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violin The ker ma of Whitley.


WHEN I think back to my childhood visits to Uncle Jim and Auntie Betty I always remember their warm welcome, their talking mynah bird and music.

Our branch of the Sutton family were all born in Westhoughton, a mining town in Lancashire. When they left school the girls worked in the mills while the boys went down the pits. Perhaps the love of music they all shared was an escape from the harsh reality of everyday life.

Also one of our ancestors, William Sutton, nicknamed the Old Duke, founded the seaside town of Southport and described himself as an innkeeper and 'musicioner'. The violin he used to serenade his future wife, Jane Gregson , is on display in Southport museum.

Demand for coal fell during the depression and my father Alf moved to Coventry in 1929.

James, or Uncle Jim as we always called him stayed until the last pit in Westhoughton closed in 1936 due to flooding. James decided to move to Coventry with his wife Betty. Dad helped them find a house to rent in the Headlands and moved in with them. Shortly afterwards they all moved to 144 London Road, in Whitley.

It was not the first time James had been to Coventry. A few years previously he, together with some friends had walked the one hundred miles from Westhoughton. They slept in hedgerows and outbuildings and one wealthy man with a motor car gave them some money to help them on their way. After a look around they walked back again.

James found work at the Armstrong Whitworth aircraft factory and stayed there until it closed.

On the night of the Coventry blitz, November 14, 1940, they were reading and listening to music when the sirens sounded. They decided to stay in the house but when a bomb landed in the grounds of the isolation hospital opposite and the blast sucked the glass out of the front windows of the house they made for the safety of the shelter.

Dad married my mother in 1942 and left London Road to live in Woodstock Road, Cheylesmore.

James had always wanted to play the violin and in 1948 bought a book entitled 'Violin Making As It Was And Is', by Edward Heron-Allen.

It contained detailed plans for making violins in the Guarnerius and Stradivarius style.

James followed the Guarnerius model and set to work on the long painstaking process of selecting the wood before cutting and shaving each panel a fraction at a time to the correct thickness. The slightest error would affect the tone of the finished instrument.

His workshop was a garden shed and the kitchen table. Each instrument took up about two years to complete. James was never satisfied with his own attempts to play his violins with his work worn hands.

James and Betty had two children, my cousins Ron and Sylvia. They were both introduced to music from an early age, but when the new exciting rock 'n' roll burst onto the scene in the late 1950s Ron soon decided he preferred the guitar. He is still playing the tunes made famous by the Shadows and Duane Eddy.

James made Sylvia her first full size violin when she was about ten years of age. Sylvia had taken lessons locally but it was John Aves, her music teacher at Whitley Abbey School, who recognised her potential and arranged for her to travel to London and have lessons with Frederick Grinkie, a professor at the Royal Academy of Music.

When she had finished her Alevels, Sylvia went to the Royal Academy of Music and joined the national Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, playing at venues all over Europe and also in Israel.

After she left the Academy, Sylvia played with various groups including the Welsh Opera, before being invited to join the Northern Sinfonia. This was a smaller group and offered greater opportunities to perform in a variety of roles including solo performances and a six-week tour of South America.

It was while playing in the Northern Sinfonia that she met her future Canadian husband George, a principal clarinet player in the orchestra.

They married in 1974.

Back at home James was still improving his skills. He had made four more violins and two violas, one a larger Lionel Tertis model, and one to his own design.

To test his skills even further, James had made three miniature violins, perfect in every detail. The scroll work and varnished finish was perfect. Even the tiny pegs could be turned. One of these was presented to Frederick Grinkie as a thank you gift.

Violin number six was completed by Christmas day 1981. James was certain that it was his best so far. He had made it from seasoned wood that he had bought years before and used all of his experience gained with the previous instruments.

It had not yet been varnished but James decided to add the strings and to allow Sylvia to try it the following day.

James never did hear the sound of violin number six being played. He died suddenly during the night.

Sylvia and George took the violin back to their home in Newcastle. They found a violin maker who varnished the instrument with loving care and set it up ready to play. They were not disappointed; it had a beautiful tone and was the best violin James had ever made.

Sylvia is still playing violin number six with the Northern Sinfonia over 30 years later.

The instrument is much admired by her fellow musicians, Last Christmas Sylvia played the 'Messiah' in Huddersfield and later performed the music to The Snowman in Newcastle. I think the sound of violin number six will continue to be heard for many years to come. It is a fitting tribute to Uncle Jim, the violin maker of Whitley.


PROFESSIONAL IN THE MAKING: Sylvia Sutton playing the violin when she was a teenager and, below, James and Betty Sutton's gravestone with violin design

MASTER CRAFTSMAN: James Sutton in his shed with his violins

EARLY YEARS: The Sutton family in 1912, with James in the middle of the front row; right, the Old Duke violin in Southport museum
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Mar 4, 2013
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