Words Kirk Truman
Photography Erin Barry
“I’ve always played the violin and viola; I was always good at making things. When it came to choosing a career there was a few options, one was architecture, another was languages. Out of the blue the idea of doing an apprenticeship in violin making came about.”
Once asked in an interview to define his own meaning of happiness, Alfred Hitchcock replied, ‘a clear horizon — nothing to worry about on your plate, only things that are creative and not destructive. I can’t bear quarrelling, I can’t bear feelings between people — I think hatred is wasted energy, and it’s all non-productive.’ These words I find true to the undeniable correlation between happiness and creativity. Luthier: a maker of stringed instruments such as violins and guitars. I puzzle myself as to how one can come to find themselves making violins. A German in London, Eckhard Kropfreiter tells of his routes, his passion for music and the creation, restoration and sheer beauty of rare vintage violins that has come to be his trade.
Originating from the rural Black forest in Baden Wuerttemberg in south-western Germany, close to the Swiss and French borders, his home is no stranger to creativity and craftsmanship. A focal point of the area he grew up in is craft making and wood-carving; cuckoo clocks have been traditionally produced in the area since the early 18th century in the region. Eckhard explains to me that, as a rural area, in the colder winter months many people with whom he grew up spend their time inventing and manufacturing various ornaments.
After considering several career pursuits, from architecture to languages, Eckhard made the decision to continue the passion for music he gained as a youngster and apply it to his career by becoming a luthier. He attended an apprenticeship at the instrument making school, Mittenwald for three-and–a-half years, with the course of violin making spread over 6 semesters. The apprenticeship itself was comprised of woodwork, learning to play a musical instrument and music history. Mittenwald has been an established place of making for over 150 years, situated along an old trade route. The school Mittenwald is very small, attended by just 50 students.
Following the apprenticeship, Eckhard moved to Hamburg where he worked in workshops performing various repairs on violins and violas: he moved to London in the mid-90s to continue his career in making instruments. “The reason I moved to London was because I wanted to work with high-quality instruments. It is the trading home of really good Italian instruments” he explains.
When selling his Startford property in 2007, Eckhard came to settle in Fitzrovia. He sighted the area as his new home, seeking to live in the heart of town allowing everything he requires to be within walking distance.
At this stage much of the profit from the house sale was used to progress his career in violin restoration. He used the funds to buy a ruined viola which, over a period of around 1 year, he fully restored and sold at auction. “It’s something I find fascinating. It’s really rewarding when you show something to somebody and they think it’s ruined, a piece of crap and I can see the potential that they cannot. When you can make a living from something that you are fascinated by it’s a real pleasure” says Eckhard.
The instrument came from an auction at Bonhams. It was an Italian viola originating from Belogna and made by Dom Nicolo Amati in 1714. It had spent some time in Buenos Aires, an area where wealthy landowners had orchestras in the region. Eckhard had the viola for almost 3 years until he decided to restore it, a process that took almost a year. The new owner, a young talented Swedish viola player, went on to win numerous awards with the instrument. Eckhard also saw her in concert to admire the viola in use. Letting go of the viola was difficult for Eckhard, having originally brought the instrument for personal use.
He searches the globe for particular instruments to restore; predominately they originate from 17th-18th century Italy and France. Most of the instruments that he obtains usually come to him simply in pieces – in some cases only the back and front of the violin, perhaps part of one side with another section missing. All of the instruments that pass through his studio undergo an intensive, often painstaking restoration process. This often involves the rebuilding of the inner layers and the building and designing of missing parts, including the neck and side seams. As a finishing touch, Eckhard later has to carefully rebuild the varnishing of the wood with nothing more than the tip of a cotton bud. Prior to this, Eckhard will also clean the wood underneath an infrared light where the stories of centuries gone show their colour.
Eckhard often finds that he has an attachment to many of the instruments that he comes to restore, holding on to many of them for some time until eventually selling them on, and then only to very carefully selected owners. In coming to admire certain instruments that pass through his studio on Mortimer Street, he will often go to various performances where the new owners of his instruments are performing so that he can admire them in their fullest glory.
His studio on Mortimer Street is appropriately sat above the J P Guivier violin store on Mortimer Street. The studio is a small workshop where many violins await Eckhard’s hand in restoring them. An array of restored violins hangs carefully on display, he selects one and clearly admires it, he quickly begins to play it. Replacing the instrument, he shows me the caucus of an 18th century violin and explains the complicated restoration process of this particular instrument. He explains that it will take him at least 6 months to restore it – longer than most modern homes often take to build. The instruments he restores are sold almost privately to talented musicians all over the world, and also at auction.
Having lived in the Fitzrovia area since the 1990s, Eckhard lives amid the quiet of Carbarton Street. He is an admirer of the many local coffee shops that line our streets, frequenting KIN and Kaffeine. He is well respected in his trade as a restorer of some of the world’s finest instruments. He says little to proclaim his work as creative, though all creatives rarely do.