henry given its proximity to Liverpool?

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