Extract from British Violin Makers by the
Reverend William Meredith Morris, published by Chatto & Windus, London,
Priestnall John, Rochdale (1819 – 1899) Violin
He was born at Saddleworth near Oldham in November
1819 and died at Rochdale 18th January 1899. He was originally
a joiner and pattern maker, and noted as an ingenious workman, and the
discoverer of several improvements in woodworking machines. He worked
occasionally at violin making in early life, but in 1870 he began to devote
the whole of his time to it, and the remaining years of his life was spent
as a professional maker.
At the time of his death he had completed 300 violins,
30 viola’s, 6 cello’s and 8 double basses. His instruments are well finished
and possess considerable originality. His wood is most regular in figure,
cut on the quarter, with the curl running at right angles to the long
axis. The sound holes are quaint but pleasing.
The scroll is thrown with a decided hand, the edges
are full and rounded, and the purling nicely inlaid. The varnish is an
oil one, colour deep golden amber. It is transparent, elastic, and tender,
rather to tender, seeing that a fiddle, which was made in 1884, is not
quite dry in 1902. One suspects that a varnish, which does not thoroughly
set in 18 years, will never set at all. Apart from this one defect, the
varnish is very beautiful. It is laid on in about half a dozen coats,
and nicely polished.
The tone is large and telling, and possesses much
of the Italian oiliness, but is rather viola like on the lower strings.
I am told this is characteristic of all his instruments. Nevertheless
it is a highly respectable tone and stamps Priestnall as a maker
of no ordinary ability. Had he been more conversant with Italian work
of the first rank, no doubt some of the 300 odd examples of his art, which
he left behind him, would be eagerly sought after today by orchestral
As a repairer Priestnall was justly famed.
Instruments came to him from all parts, and he repaired hundreds of all
descriptions, mostly of the English and French schools. He had a fertile
brain, and his genius was very assertive in inventing contrivances when
working at an awkward repair. Not only was repairing to him a fine art,
but the method of working was also regarded by him as an art. He studied
‘means’ as well as ‘ends’.
Old Mr. Hill of Wardour Street, is reported
to have said that a good maker ought to be able to make a fiddle with
a knife and fork, albeit he himself used the finest tools in his repairing,
made from the best metal,
Priestnall did not believe in ‘knife
and fork’ repairing. He would patiently spend hours over a contrivance
that would methodically ensure an artistic finish to a job. There is ample
room today for more men of his stamp. Artistic repairers are few and far
between. There are not above half a dozen scientific repairers in Greta
Britain at the present time, whereas there are at least 200 makers, professional
and amateur, exclusive of manufacturers of the ordinary trade fiddle.
Priestnall was a very genial and generous
man. He had sense of humour also if the following tale be true. It is
related that he once faked an Italian fiddle in order to test the
powers of a well-known London expert. He carefully prepared his bait,
clapped a Storioni ticket into it, and sent it up for opinion.
The instrument came back with a certificate duly attesting that the fiddle
was genuine as labelled.
Priestnall was much amused over the credulity of
the big gun as he called him. The incident is not impossible. I
know a maker of Old Italian instruments residing not one hundred
miles from Manchester, who by his cunning and deftness continually practises
his black art upon the experts. He recently turned out a splendid Panormo
and a Grancino which completely deceived a high priest of the art.
Quis Judicet Ipsos Criticos?.
Priestnall was an old fashioned player on
the violin, and in his young days was much in request at country weddings,
fairs, etc. He sold his instruments at £4, but some of them have been
recently sold at double the price.
His instruments bear no label, but the makers name
is stamped on the wood with a cold punch in several places, and the number
of the instrument is stamped on the button.
Universal Dictionary of Violins and Bowmakers volume
4 – 1960.
Born 1819, Amateur, Resident of Rochdale, 1840,
Produced 300 violins, 30 violas, 6 cellos and 8
double basses. Reasonably good workmanship, but indifferent varnish. Name
and number of instrument branded on button.
Valued at this time - £30
As a final footnote, a violin manufactured by John
Priestnall came up for auction at Phillips Auctioneers Ltd, London on
the 20th March 1996 with the following description.
A Violin by J. Priestnall Violin Maker Rochdale
1895, profusely branded on back and front, L.O.B. 14 1/8in. (359mm.),
in case The two-piece back, ribs and scroll of faint narrow curl, table
of bold medium grain, varnish of an orange brown colour on a light brown
ground, good condition £600-800
It is unknown whether the violin reached the guide