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Consigned to Brompton's October Sale - The Ex-Wilhelmj

The Ex-Wilhelmj
An Important Italian Violin by Giovanni Francesco Pressenda, Turin 1843


Bearing the original label, Joannes Franciscus Pressenda q.Raphael, fecit Taurini anno Domini 1843

Length of back 356mm

The fingerboard stamped with the W.E. Hill & Sons registration number P462

The violin is in an excellent state of preservation.


W.E. Hill & Sons, London, 1945


Condition Report:

This violin is in a very fine state of preservation


Letters and Papers:

A letter from W.E. Hill & Sons, dated London, January 16th 1945 addressed to Miss Daphne Carapata:


"We beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 2nd inst., with reference to the purchase of a Pressenda violin.

We have, at the moment, a very nice example of this maker which we recently acquired from a lady who bought it from Wilhelmj, who had used it for a time as his Solo Instrument and we have a letter in the Professor’s hand-writing concerning the fiddle.


A manuscript letter from August Wilhelmj to Miss Gwendoline Marie Church, dated London 1903:


"I certify that the violin sold by me to Miss Gwendoline Marie Church was made by Johannes Francescus Pressenda of Turin. It is a most remarkable specimen for tone and preservation and one of the most beautiful examples of this maker. August Wilhelmj."


  • August Wilhelmj until 1903
  • Gwendoline Marie Church
  • W.E. Hill & Sons before 1945
  • Miss Daphne Carapata, Vancouver 1945
  • Current owner


John Dilworth's Analysis of the Ex-Wilhelmj Pressenda

Giovanni Francesco Pressenda is now widely regarded as the greatest Italian maker in the revival of the classical style in the nineteenth century. His work reintroduced the disciplined approach of the old Cremonese makers, with a mixture of French formalism which he learned during the Napoleonic era in Turin. His assistant and follower Giuseppe Rocca re-established Italy at the forefront  of lutherie after the relative dissipation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

The virtuoso violinist August Wilhelmj had a significant role in bringing Pressenda’s work to wider attention, and this example of 1843 which was owned by him is an interesting part of the history of Turin violin making and its legacy.

Pressenda was born in 1777 in Lequio-Berria, part of the province of Cuneo, 60 kilometres southeast of Turin itself, and is thought to have trained as a violinist before meeting the Cremonese violin maker Lorenzo Storioni. It is by no means clear what he may have learned from Storioni, other than perhaps an interest in the craft of violin making. Around 1810 he arrived in Turin, where French tradesmen, including  the violin maker Nicolas Lete-Pillement, had established businesses under the Napoleonic occupation.  This came to an end in 1814, and Lete-Pillement  passed the business over to his assistant, Giovanni Francesco Pressenda.  He died five years later in 1819, and Pressenda took sole responsibility for the business.  Violin making in Turin had previously been led by the Guadagnini family, Giovanni Battista having settled there in 1771. After his death in 1786, the workshop was continued by his sons Gaetano and Carlo, and with an ever-decreasing interest in violins, concentrated largely on guitar making. The Guadagnini style was essentially in the tradition of the Cremonese makers; Giovanni Battista falsely laid claim to being a pupil of Stradivari on labels of instruments made in Turin. But his grandson Gaetano adapted the Mirecourt approach during the years of French rule and the appearance of Mirecourt trained makers in the city.

The essential difference in the two techniques is the use of an interior mould, the heart of the Cremonese method, and the external mould developed by French makers. The internal mould is simple and allows considerable freedom in shaping the ribs and even in manipulating the outline with acertain freedom. The external mould is more demanding to make initially, and tends to produce very exact duplications of the template design. It demands a greater initial investment of time, but makes a reliably reproducable  instrument.  By contrast, an internal mould for a new design  can be run up in short order, which also encourages more imaginative work.

We can imagine that Pressenda was trained from the outset in the French manner. Storioni was in fact one of the last exemplars of the older Cremonese style,  and changes in model and variety are defining aspects of his workmanship. Pressenda by contrast, was extremely consistent, and in addition, exhibited a very clean and precise workmanship which is also characteristically French in this period. He continued to employ French craftsmen in his workshop, including Joseph Calot, Leopold Noirel and Pierre Pacharel, who remained a strong contributor to the output of the workshop, possibly even after his adjournment to  his own shop in Nice around 1838. Pressenda’s most famous employee was Giuseppe Rocca, however. He was a native Piedmontese, born in 1807, but already established independently in Turin by 1837. He worked  for a relatively brief time for Pressenda, up until 1842, and by 1851 he had moved to Genoa. His work is outstanding and the best is at least the equal of anything Pressenda produced, but he ever managed the success in his own lifetime that Pressenda enjoyed.

This violin is dated 1843, when Pressenda was at the height of his powers. It is a mature and beautifully well-preserved example, and endorsed by Wilhelmj himself.

The violinist was born in Usingen, Hessen in 1845, just two years after its completion. Called the German Paganini at the age of 7, he studied with Ferdinand David in Leipzig. He became closely associated with Richard Wagner, and led the Bayreuth Orchestra at the debut of ‘der Ring des Nibelungen’ in 1876. In 1886 he came to London and took up the position as professor of the violin at the Guildhall. His primary concert instrument was the Stradivari of 1725 which bears his name and was bought for him by his father in 1866. In London he became known to the Hills as a regular client. Arthur Hill records a meeting at his London home in Avenue Road, Hampstead, when he produced twenty Pressendas and Roccas; all genuine, pronounced his brother Alfred, apparently with some surprise. It is not clear how he had accumulated this trove of Turinese instruments, but he had a clear preference for them throughout his life.  To the Hills he was a much admired player, with exceptional  bow control which enabled him to bring a powerful tone from a very light set-up they provided on his Stradivari. He was also deeply interested in violin making and dealing, and like many other renowned teachers, was keen to keep his pupils supplied with fine instruments.  His daughter married the violin maker Otto Migge of Koblenz, who moved to England with the family and established a workshop in Eastbourne in 1908. Wilhelmj also worked with Gustav Meinel, a Markneukirchen-born maker and dealer who also came to London, and opened a shop in Dublin, where he worked with William Hoffman. By the time of Wilhelmj’s death in 1908 the Hills seem to have lost patience with his dealing activities, and were disappointed that he had sold his Stradivarius in 1896 to Hugo Kupferschmidt, a German player living in Cincinnati, without their involvement.  Nevertheless, Arthur Hill credited Wilhelmj’s particular enthusiasm for Pressenda as having begun a serious interest in the Turinese maker’s work, which might be considered to have entered a stage of maturity and critical interest just at this period, nearly fifty years after his death in 1854.  He sold this particular violin in 1903, and it remains a beautifully preserved and definitive example of Pressenda’s achievement as a violin maker.

The outline conforms quite closely to Stradivari instruments made on the ‘P’ form, (Museo del  Violino, Cremona dated 1705) and is very consistent with other Pressenda violins made in this period,  indicative of the French influence in his work.  He had a marked partiality for one-piece backs, and this piece of quarter-sawn maple is a typical selection, with a well-marked horizontal flame that is continued in the ribs. The transverse medullary rays are particularly bright, and illuminate the wood beneath the varnish. The arch is characteristically low, yet with a strong and broad recurve at the flanks, which rises steeply in the broad outer edge. The purfling is wonderfully neatly laid, and uses beechwood in the central white strip. There is a very precise butted joint in the purfling at the centre of the upper and lower bout, and the locating pins pass through the purfling at that point, and were evidently fitted after the purfling. Stradivari located the pins first, and the purfling can be seen to cut through them. The corner points are swept into long mitres, flowing across the corner toward the inner point of the middle bout.  The ribs are made in authentic Stradivarian manner, although the lower ribs is made in two pieces and there is no taper from neck to endpin as would be expected. They consistently measure around 32mm at all points. Internally the appearance is also very Stradivarian, made of willow, very neatly finished and with the centre bout linings morticed to the corner blocks.

The front is made from two matched pieces of spruce with very regular medium width grain throughout, and like the back is low but graceful in the arch. A characteristic feature is a slight fullness across the arching, particularly noticeable just below the soundholes, which gives it a sturdy box-like appearance. The soundholes are again very typical, with slightly pointed wings, and emphatic fluting creating a crater-like effect around the lower circle. The circles appear to be neatly hand-cut, rather than drilled.  The notches are made swiftly and simply with two knife cuts, but they are a little uneven from side to side. Although quite slender, the ‘f’s are quite long and dominate the appearance of the front.

The head is one of the most distinctive features of Pressenda’s style, as usual marked with a deep scribe line around the centre. It is drawn to a Stradivari pattern, but the chamfers are quite lightly laid on, and emphasised by black ink, which also shows up the marks of the rasp which he used, rather than a knife.

The varnish too is absolutely typical, with a strong red brown tint and a deep golden ground beneath. It is quite a thick coating which has developed a crackled texture, showing transverse hairline creases where it is at its deepest, and lies slightly puddled in the deepest concavities of the edge and scroll.

It is still quite clear why August Wilhelmj chose to endorse Pressenda’s work with such enthusiasm. Although relatively fresh during his own time, and quite possibly not yet fully voiced, Pressenda’s work is of great quality and distinction, and a very striking contrast to the majority of Italian violins of the early nineteenth century. This example remains in a very pure state, and is as Wilhelmj claimed in his own certificate for it, ‘a most remarkable specimen’.

Principal dimensions:

Length of back: 356mm

Width of upper bouts: 168mm

Width of middle bouts: 111.5mm

Width of lower bouts: 207.5mm






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Publish Date: 30th June 2019