Tuesday, June 19
Naturalis Works #2
Naturalis is engineered be to the best-performing uncoated paper for print. For a designer or printer, understanding the qualities of the paper you specify is essential to your craft.
This series is designed around our conversations with acclaimed craftspeople working in diverse fields. They support our belief that selecting the perfect materials is a critical part of the creative process.
Juliet Barker MBE
Juliet Barker makes exquisite stringed instruments. She is a craftswoman. But her craft is so much more than design, construction or assembly. She is a wood carver, producing work that is delicate and traditional in style. She is an architect, using her experience and instinct to choose materials that will realise the potential of the finished piece. She is an acoustician, relying on memory and instinct to hone the sound. This last aspect of her work is something, she says, that cannot be explained; it is not a science.
Juliet has been designing and hand-making violins, violas, cellos and the occasional double bass since 1954 when she graduated from a course in violin making from the Bavaria State School in southeast Germany. Post war, this was the only European school offering this course. The others were in the Russian zone and, as a British woman, she could not travel there.
So it was against this unstable backdrop that she realised her ambition to become a violin maker. It was an idea that she formed at the age of 15 while reading ‘Violins and Violinists’, a book not only about players, of which she was one, but also about makers. She was struck by the distinct lack of English makers featured in the book. She saw this as an opportunity, and from that moment knew that she must practise her craft in Cambridge, her beloved home town.
Despite her talent and experience, she has never been driven to change the traditional principles of the profession. She believes that violin makers do not have to be innovators. To her, the original design that has been faithfully reproduced for centuries is so beautiful and effective that it cannot be improved. She makes her mark through subtle changes to the classical style: the particular f-shape she carves for sound-holes, the way that she flattens corners, and the tightness of the curled scroll at the head of the instrument. The impact of these creative decisions would be imperceptible to most players, but to other makers they are her signature.
Matchmaking between raw material and musical tone is an enduring challenge. Her craft calls for a deep and instinctive understanding of wood. Spruce is used for the face; its qualities make it an essential choice. It is elastic, lightweight but strong, and perfectly formed to vibrate, yielding the violin’s unmistakable resonating tone. She only uses mature spruce from the sustainable Alpine forests of Switzerland, Austria and Germany because, for her purpose, spruce is best if it has been grown above 800 meters. In high altitudes, the air is thin and the temperature cold. These conditions cause a slower growth rate in the trees, which results in a fineness of grain that is easier to carve and, ultimately, gives the instrument a purer tone.
The back of her instruments are carved from a more solid wood. For violins, figured maple and sycamore, with their strength and strange beauty, are Juliet’s preference. For violas, the middle voice in the violin family, alder and poplar make ideal substrates, as they hold slightly more elasticity, which enriches and deepens the tone. For the fingerboards, ebony is the answer. Dense, fine and perfectly smooth when polished, it holds its form when the strings are drummed down on to the boards by the players. For the ease with which they turn and lubricate, rosewood or old english boxwood are her choice for pegs. Juliet has developed these preferences as her career has progressed. Hers is a profession that is very much about instinct and an acquired understanding of how natural materials move and react.
Juliet’s materials come from reliable sources. Each autumn a French firm arrives at her workshop with a selection of native woods, both seasoned and unseasoned, which she pores over to find pieces that have exactly the right look and feel. And from her time studying in Bavaria, she has contacts with a specialist German timber firm that ships specific materials for her, including the essential Alpine spruce. Seasoning wood is another of her passions. Her workshop holds pieces at various stages of the process; hardwoods take four to five years to reach optimum quality. The ability to exercise such patience is testament to Juliet’s undying love for her work.
The single piece of advice she offers to those who want to learn her craft is that they should never rush. Unlike the factories of the mass producers, Juliet’s workshop houses few machines. Other than a modern band saw and planing machine to hew the first rough pieces of wood, Juliet only uses traditional hand tools. This means that she works more slowly, but the results are unique. Violin making is an art that matures with the craftsperson and asks for a lifetime. Juliet has devoted hers to it and has no plans to stop. In her own words, “violin makers do not retire, they fall off their stool”.
Design / Art Direction: StudioMakgill
Film: Steven Fisher and Sophie Pierozzi
Naturalis Works #2
Juliet Barker MBE