Gift from the past: A tribute to Arthur Richardson MBE (1882–1965)

The completed Baroque style parlour-sized classical guitar, which makes use of fine-grained spruce, flamed maple and beech, that belonged to Arthur Richardson MBE


The completed guitar made using some of the Richardson wood

Many violin players and enthusiasts will have heard of Arthur Richardson. Details about his life, however, are rarely seen although he was certainly regarded as one of England’s finest ever violin makers. His repertoire also included cellos and violas and during some 50 years of manufacture, made over 500 instruments. This is an extraordinary output and works out at almost one per month. Anyone who’s tried to make any of the three instruments for which Arthur is famous will immediately understand the enormous demands this output must have placed on his shoulders.

Richardson was born in 1882 in Staveley, Derbyshire. He didn’t move into violin making directly from school, but was apprenticed into woodworking trades such as architectural woodcarving and patternmaking. He worked in the North of England – Leeds specifically – and only relocated to the South West in 1915 when he arrived in the small market town of Crediton, near Exeter, Devon.

He was attracted by the role of ecclesiastical woodcarver, offered by the firm of Dart and Francis, which still exists today with offices in the centre of Crediton, though no manufacturing work continues. Some of their work can be seen in London’s Guildhall and at Liverpool Cathedral, as well as surrounding towns and villages in this part of England.

Services to the world of music

Arthur, also a keen bowls player, was active outside of his workshop and had many friends and acquaintances in Crediton. Some older people living in the town still remember his novel lacquer-drying technique, which involved hanging some of the completed violins on the washing line (photo 1). A wooden bench that overlooks the bowling green at the side of Crediton Park carries a brass plate inscribed in his honour, which is attached to the back. The bench has been in place since the late 1960s and is now beginning to look rather weathered, albeit still intact.


1 Arthur Richardson in his garden

In 1961, Richardson was awarded an MBE for his services to the world of music, and this wasn’t in any small measure due to his friendship and collaboration with the world renowned viola player, Lionel Tertis. Not far from the bench, on the town library’s outside wall, a blue commemorative plaque is also dedicated to him (photo 2).


2 Arthur Richardson’s Blue Plaque

A legendary collaboration

The relationship between the two men became almost legendary. Tertis was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who’d escaped to Britain before World War II. He was soon recognised as an outstanding violin player but while attending the Royal Academy, was persuaded to concentrate on the viola. He soon became extremely proficient with the instrument and as such, his reputation strengthened, so much so that he was able to attract renowned composers such as Bax, Bridge, Holst and Vaughan-Williams, who wrote pieces for him so important that they were played by Tertis at several of the Proms.

Notable among them was the piece entitled Triptych, which incidentally has only recently been recorded onto CD. This very composition would go on to be played at a Concert Promenade in 1942, the event being supported by Sir Henry Wood and the piece directed by Sir Adrian Boult.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the collaboration between Richardson and Tertis, however, was the development of a new type of viola. Tertis was never fully satisfied with the tonal qualities of those most available and in particular, was looking for a better response in the lower register.

Apparently, the frequently complained about the poor quality of the lowest ‘C’ playable, so to overcome this, Tertis and Richardson designed and made a viola with a soundbox that had a larger chamber and in particular, a wider lower bout. This meant that it was almost as comfortable to play as a standard instrument, but exhibited the qualities Tertis was looking for.

A boxful of magic

So, how on earth did the timber I’ve described here as ‘a present from the past’ come into my possession? First, I live and work in Crediton as a luthier and this is well known to my next door neighbour who happens to be a member of the Crediton Area History & Museum Society. The society was having a meeting in a large country house located just outside the town when one of the members brought in a box of ‘firewood’ and asked if anyone would like some (photo 3). Before the offer was accepted, however, my neighbour stepped in and suggested he knew someone who could make better use of it, rather than committing it to the flames. He brought the box to me and I was delighted to find pieces of fine-grained spruce, flamed maple and beech.


3 The box of magic


4 Two wedges of fine-grained spruce dated 1922

As I was sorting through the contents, I saw two wedges of spruce that’d been prepared to make a viola soundboard. Remarkably, these were marked ‘1922’ in pencil, and this hand-writing was almost certainly that of Arthur Richardson (photo 4). I measured the pieces and found there was almost enough to make the front for a small guitar provided I put a fillet along the centre, which would increase the width of the joined boards by a small amount.

Further delving turned up more bits and pieces that caught my eye, and I really felt I should go ahead and make something special using as much of this ‘firewood’ as possible. After all, it was now the year 2022, and exactly 100 years on. A final boost came when I noticed the name ‘Tertis’ written on one of the maple pieces (photo 6) – what a find!

Parlour-sized classical guitar

I shortly set to work and began to think of the best method for making the soundboard. As the spruce was a little too narrow even with a centre strip, I chose a mould based on Baroque instruments made some 400-500 years ago (photo 5). A full-sized classical guitar mould would’ve been too wide at the lower bout. As the spruce had first been made into wedges ready to be transformed into a viola’s soundboard, a lot of hand planing was required to get the two book-matched pieces as flat as possible. The amount of waste material was alarming, but I kept reminding myself that the timber would’ve likely ended up in someone’s hearth (photo 7).


5 A mould for guitars made in the Baroque style


6 The name ‘Tertis’ is clearly visible


7 Planing the wedges to flat boards

Once I’d prepared the two boards and placed a narrow fillet along the centre to make the width just right, it was time to cramp all soundboard components in a wedge and lace jig (photos 8 & 9). This jig was also used to cramp the maple boards for the back. When the soundboard came out of the jig, I added a couple of ebony inlays for decorative purposes. The next task was to make the remaining parts – i.e. the sides – also known as ‘ribs’ – neck, fingerboard and back, ready for assembly (photo 10). Before the front could be fitted it had to be strengthened as the spruce was brought down to a thickness of just 2mm. This means that without bracing, the front would bulge outwards and likely split and burst under the string tension’s pull.


8 The wedge and lace jig


9 The soundboard in the jig


10 The build’s main components

The fan bracing pattern is largely of my own design but based loosely on that of several concert guitar makers from Spain (photo 11). To hold the front firmly in place, while ensuring not to dampen the sound, ‘tentellones’ are used. These are small triangular pieces of spruce faced with adhesive and placed side by side with tweezers into the point where the ribs meet the soundboard. To support the back, kerfed linings were glued in place and levelled with the ribs’ top edges (photo 12). The back requires bracing as well as the soundboard, though it doesn’t have directly to sustain pressure of the six strings.


11 The soundboard braced and ready for fitting


12 Tentellones and kerfed linings in place

Nevertheless, to help maintain curvature on the back – a ‘lift’ of around 4mm – three braces, which have themselves been curved before fitting, are placed horizontally across the inside (photo 13).


13 The back braced and ready to fit

Once the assembly was complete, I was able to make a small ebony bridge and bone top nut and saddle ready for stringing up and tuning. The finished instrument looked good (photos 14 & 15), but I was keen to hear whether it produced an acceptable sound. The test proved to be very promising indeed with clear, singing trebles and full resonant basses. This was my first impression, and it’s well accepted by guitarists that the sound will improve after a few months as the instrument is played in.

So, thank you, Mr Richardson, for this gift of timber, which lives on to this day, albeit in a different stringed instrument.


14 The completed guitar, as seen from the back...


15 ... and side