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Clifford Hoing ‘an artist in violin-making’

How was it that a little-known maker of violins and violas, who many people consider to be a modern-day Stradivarius, was born in a quiet market town in South Buckinghamshire? The town is High Wycombe and the craftsman is Clifford Hoing.  He was a resident of Wycombe all his life and became a world-famous maker of violins and violas. Here is his story.

Clifford was the son of Alfred and Alice Hoing.  Alfred worked in the chair-making industry as a chair-framer and married Alice Clara Cline early in 1902.  Clifford, who was their only child, was born on November 21st 1903.  After his education in local schools he followed his father into the furniture industry, becoming a wood-carver.  He even worked for a few years with Eric Gill the famous sculptor.

His father Alfred, who had been making violins as a hobby, was made redundant in the deep recession of the early 1930s.  He and Clifford then began to work together by repairing violins.   1935 Clifford decided that his experience of repairing violins enabled him to begin making them.  He then decided to take this up as his life’s work.

Even at that time most violins were mass produced by the thousand, but it was known that the instruments with the best tone were always made by hand.  Clifford borrowed books from Wycombe Library in order to study the traditional methods of making violins and also acquired some older instruments to examine their construction.  This, together with his deep knowledge of different timbers, enabled him to produce violins of exceptional quality.  Like other English craftsman he believed that his craft was to produce a work of art.  Each instrument contained over 70 separate parts and took around 6 weeks of labour to construct and perfect.  The total manufacturing time was in fact nearer six months because Clifford would only allow each of the 12 coats of varnish applied to the instrument to dry naturally. This varnish was to a secret formula, known only to Clifford himself, which contributed to the tone of the instrument when played.  His output was therefore restricted to around 8 instruments each year.

Beginning with wood weighing more than six pounds, the finished instrument weighed in at around 14 to 15 ounces.  Clifford used a number of different woods.  He toured the furniture factories in Wycombe to find the very finest examples of thoroughly seasoned pieces.  The finger-boards and tail-pieces were fashioned from ebony, and from rosewood for the pegs. He used willow for the linings, ‘figured’ English sycamore for the backs of the instruments, and spruce for the sounding board or front.  His success depended to a large degree on his deep knowledge of these woods, obtained solely through many years of handling them as a wood-carver, getting to know their ‘feel’.  This enabled him to perfect a system where each component part was in harmony with the whole.

In order to develop the business he established contact with a dealer friend in London, who attracted by his work sent examples to a Scottish dealer and to Arthur Richardson in Devonshire.  Richardson was generally regarded as one of the country’s leading exponents of violin-making at that time. These were well received and Hoing violins began making their way into some of the foremost orchestras of the day.

Clifford agreed to take part in an experiment arranged by Dr Ernest Whitfield, a blind violinist and connoisseur of the instrument.  For this experiment violinist Dr Stanislav Frydberg was asked to play behind a screen each of 10 violins.  These violins included three famous Stradivarius, a Gabrielli, a Guarnerius, and others by modern makers.  An audience was asked to judge the sound and tonal quality of the violins and to rank them 1 to 10.  The Hoing violin was placed second, and Dr Whitfield asked if he might be allowed to take the instrument to his colleague Albert Sammons, a world-famous violinist.  Sammons verdict on the instrument was ‘’I tried your violin and found the quality very good. There is also a good deal of power, a combination very difficult to get.’’  He added to the tribute by sending to Clifford Hoing an autographed photograph, addressing it to ‘an artist in violin-making’.

One of his greatest achievements which gave Clifford most satisfaction was to construct a miniature violin and bow, two inches in length, perfect in every detail so that it really could be played .  At the time this was first displayed, at the High Wycombe Trades Exhibition in October 1938, it was claimed to be the smallest real violin in the world. He made another miniature violin for the Queen’s Dolls House.

At the same exhibition Clifford was awarded both prizes in the Carving Section.  These were for tiny cameos in boxwood, the colour of old ivory, and a statuette of a woman.  He carved graceful figures from single blocks of wood, and then added reliefs where the different colours of different woods was used to produce the natural colouring of the subject.  An example of this technique was a relief portrait of Sir Henry Wood in sycamore.  He developed this into a technique for producing coloured wood-carvings, where each detail of the carving was in a different wood.  The cream colour of natural sycamore would be used for a delicate face, rosewood for the warm tint of lips, walnut for the eyebrows, and so on, all combining to make an image of rare beauty.  The technique was the subject of a British Patent for Relief Marquetry.

As his fame grew Clifford began to produce violas and gradually these became the dominant instrument in his workshop, Being somewhat larger than a violin, they were also heavier, weighing around 20 ounces. A Hoing viola won a Diploma of Honour at an exhibition in The Hague in 1949. He also produced other related instruments. These adorned the walls of the family home. They included a copy of a Welsh harp, the crwth, a viola d’amore, and a little ‘jig’, which was used over 150 years ago by street-musicians and would be slipped into a pocket when they were asked to ‘move-on’. He also made guitars.

In 1950/51 Clifford and his parents moved from their modest house in Upper Green Street, High Wycombe to a larger residence in West Wycombe Rd. The house still stands and older local people still remember that a full-sized violin was displayed in the front bay window of the house. This was about the only advertising that he did, preferring that his reputation grew by recommendation. He did not even install a telephone in these premises, and any urgent message for him would be taken by a relative who would relay it to Clifford.

In 1974 at the Phillips Auction Rooms in London a Hoing violin achieved a then record price for a modern instrument of £1,300 pounds. It had been sold by Clifford in 1963 for £100.

When Clifford retired he concentrated on oil-painting and became a member of the New Wycombe Art Group, whose membership was limited to 60. He could reflect that during his career he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) and had gained more awards that any other English musical instrument maker.

These awards included eight diplomas and a special silver medal which was awarded in Ascoli Piceno in Italy. This was for a viola which took the prize for the Outstanding Artistic Character of the instrument, beating 130 makers from 16 different countries.

Clifford’s father Alfred died in October 1954 aged 84, his mother Alice in April 1974 aged 93, and Clifford himself passed away on July 9 1989 at the age of 85. At that time he was living at 14 Copners Drive in Holmer Green and his funeral was held at the local parish church on July 17th. Unfortunately his fame had by then diminished and merited only a very short obituary in the local newspaper the Bucks Free Press !

This article originally appeared in the Bucks Free Press and resulted in several readers writing to the newspaper extolling the virtues of Hoing violins/violas which they had personally owned. They included Keith Oliver, who was a member of the Royal Air Force Music Services for 27 years. For many years he was Leader of their string orchestra. Keith was born in High Wycombe and his interest in violins was stimulated by visits to the Hoing workshop. He bought a Hoing violin in 1955 for £50. In the RAF this travelled the world with him and was played at many important functions. These included a concert at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to celebrate the 80th birthday of Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine. A few years ago Keith sold the violin for £2,500. He has regretted it ever since !

Other readers to contact the newspaper were Pam Abbott and her daughter Muriel Carpenter. Pam wrote ‘’I was fortunate to own a Hoing violin for most of my professional playing life. A violinist friend of mine had purchased it from Clifford Hoing but as the friend had a number of instruments he never got round to playing it in.  I purchased it in 1968 for £80. It was made in 1947 but had spent most of the intervening time at an exhibition, so it was never played. I retired from playing about four years ago but my daughter Muriel who also trained as a violinist at the Guildhall always liked the sound that it made. She also found that it was much easier to play than other violins and so Muriel now has it.’’

Michael Dewey 

This Article  is published with the kind permission of  the Bucks Free Press 

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The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester has several Clifford Hoing Violas available to loan to students.  Two former students reflect on playing these instruments:

Kate Moore, now resident in Johannesburg, South African, writes:

“I had the privilege of using a Clifford Hoing viola for the majority of my two years of post graduate studying at the Royal Northern College of Music.  Having the opportunity to study in Manchester was an amazing experience, and made so much more special and memorable by being able to play this wonderful instrument.  The viola had not been played in a number of decades if I remember correctly, so it was a very interesting journey discovering and developing the unique sound and character of it.  I had previously preferred smaller violas as I found the larger ones unmanageable, but even with this Hoing’s generous size, I found it very easy to negotiate, especially in the higher positions.  The range of character I found in the strings, from the warm, sonorous, make-my-heart-melt C string to the lyrical and responsive A string, made the viola an absolute pleasure to play and perform.  The 20 odd months that I got to play this viola were very special, and even though I will probably never get to play a viola of this calibre again, I will cherish the memory of this wonderful viola.”

Alistair Vennart writes:

“A rich lower register with a crisp A-string sound, this is a real ‘all-rounder’ for Orchestral players and Soloists alike.  Also, it is a strong, durable instrument that is completely fine to travel around with; some older instruments don’t fare so well being taken on planes and exotic locations, however the Hoing had no trouble travelling to Italy in July!  It served me very well while I was at the RNCM and I was sad to see it go! “