Book Reviews


Lutherie News from Down Under

The new book Violin and Bow Makers of Australia (2009, $95) from violin maker and writer Alan Coggins is more than an important historical document of every person who ever made a violin in Australia. It’s also a good read, with photos so sharp you feel like you could reach into the flame of a maple back. Powerhouse Museum curator Michael Lea’s engaging essay on the history of Australian violin making—by extension, a short history of Australia since European settlement in 1788—sets the stage for the comprehensive list of makers that follows. While Coggins set out to create a reference guide, he was clearly drawn in by the stories he discovered along the way. Wisely, he allowed enough space to let these makers come alive for the reader. Much space is devoted to the highly influential A.E. Smith (1880–1978) whose thriving Sydney shop was fertile ground for the exchange of knowledge and expertise among his talented employees. Coggins also highlights one of Smith’s most talented associates, William Paszek, whose struggles to make a living as a violin maker are told largely in his own words, set down late in life.

Erin Shrader, Strings Magazine (US), June 2010.

Over the past few decades, luthiers’ bookshelves have been groaning under the steadily increasing weight of tomes dedicated to national schools of violin making. we can now add to our bookshelves a new volume (and school): the Australians, whose brief but interesting history has been set to paper by Alan Coggins.

The nation’s relative youth means that the body of Australian violin making work is small, so now may be the best time to start an enterprise such as a dictionary of violin makers. The school’s antecedents are English; the mother country supplied its founders, many of whom have since travelled from their homeland and brought back foreign ideas to the melting pot. As well as being a young country, Australia is also small, with a population of about 23 million, and its violin making roots are very shallow. The book looks at obscure originators, slews of amateurs, one giant figure and an explosion of both interest and practitioners in the 20th century.

The giant figure, the Australian ‘Stradivari’, is Arthur E. Smith of Sydney, whose life and career receive as full a documentation here as one is likely to find. Many of the later names arise from his workshop. One might expect dramatically diverse styles of making from the Australians, and the photos that follow the dictionary entries will not disappoint, other than some degree in wood selection. It appears that there is not yet a distinctly Australian style, which in the current global fiddle trade can be a dangerous thing.

The history of the school at the start of the book and the dictionary entries that follow are engagingly and entertainingly written. Adding to the pleasure is the good fortune that Australia’s luthiers seem to be a highly literate lot (and some, such as Samuel Bridges, could have been novelists with the right prodding). Many readers, especially those living and working in east asia, may well be advised to keep a copy close to their benches.

Philip Kass, The Strad (UK), March 2010.