Wednesday, 13 June 2018

"Scotland's Stradivari" a stranger in his own birthplace


He may have produced some of the world's finest violins despite battling alcoholism for much of his life. But Matthew Hardie, dubbed "Scotland's Stradivari" doesn't rate a mention in official or unofficial versions of the history of Jedburgh, the town of his birth.

While James Hutton (geologist), Mary Somerville (scientist) and David Brewster (physicist) have been rightfully inducted into the town's virtual Hall of Fame alongside Roy Laidlaw and Gary Armstrong, Hardie's link to the royal burgh appears to have been virtually overlooked.

Perhaps it is time to raise the profile of this master craftsman despite his chaotic lifestyle which had him banged up in a debtor's prison before his death in an Edinburgh poorhouse and burial in a pauper's grave in Greyfriars kirkyard.

These days Matthew Hardie's musical instruments command premium prices around the globe. At present, on E-bay you'll find one of his 1815 violins advertised by an American vendor with a price tag of $75,000 or 55.900 pounds. A Hardie-made cello sold for 28,800 pounds in 2006.

His son Thomas who inherited his father's skills along with his liking for strong drink was no slouch when it came to instrument making, although the critics did not always afford him rave reviews.

Just listen to this put down by William Meredith Morris, author of the 1920 publication 'British Violin Makers - a Biographical Dictionary': "As a matter of fact the tone of Thomas Hardie's instruments is almost always poor and often positively bad".

Mr Morris's forthright criticisms seem to have been well wide of the mark for The Upton Bass String Instrument Company, of Connecticut, USA, currently offers for sale a Thomas Hardie 1825 double bass, "a long time denizen of the Boston Symphony Orchestra"with an asking price of $95,000 (73,000 pounds). Not bad for a 'poor toned' member of the strings section!

Matthew Hardie (1754-1826) was the son of Jedburgh clock maker Stephen Hardie. The Register of Baptisms for Jedburgh Parish shows Matthew was christened on November 27th 1754.

Young Hardie trained as a joiner. But in 1778 together with his brother Henry he entered military service, enlisting in the South Fencible Regiment [SFR] commanded by the Duke of Buccleuch. The Buccleuch family was to come to his rescue as his patrons more than 20 years later.

He was discharged from the SFR in 1782. From 1788 on Matthew is mentioned in several Edinburgh directories, described as a musical instrument maker working from a number of different addresses.

Most of Hardie's work appears to have been for the Edinburgh Musical Society. But when the society closed in 1798 it heralded the beginning of his downward spiral into financial chaos and grinding poverty. He could no longer always afford the premium quality cuts of wood required to manufacture top class violins even though benefactors tried to help him maintain his high standards.

Matthew certainly had confidence in his own ability, claiming that his violins were 'inferior to none of the London made ones'.But by now he faced competition from a growing volume of imported instruments of inferior quality which were helping to meet the burgeoning demand for violins in Scotland.

In May 1800, with Hardie's fortunes close to rock bottom, the text of a poster reproduced on the informative Patrick's People website tells us:

'Subscription Concert and Ball For the Benefit of Matthew Hardie and his family who have been honoured with the patronage of Her Grace the Duchess of Buccleuch, Hon. Lady Charlotte Campbell Hon.Mrs Dundas of Arniston besides several other Ladies and Gentlemen of distinction To be held in Bernard's Room Thistle Street on Tuesday the 9th May curt at eight o'clock in the evening Leader of the Band Mr Bird, Piano Forte Mr Clark......Tickets (Three Shillings each) to be had at Mr Hardie back of Fountain Well, at all the Music Shops, and at the Door of the Rooms.'

Matthew's fall from grace was complete, but at least he had the support of the Buccleuchs.

There was to be a repeat performance the following year.

This time the advertisements (again reproduced at declared: 'Ball-under the Patronage of the Right Hon. the Earl & Countess of Dalkeith and the Officers of the 4th Regiment N B M will be held on Tuesday the 24th Feb. 1801 in Bernard's Rooms, Thistle Street for the benefit of Matthew Hardie Violin Maker. Since the conclusion of the American War, when the South Fencibles were discharged in which corps M. H. had the honour of serving, he has applied himself to making Violins etc. but on account of his numerous family, has never been able to acquire a sufficient stock to carry on trade to advantage, Therefore the Right Hon. the Earl and Countess of Dalkeith, with the Officers of the Regiment commanded by his Lordship have generously agreed to patronise him.'

Despite these interventions by the nobility Hardie seemed unable to regain and hold on to financial stability. For example, he was a member of the Edinburgh Musical Fund, but apparently could not keep up his subscriptions, and when he was unable to pay off arrears dating back to 1817 his name was, after several warnings, removed from the membership list in April 1825.

The end of Hardie's tortured life came a year later. The following entry is from the Greyfriars Burial Register: 'Matthew Hardie Violin Maker died 30th August 1826 C W H (Charity Workhouse) buried in Greyfriars on 31st.' He was 71 years of age.

So how good was Hardie and did he merit the Scottish Stradivari title?

Well, according to William Honeyman, author of Scottish Violin Makers Past and Present, written in 1910: "It is evident that the graceful lines of his violins and the perfect contour of his scrolls have come intuitively from the man's brain more than from his patterns. ... in every one of his violins there is apparent in every line that subtle something which no one can define.

"It is the same with the tone. The trained ear at once notes that it is not a commonplace tone, though it sometimes takes a firm hand to show its real grandeur."

Hardie's customers, among them members of Edinburgh's elite, were paying as much as six guineas for one of his sought after instruments in the early 1800's. That's the equivalent of six hundred pounds in today's monetary values.

And his reputation and popularity as a craftsman were such that he had his portrait painted by the noted Scottish artist Sir William Allan in about 1822.

The picture has been in the ownership of the National Galleries of Scotland since 1960. But perhaps fittingly, given Matthew's unconventional lifestyle, the oil on panel is currently 'in storage' rather than gracing some gallery wall. The NGS website wrongly claims Hardie to have been born in Edinburgh in 1755.

And what became of Thomas Hardie (1803-1856)?

He was, like his father, a hard-living individual whose alcoholism inhibited his inherited talents. Experts - apart from William Meredith Morris - say his instruments possess excellent sound quality and are well-made though the craftsmanship is less precise than that displayed by Hardie senior.

Like his father he had problems in maintaining a steady existence, and eventually died after falling down some stairs near his final residence at Advocate’s Close, Edinburgh, aged just 52. 

A modest plaque tells its readers: "BURIED IN THIS KIRKYARD MATTHEW HARDIE (1755-1826) THE SCOTTISH STRADIVARI AND HIS SON THOMAS (1804-1858) MASTER VIOLIN MAKERS OF EDINBURGH". The dates may be wrong, but at least the Hardies' last resting place is marked in some way.

No comments:

Post a Comment