Keeping it Alive: The Violin Restorer Making Antique Strings Sing
In our new photo journal series, Keeping it Alive, we meet the people preserving fragments of cultural heritage across the world. This week, we duck into a dusty London workshop to meet a master luthier repairing antique European violins
21 September, 2022
When James Kelly embarked on a project photographing traditional crafts, his aim was not just to record the crafter at work, but also the act of preservation itself. He saw in the revival and renewal of ancient skills a form of sustainability.
Focusing on the world of music was a no-brainer. "It's my passion," says Kelly. "Having worked with musicians who told stories of 18th- and 19th-century string and brass instruments they were playing, I always wondered about the origins, history and how these would be looked after and preserved." Beginning research, the photographer had a vague belief that there must be someone, somewhere, beavering away on the upkeep and restoration of historic instruments, inevitably in a dusty, photogenic workshop tucked into the suburban underbelly of a city. The idea proved prescient; his investigations led him to south London, where he found Anette.
Anette Fajadro is a luthier - a craftsperson who builds or repairs string instruments. Now based in Crofton Park, she began her journey at a German violin-making school in Bavaria in 1985. Equipped with the skills to preserve antique string instruments, she then worked around the world, from Baden-Württemberg to Chicago, including an 11-year period at the Royal Academy of Music, London.
Some instruments will be played again, a ghost song of past centuries recaptured, sweet and honeyed by age
Her work revolves around restoring antique violins: she tweaks their sound, improves their playability, rebuilds their timeworn bodies - in her own words, giving them an "MOT". Most of the instruments she works with are owned by foundations and museums. Some will be played again, a ghost song of past centuries recaptured, sweet and honeyed by age. Others are simply preserved as an object of fascination, or importance. Fajadro works from home, in a cosy workshop just like Kelly imagined, which is tucked away at the bottom of her garden. She's helped by a fittingly named assistant, Viola.
When Kelly visited, she was working on a famous Renaissance violin. "Lev's violin" is an Italian instrument named after its former Russian owner. Its tale - like that of many instruments - can be mapped across the European continent and through its musical history. The strange tale is told in a book by Helena Attlee. Today, the instrument is owned by violinist, composer and conductor Greg Lawson. The other instrument photographed by Kelly is a 1760 Landolfi from Milan.
"Anette says the work on a violin can be subjective and dependent on its use," says Kelly. It's not as easy as restoring its sound, or just its looks. "Should you restore it for what's best for the preservation of the original violin, or the needs of the player? Or find a balance of both, to meet the needs of the violin itself?"