Benjamin (II) Banks

Highest auction price achieved
£ 30600.00

By William Meredith Morris

He was the second son and the third child of George and Barbarah Banks, of the parish of St. Thomas, Salisbury. From Grove's "Dictionary of Music and Musicians," vol. ii. p. 164 (1890), it appears that Banks was not a native of Salisbury, but early migrated there. This can hardly be correct, as it would involve the removal of the parents to London and their return to Salisbury within a short period of time. George and Barbarah Banks were living in Salisbury in 1725 and in 1730, and it is not likely that, in those days, they would have made a move to, and a return from a distant town within five years. But nothing can be stated with certainty, as the old registers of the parish of St. Thomas are lost, and the transcripts in the Diocesan Registry are irregular. The following are the only entries contained in the transcripts with reference to the Banks family : — " Baptisms 21 March 1722, George, son of George and Barbarah Banks. 8 July 1725, Elizabeth, daughter of George and Barbarah Banks. 15 August 1730, William, son of George and Barbarah Banks. 20 June 1732, Mary, daughter of George and Barbarah Banks." The transcripts are very incomplete, and there are none from the year 1740 to 1778, nor are there any for the year 1727 — the year of Benjamin's birth and baptism. Strange to relate, the burial entries are also missing for the year 1795, as if Fate were resolved to cheat the future biographers of Banks of every scrap of information respecting his birth, baptism, and death ! Banks has been styled " the English Amati," a title which he no doubt fully deserves. It must be admitted, however, that only in his finest efforts does he soar above Duke, Forster, and one or two others. I have seen some examples of Duke which were quite equal as regards workmanship and tone to the best of Banks' efforts, but the varnish of the latter, when he exercised care in the application of it, gives him the advantage. Duke's varnish is refined but cold ; the varnish of Banks is rich and fiery. As Hart very justly remarks : " It has all the characteristics of fine Italian varnish." The work of Banks may be divided into two classes: (i) the Stainer copies, and (2) the Amati copies. Banks, when left to his own choice, copied no one but Amati, but his patrons and the trade frequently demanded that he should, in accordance with the taste of the times, supply Stainer copies. No one is responsible for this inference but myself, and it is therefore necessary that I should attempt to justify it. The majority of the instruments made by him for Longman & Broderip, and which bear that firm's stamp on the back, are Stainer copies, and show work which is inferior to that seen in his Amati copies. Other instruments of the same model, made, perhaps, to the order of private patrons, are also lacking in finish, carelessly varnished, and altogether weak in individuality. It is as though the good man were impatient of his model, and in a hurry to get the instrument out of the way. Patient labour, loving care, and luscious varnish were reserved for the model of his heart's choice. Only when the material happened to be poor or plain is there evidence of impatience in the finish of the Amati copies. I throw out this suggestion tentatively. I have seen a goodly number of Banks' instruments, and can- not recall a single exception to this rule, but I do not wish to be dogmatic ; I only hope that there is some truth in my contention, because I would fain believe that there was one at least of our classical makers who was entirely out of sympathy with the Stainer cult. It is absolutely certain that the best work of Banks is to be seen in his better model, and it is universally true that a man is at his best in the subject he most loves. Lupot was ill at ease except when tracing the lines of Stradivari, or when moulding those faithful copies which he gave to the world of his beloved ideal. (1) The Stainer copies, as already stated, show comparatively inferior work. The model is long, from 14 1/8 to 14 3/16, with a perceptible narrowing of the upper third of the instrument. The arching is slightly exaggerated, having the ridge quaintly accentuated between the sound-holes. It is as though the copyist had caught the salient feature, par excellence, of the original, and thinking it sheer waste of time to attempt an extended analysis, resolved that it would be sufficient indulgence to existing wickedness if he reproduced the said feature, Germano more as Haweis puts it. There is not one Banks instrument in existence which can be described as a faithful Stainer copy. The lines of the model are treated with a degree of freedom and developed according to the copyist's own conception. These are the copies which have got poor Banks into disrepute with regard to the varnishing. The varnish has " killed the grain " of the front tables. " It has been allowed to clog the fibre " is the explanation given by some authorities, as though, forsooth, every oil varnish did not clog the fibre. All oil varnishes penetrate the wood, especially the pine of the belly. What is technically termed "killing the grain" is brought about by one of two things, viz. (a) by the action of one or more of the ingredients of the varnish upon the interfascicular cambium of the wood. The cellulose of the cell wall (C6 H10 O5) is in the pine tree converted into lignin during the growth of the tree — a substance which is stained dark yellow when treated with acids. The cell contents also react in a similar manner. Especially is this the case with wood that is not thoroughly desiccated, or cut at the right season ; (b) the grain is often " killed " by the application of colour varnish throughout, i.e. without a first coat of sizing or pale varnish. The sizing (oil) gives life to the wood, which bursts forth through the coloured varnish like the light in a cathedral window on a dark night. Banks often used wood in these Stainer copies which was not thoroughly seasoned, and he varnished them hurriedly to meet the demands of his patrons. I do not think the wood he used in many instances could have been cut for more than two years. There is evidence of shrinkage. I have gone over a few very carefully with the calipers, and the result justifies me in saying that it is impossible the maker should have worked them so thin. Here are the thicknesses of a violin now in the possession of H. Allen, Esq., ex-M.P. for Pembrokeshire — an instrument which has never been in the hands of the repairer, and which is in perfect preservation : Back, 5/64” at centre, gradually tapering to rather under 1/16” at edges ; belly, 3/64” tapering to 1/16” at edges. The tone of the Stainer copies, especially of the violoncellos which have sufficient timber in them, is much finer than is warranted by the appearance. (2) The Amati copies. On the construction of these magnificent instruments our maker concentrated the entire energy of his heart and mind. Wood (except in a few instances), workmanship, and varnish are almost faultless. The only part of the work which gave him any trouble was the scroll, which frequently shows that his strong mind was reluctant to bend altogether to another man's idea. I am perfectly convinced that if Banks had asserted his latent individuality and struck out on new lines, we should have some gems of our classical school which would vie with the very best of Italian work. The varnish, I am aware, does not at any time reach heights which are encircled by the divine halo of Cremonese glory, but it is far up the mystic mount. As copies, the finest efforts of Banks are sufficiently correct to pass muster as originals, and in some cases at least they have done so. I will instance one. The widow of a deceased Welsh violinist and celebrated choirmaster asked me some years ago to value her deceased husband's collection — a small one containing a Stradivari tenor, a Lupot, a Duke, and a " Nicola Amati " violin. The last-named instrument was the pride of the collection, both on account of its intrinsic value and because it had been presented to the distinguished man by the members of a choir which he had successfully led at various National Eisteddfodau. The instrument had been bought of a certain London firm for £180 (this was back in the early sixties), with the usual guarantee. I am absolutely certain the violin was not fashioned by the hands of old Nicola, and morally certain it first saw the light of day somewhere in the vicinity of Catherine Street, in Sarum. The scroll is Benjamin's, the varnish is his, everything is his, except the piece which has been cunningly let in under the bottom where the B.B. is usually stamped. The label is rather large, in the correct type, but too fresh and — fatal oversight, under a strong electric ray it reveals with the help of a strong lens what I believe to be part of an English watermark. It is time this pseudo-Amati should have its false ticket extracted and Banks receive his due. The tone has a thrilling, silvery ring — is clear, penetrating, and delicately sweet. The wood is fine, the back being cut on the quarter with a curl of medium and regular width, slanting at a rather acute angle in the direction of the button. Banks' tenors, and especially his violoncellos, are magnificent. The latter are of two sizes, and the larger ones are given the preference. The smaller violoncellos, however, are as excellent in quality of tone as the larger ones, and perhaps more so. But in these days loudness takes the precedence of every other abstract, and the tone that drives is placed before the tone that draws. One of the finest Banks violoncellos for tone that I have ever seen was some years ago owned by a gentleman amateur in Tenby. It was of the smaller pattern, of rather plain wood, and varnished red. It was in perfect condition, and in chamber music it sang mellifluously like a velvet-throated baritone. I took dimensions of this instrument, which I append here : — Length of body ..... 28 1/2 ins, Width across the upper bouts … 13ins, Width across the middle bouts … 10 1/4ins, Width across the lower bouts . . .16ins, Depth of ribs at bottom . . . . 4 3/4ins, Depth of ribs at top ... . 4 3/4ins, Width of C's … 6 1/2ins, Length of F's … 6ins, Distance between F's at upper turn … 3 5/8ins Length of stop … 26ins I obtained photographs of this fine instrument, which are reproduced here. Genuine Banks instruments are much rarer than would naturally be expected. I do not think that there are more than from fifty to sixty violins, eighty to ninety tenors, and about one hundred violoncellos of his in existence. The peruser of catalogues of old instruments is led to believe that an inexhaustible supply exists. Perhaps the following extraordinary circumstance, recorded here as an object-lesson, will help to undeceive him. In the year 1890, impelled by curiosity, I wrote to a large number of firms for their catalogues of old instruments. In about three months I had a pile of catalogues on my table from the leading houses in this country, and from those in France, Germany, Italy, America, and Australia, some eighty-two in number. To my utter amazement, I found that there were then two hundred and eighty-six Strads offered for sale at a sum total of £78,936, all made by the grand old man between the years 1700 and 1720, and all as a matter of course guaranteed to be genuine! Nearly three hundred Strads for sale in the same year, and almost within the same month of the year ! ! Ye gods ! Surely ye have added one more wonder to the seven wonders of the world. The case is much the same as regards Banks. If catalogues, sale advertisements, &:c., are to be relied on, then I compute that there have been sold in this country during the last fifty years over two thousand examples of his art. Banks stamped his instruments in all sorts of places, below the button, under the finger-board, under the tailpiece, &c., and he used various labels, such as : — "Made by Benjamin Banks, Catherine Street, Salisbury, 1770""; "Benjamin Banks, Musical Instrument Maker, In Catherine Street, Salisbury, 1780"; "Benjamin Banks, fecit, Salisbury " ; " B. Banks, Sarum." Banks was buried in St. Thomas's Churchyard, Salisbury. His tombstone, which is near the south door, on the right- hand side, has the following inscription : — RESTORED 1863 ANN, Wife of Mr. Benjamin Banks died 14 Sepr1785 Aged 57 Years MR. BENJAMIN BANKS Departed this Life 18th Febry 1795 Aged 67 Years In Memory of The Most Eminent English Maker Of Stringed Musical Instruments

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Price History

Type Title Sold Price
Cello 73.9 cm Salisbury, 1790, c. Fri 1st October 10 £ 30600.00
Viola 38.4 cm Salisbury, 1787 Sun 1st March 09 £ 6875.00
Violin 35.5 cm Salisbury, 1790, [Lit: The Cooper Collection] Sat 1st March 08 £ 6875.00
Violin 35.4 cm Salisbury, 1794 Tue 1st May 07 £ 5761.00
Violin 35.4 cm London, 1775 Thu 1st March 07 £ 4888.00
Violin 35.4 cm Salisbury, 1794 Wed 1st November 06 £ 13200.00
Cello 74.1 cm London, 1787 Sun 1st October 06 £ 26171.00
Violin 35.7 cm [Attributed to] Sun 1st October 06 £ 1768.00
Violin Salisbury, 1780 c. Sat 1st October 05 £ 2343.00
Violin Salisbury, 1779 Tue 1st June 04 £ 3019.00
Violin 1790 Mon 1st September 03 £ 7520.00
Viola 39.7 cm 1780 Fri 1st March 02 £ 10500.00
Cello 1780 c. Thu 1st November 01 £ 5287.00
Viola 39.2 cm 1770 Thu 1st March 01 £ 3000.00
Violin 1794 Wed 1st March 00 £ 6325.00
Violin 1792 Tue 1st June 99 £ 1600.00
Violin 1780-99 Sun 1st June 97 £ 1035.00
Violin 1780 Wed 1st November 95 £ 6900.00
Cello 1788 Tue 1st November 94 £ 23149.00
Viola 38.9 cm 1780 Thu 1st April 93 £ 3220.00
Violin 1787 Wed 1st March 89 £ 4620.00
Cello 1780 c. Wed 1st January 86 £ 8800.00
Viola 38.6 cm 1787 Mon 1st July 85 £ 2484.00
Cello 1785 Fri 1st April 83 £ 11550.00
Violin 1794 Sun 1st November 81 £ 3410.00

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