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John 1819-1899

Biography of
JOHN PRIESTNALL of ROCHDALE

Extract from British Violin Makers by the Reverend William Meredith Morris, published by Chatto & Windus, London, 1904.

Priestnall John, Rochdale (1819 – 1899) Violin Maker

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 players.

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.

Priestnall John

Born 1819, Amateur, Resident of Rochdale, 1840, died 1899.

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 price.


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