These two pieces of street art are located less than 100 yards from each other on North Anne Street in Dublin.
The first is really striking and, in my opinion, a really impressive and effective piece.
It makes me smile.
I had the opportunity earlier this year of observing Luthier and master craftsman, James Beatley, at work.
Below are some of the images I took (click on them for the bigger versions) and some questions that James was also kind enough to answer for me to give us a better insight into the process that sees him produce such exceptional instruments at his workshop in his home in Stoneybatter.
What drove you to make your first instrument?
When I was in my early 20s, I was playing the tenor banjo. I had heard about the short scale banjo, which would be better suited to my style of playing. Back then (pre Internet) it was very difficult to find one in Ireland. After a few years searching with no luck I decided to make one. This was a journey which took me three years to complete – the main problem was sourcing materials. Now it is so easy just Google.
What finally inspired you to make the jump from mechanical engineering to become a full-time Luthier?
There are lots of reasons. Having been making instruments for about 15 years as a hobby I desired to take the making to a higher level. I wanted to learn more about restoration of instruments too. My job with the ESB had undergone a massive restructuring, which would have left me at the same level until retirement. It was time to go.
Almost all the instruments I make are after classical Italian makers from Anno 1700. I make the instruments in the same method and use the same tools as were used then. Nothing really has changed except sometimes I would use some modern tools, both mechanical and electronic, to make more exact measurements. For example, when making a front or back of a violin you would be most concerned with the stiffness of the finished piece, both across the grain and with the grain. I like to think of this as a stiffness rather than a flexibility. Whatever stiffness you decide on will be the biggest contributor to the overall sonority of the instruments. Normally this stiffness is felt in the hands by twisting and pressing on the wood and listening to the tap tones. You can guess a tap tone very easily to within a semitone. For example if I want the wood to ring at F# I can be fairly accurate, but the difference could be as much as 15hz from one to another. By using a sine wave generator you can be exact in matching your front and back. Carleen Hutchings (1911-2009) was an American violin maker and pioneer in plate tuning. In the 1950s she wrote a scientific paper on violin plate tuning using Eiginmodes and Chladni patterns.
It might be easier to answer what parts I least enjoy. This would be the initial preparation of the wood – flattening and preparing the centre joints for glueing and squaring up the neck block. After this initial work is done it is a slow labour of love. On completion the setting up and playing of the instrument for the first time is very satisfying.
What are the most challenging aspects?
I think any Luthier will agree with me that varnishing is the most challenging and difficult part of the whole process to master. The problems here are their is only one good supplier of ready-made varnish for the violin family of instruments and this maker’s varnish does not meet all of the desired qualities. So most makers who know what is required will try to make their own. Personally, I have experimented with recipes for about 16 years. The varnish I’m using now and for the last four years is working really well for me.
I think because it is so close to the human voice makes it universally used in all genres of music. Anyone who has tried to learn the violin will tell you it is very demanding and difficult to learn. The fun of learning is in the challenge and you can take it to what ever level you desire. From a physics point of view their are many scientific papers written about how the violin works, they are all probably a little bit right and many disagree and contradict each other , ut one thing is for sure – the violin is a very inefficient instrument as most of the energy put into the playing is lost in damping etc 90% of what you hear can be directly attributed to the musician and the rest to the instrument.
Does making instruments give you a different perspective when playing them?
Not really, being a maker or not one can appreciate a good instrument. If I pick up an instrument which does not work so well or is set up badly I won’t want to play it. The same goes for anyone.
Is each instrument unique and, if so, how?
Yes, no two instruments are the same. Each will have it own voice and aesthetic values. Making two violins of the same model when finished there are many anomalies between both. No two pieces of wood are the same or have the same acoustic attributes. Every single part of the instrument has an acoustical contribution. The scroll size and design. The density of the fingerboard will have an acoustic resonance which will effect the body mode, which should match the air mode. The overall set up – type of pegs used the bridge blank, tailpiece etc every part has its own acoustic value. This is why we make to tap tones and not measurements.
Do you feel you are still learning all the time?
Yes sometimes even doing a job you have done many times before their is a ‘light bulb’ moment. Recently there has been the publication of a book, Restoration and Conservation of Stringed Instruments. This is a collaboration of all the best makers and restorers from around the world. It’s a massive volume. Since I bought it every time I undertake a repair I consult the book to see how other makers approach a particular task. Often I will adapt my method with ideas from this book.
Whose work are you most influenced or inspired by?
Giussepe Guarneri del Gesú is my favourite maker. There is a beautiful freeness of the use of his tools, evident by the tool marks in his work. These marks also contribute to the aesthetic beauty of his instruments. The purfling of his instruments is poorly executed, but all these little aspects add to the overall aesthetic beauty. His ideas on design for acoustic value were revolutionary at the time. My preference in making is to make my instruments have an aesthetic desirability as well as being of good sonority. The challenge in making an instrument look new and precise is a bit boring for me.
Do you strive for perfection?
You might ask ‘what is perfection?’ If I am making a copy of a classical Italian instrument I will have to do every repair which has been done to a violin which could be over 300-years-old. I will do all these repairs with the greatest of care so yes I strive for perfection. On the other hand. I may be asked to make a violin as new, but I must admit to have softened the corners and the eyes of the scroll and rounding off the inside top of the peg box to give some character to the instrument otherwise I feel the instrument looks boring… am I striving for perfection?!
Do you feel your instruments will form a large part of your legacy? And do you ever think about that?
I do believe I am making good instruments, so good instruments usually fall into the hand of good musicians who look after them well. My instruments could be around for several hundred years and just like Thomas Perry( 1744-1818), a Dublin maker, I also brand-stamp my instruments. This stamp will always be there and will be a point of topic. On the other hand, I had a life-changing moment recently when my computer hard drive gave up without warning. I lost 18 years of collected data on all the instruments I have made. This would be an archive for future makers or anyone interested. My computer was just out of warranty and I had a back-up hard drive for about six weeks, which I had not used. Also all my images of customer repairs and all of my business advertising, accounts etc were gone. My initial reaction was ‘Fu… k’ , but then I thought if I had suddenly died in the morning ‘so what’. Would it matter about my life’s long work? I guess it only matters to me.
The Irish Architecture Foundation and The Irish Times are running a competition through Flickr to promote a great initiative called Open House Dublin.
People who enter are asked to submit photos (a max of one a day) until the competition closes on October 8. It opened on September 20 and my friend Sophie sent me a link to it yesterday and suggested I enter it, so I did, even if I am a bit late to the game.
I have to say I am way, way out of my league! The work in there is incredible, have a look! here for a visual feast!
All the usual Dublin landmarks (photos have to be from Dublin/Dun Laoghaire) you’d expect in an architecture focused photography competition are in there (lots of Beckett Bridges and Custom Houses etc), but there really are some stunning shots, it’s well worth taking a look.
As I entered yesterday, I’m up to two photos now, one that has appeared on this blog recently and one that hasn’t been on it before (though others of the same feature have). I have posted them below. They are the only two photos so far on my brand new Flickr account.
There is a public prize, for the photo that is “favourited” the most on Flickr and then a judge’s prize too.
But, in all sincerity, while I haven’t a prayer, it’s great to have something like this to enter to see what’s being done out there by others, the extremely high standards people are reaching and – most importantly of all – it’s another excuse to try find time in my increasingly busy schedule to get out and about with the camera, something I am struggling with at the moment, due to the demands or work and life.
I love the Phoenix Park and, like many others, have come to look on it as my rather large back garden. Here’s some photos of two of its landmark features, against the backdrop of those Sepia skies I’m so fond of. It started off as a moderately nice evening as I reached the Wellington Monument, close to the park’s entrance, but, as you won’t be a bit surprised to hear from looking at the clouds in my photos, the sun soon set and the heavens opened. It was a nice walk back in the rain though!
“The Wellington Monument is a 62 metres (203 ft) tall obelisk commemorating the victories of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. It is the largest obelisk in Europe and would have been even higher if the publicly subscribed funding had not run out. Designed by Robert Smirke, there are four bronze plaques cast from cannons captured at the Battle of Waterloo—three of which have pictorial representations of Wellington’s career, while the fourth has an inscription at the base of the obelisk”.
Interestingly (for nerds like me anyway!), he was still alive when this was built, technically making it a testimonial, not a monument.
Click on the photos for the big versions (big skies).
“The Magazine Fort in the south east of the Park marks the location where Phoenix Lodge was built by Sir Edward Fisher in 1611. In 1734 the house was knocked down when the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset, directed that a powder magazine be provided for Dublin. An additional wing was added to the fort in 1801 for troops. It was the scene of the Christmas Raid in 1939.”
The magazine fort has been satirically immortalised in a jingle by Jonathan Swift who wrote:
“Now’s here’s a proof of Irish sense,
Here Irish wit is seen,
When nothing’s left that’s worth defence,
We build a Magazine.”
The Phoenix Park is home to many sports clubs and many playing fields and pitches. Here’s one I passed on my stroll from the Wellington Monument to the Magazine Fort. It was the scene of a pretty timid pitch invasion at the time.
* There are many, many landmarks in the huge Phoenix Park, I have only mentioned the two I walked by before getting rained on during this particular evening, it is not intended to be a comprehensive list!