The firm of W.E.Hill & Sons has long been the most admired and respected in the world of violins, and its deep roots and dedication to the highest standards of craftsmanship as well as academic and historical research has set the template for most modern connoisseurs.
The Hill family is one of the oldest in continuous existence in the violin trade, certainly the oldest in England, dating back to at least 1753, when Joseph Hill was working in High Holborn in the city of London.
The Hills themselves made great play of an entry in Pepy's Diary of 17th February 1660; 'Early in ye morning, came to Mr Hill the instrument maker & I consulted him about ye altering my lute & my viall'. This appeared on the company's headed papers, but unfortunately the connection between Samuel Pepys' 'Mr Hill' and the dynasty which arose in the following century has never been proved. There was at least one other Hill engaged in the musical instrument trade in London in the 1730s, but the weight of evidence is that they were not connected.
The true history of the present Hill family seems to have begun in the village of Alvechurch in Worcestershire. Joseph Hill was born there in 1715, and probably remained there until as late as 1746. There is no evidence to show how he learned his trade, but by 1753 he was running his shop in Holborn, and producing excellently crafted violins, violas and cellos, in a distinctive style based on earlier English makers like Peter Wamsley, and strongly influenced by Amati and Stainer. In 1765, Joseph moved to the Haymarket, next to the King's Theatre (now Her Majesty's), and within twenty years, the shop was being run by Joseph's oldest son, also named Joseph (II).
The senior Joseph had a large family, and Lockey Hill was his fifth child, born in 1756. His name is a common one in the family records in Alvechurch, although unusual now. He was the most prolific maker of the Hill family, and his work was branded and sold by the leading business in London at the time- Longman & Co., later Longman & Broderip. It has to be said that much of his work was slightly nondescript, consisting of typical 'trade' models of Stainer and Amati. His life was probably hard and not well-rewarded, with cheap foreign imports rather spoiling the market for individual hand-made work. He died in Southwark in 1810, aged only 54.
Henry Lockey Hill was the fourth child of Lockey, and was born in 1774. It appears that he was initially trained by his uncle, Joseph II, but went on to work with John Betts, by then the leading violin dealer in England. Henry Lockey Hill's work is very fine indeed, and included some very distinguished interpretations of Stradivari designs; the real marker for the aspirations and ambitions of the company of W.E. Hill & Sons.
William Ebsworth was Henry Lockey's fourth son, born in 1817. He served an apprenticeship with the fine but today rather under-rated maker Charles Harris of Oxford, and in 1859 forged a relationship with the bow maker James Tubbs. In 1880 his business was retitled W.E. Hill & Sons, indicating the participation of William Henry, Arthur Frederick and Alfred Ebsworth, the Sons of William Ebsworth. By 1882 they were jointly established at the now famous address of 38 New Bond Street, and success grew through his canny business methods and powerful ambition, but based firmly on assured expertise and craftsmanship. William Ebsworth left only a small number of instruments, but was a pioneer of repair and restoration techniques, to the furtherance of which he opened separate workshops in Hanwell, West London. William's personal reputation was sufficient to bring clients from all over Europe, and when he died in 1895, the company was still expanding, moving to 140 New Bond Street that very year.
William Henry (1857-1927) was the eldest son, and the driving force behind the pioneering books on Stradivari, Guarneri and Maggini which still stand today as standard reference works.
Arthur Frederick (1860-1939) concentrated on the business side of the company, while Alfred Ebsworth (1862-1940) was responsible for the hugely successful bow-making enterprise, amongst other things. Walter Edgar (1871-1905) had perhaps the least influence- he died young from pneumonia, but had served an apprenticeship in Mirecourt, and was active in the workshops.
Together, the brothers brought the company to the very heights of international fame at a time when the world's appetite for fine instruments was increasing exponentially. Their expertise and skill was unquestioned, and the workshops became a training ground for the finest craftsmen.
William Ebsworth's stormy relationship with James Tubbs began the company's deep involvement with bowmaking. Samuel Allen (1838-1914) was recruited as a young man to the Hanwell workshops, and he is usually given the credit for establishing the unwaveringly high standards exercised in the bow department. He fostered a group of bowmakers who included William Retford, Frank Napier and Sydney Yeoman, and which continues to exert a strong influence on English bowmaking through Arthur Bultitude and William Watson. Retford was a particularly strong character. Recruited by Arthur Frederick Hill in 1892, he subsequently ran the bow shop until his retirement in 1956. He oversaw the development of the much admired Hill bow models, and developed techniques of restoration still in use today.
The workshops became internationally famous for their painstaking restoration work on violins, violas and cellos, and also for new instruments patterned on existing Cremonese masterpieces. Most of the workmen were originally recruited from Mirecourt in France, a well-established centre for the craft which had already provided most of the great Parisian makers, including J.B.Vuillaume himself. Leon Delunet, J.M. Somny and three generations of the Langonet family were the mainstays of the Hanwell shop.
At the outbreak of the second world war, many instruments of the Hills' private collection were moved to a place of safety, forming the basis of the famous Ashmolean exhibit in Oxford, which includes the 'Messie' Strad of 1716- the finest surviving example of his work, and in itself a fitting tribute to the Hills' own dedication to fine instruments.
None of the Hill brothers survived the war, and there was no immediate succession in place to preserve the company's traditions. A potential crisis was avoided when Arthur Frederick's stepson Albert Edgar Phillips bought the business from Alfred Hill in 1940, and adopted the name of Hill himself. His son, Desmond D'Artrey Hill, born in 1916 subsequently took over, and successfully steered the company through much of the twentieth century. His two sons, Andrew and David Hill, supervised the move from London to Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, before the company was formally dissolved in 1992.
W.E.Hill & Sons have left a huge legacy to violin making and expertise not only in Britain, but through the entire world. Their certificates of authenticity remain to a large extent the gold standard. Very few of the world's great instruments have not passed through their hands, and been documented and recorded by them. Their presence in London gave added weight and authority to the activities of the various auction houses there, and the fact that London still remains one of the prime centres worldwide for the trade in fine instruments owes much to the stabilising effect of W.E.Hill & Sons' reputation. Their published works remain a similar reference point for all writing on the instrument, its history and its makers. The Hill bow occupies a unique place in the art of the archetier, offering an alternative but complementary approach to that of the great Parisian bow makers, and providing a very fine and still developing tradition for modern makers to explore. The Hill Collection at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is appropriately one of the greatest and most finely focussed assemblies of historical masterpieces in the world. Hill craftsmen have restored and rescued some of the greatest instruments from the ravages of time, use and decay, and shown the way forward for continued sophistication in restoration techniques. Strangely, the least part of their contribution to lutherie today is probably their production of new instruments. Other priorities overwhelmed their ambitions in this direction, as well as economic factors weighing against the profitability of new instruments. Nevertheless, there are many superb instruments which serve as a testament to the dedication of the workshop in general to the principles of high craftsmanship and utmost respect for the Cremonese traditions of violin making.