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Reference Library Articles

Jacob Rayman

Jacob Rayman is revered in England with rather more honour than he is perhaps due. His contribution to violin making is fairly minor and few instruments of his survive, but as the earliest maker in England his place in history is for the moment secure.

He was not English at all in fact- born in the parish of Faulenbach in Fussen in about 1596, he arrived in London about twenty years later, having come from s'Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands according to court papers of the time. Neither was he, in truth, the first violin maker in this country. It is fairly certain that various craftsmen were busy making violins amongst all sorts of other instruments by the end of the sixteenth century, but no actual surviving work earlier than Rayman's has so far been securely identified. He established himself in Southwark, the rather colourful parish separated from the city of London by the river but connected by London bridge, which provided commerce of every conceivable sort. Henry Jaye, the greatest of English viol makers already had his workshop in the district. Several labels exist, or at least are well-recorded, from 1630 to 1658, giving Rayman's address either as Bell Yard, Southwark, or Blackman Street, Long-Southwark. Bell Yard was on the west side of Blackman street, which is now Borough High street, and Bell Yard itself is now covered by Union Street. Just opposite the yard on the other side of Blackman Street was the notorious Marshalsea Debtors prison, reason enough to keep Rayman busy at his bench. His son, also Jacob, was christened in St Saviour's church in 1642, but that is as far as official records go.

In recent times, only a very small handful of his instruments had been identified, and these were generally in rather poor condition. They exhibit all the features of Fussen work of the period, with long corners overhanging extended rib mitres, and rather long Brescian-style soundholes. The arching is fairly flat and very effective however, but there is very little sign of the Amati form or elegance of execution which was to become definitive in later periods of violin making. The necks were made in one piece with the upper-block, a technique called 'through-neck construction', which was prevalent throughout northern Europe in the seventeeth century. The violins appear in both small and large sizes, the larger being a little excessive for modern use, but comparable with violins being made in Brescia around the same time. Many of Rayman's mannerisms persisted in subsequent English work, notably that of the Pamphilon family, but when Amati and Stainer instruments became better known in the eighteenth century, English violin makers adopted rather different techniques and models.

In eighteenth century accounts, references to Rayman violins are quite common in England, and they seem then to have been well-valued, if only because age was seen as a desirable quality from the very first, and Raymans would have been among the oldest available to the player. Cellos and violas are also recorded, and the current shortage of examples is a little mystifying. However, more are coming to light, and the likelihood is that these once comparatively common old English instruments were quite freely relabelled as Brescian work and sold far and wide in the nineteenth century. Once parted from their original labels, Rayman's violins can be difficult to identify from the general mass of early, largely anonymous work of seventeenth century makers throughout northern Europe, but with time and careful expertise, it seems inevitable that more will come to attention and be rewarded with the care and value they do truly deserve after four hundred years.