Seen up close, the Hellier Stradivarius seems almost to be a living thing. Look at it head on, and the sinuous f-holes make for a kind of visage, a face with eyes and an upturned mouth. As for its back — a single piece of maple with a beautifully striped grain — it has the golden lustre of a Bengal tiger’s coat.
The Hellier has a complete anatomy of its own: a strong body, slim neck, cinched waist, curved ribs. And then there is the deeply turned scroll, which looks like the prehensile tail of some jungle lizard.
Antonio Stradivari made the Hellier — which is offered in The Exceptional Sale in London on 7 July — in 1679. He was in his early thirties at the time, and just emerging from the influence of Cremona’s great master luthier, Nicolò Amati.
‘This is the first piece of work that goes in a new direction,’ says Florian Leonhard, Stradivari expert and Christie’s consultant on the Hellier. ‘Up to this point you sense that he was following in Amati’s footsteps, but now his personality shows.’
How does it show? It is partly in the proportions, which go beyond anything made by the Amati family. The changes are subtle — fractionally larger dimensions, a little more width in the midriff, more prominent detailing at the edges. But these small departures were radical enough to dismay earlier historians.
‘The [Hellier] presents a heaviness and solidity of construction such as we may almost venture to say borders on clumsiness,’ wrote W. Henry and Arthur Hill in their 1902 biography of Stradivari.
To modern eyes, that solidity is a virtue, an aesthetic leap forward. It lends the Hellier the heft and sculptural grace of a Brancusi bronze. ‘Ideas change,’ says Leonhard, ‘and what we celebrate in Stradivari today is precisely his boldness of expression. That begins with the Hellier, and it is what makes this a unique and timeless item.’
The most striking feature of the Hellier is the inlaid decoration on the ribs (the sides of the soundbox) and on the scroll. Of the 500 or so Stradivari violins in existence, barely a dozen are inlaid, and not one of them is adorned like the Hellier. This is self-consciously a work of art as well as an exquisite tool of the musician’s trade.
Surviving drawings suggest that the inlay design is the work of Stradivari’s own hand. The pattern consists of wandering fronds and tendrils, some of which are coming into leaf or have put forth flowers. Many of the stalks are bending under the weight of a bud — making a shape that brings to mind a C clef, or perhaps even the wonderfully calligraphic commas at the top and bottom of those f-holes.
Hidden in the foliage, like a secret gift, are some tiny, writhing snakes. What they mean and what they are doing there, no one can say. But perhaps Stradivari really did see something reptilian in the form of the scroll, and chose to echo it in the inlay.
The scroll is where the carving becomes truly virtuosic. The vegetal design follows the convolutions of the wood, getting smaller and smaller as it approaches the centre point, where Stradivari has etched a tiny flower with four petals. It is a perfect little buttercup — or rather, an artist’s minimal idea of a buttercup, wrought in black mastic.
Florian Leonhard thinks that the rich decoration of the Hellier may have dictated its experimental shape, that Stradivari’s intention was to create the best possible canvas for the inlay and for the intricate diamond-and-pearl purfling (the narrow decorative edge). If so, then it was a serendipitous decision, because the altered template seemed to make for a more perfect violin.
‘These are the dimensions he used in his mature years, after about 1699,’ says Leonhard. ‘So the Hellier is ahead of its time — but I am not sure that he had a vision of a bolder instrument when he was making it. It’s just a theory, but I wonder if, having arrived at the right proportions for an inlaid violin, he thought, “Hang on — this works.”’
And where Stradivari led, others followed. The Hellier proportions became a blueprint among luthiers for generations to come. It could be said that most great violins made in the past 300 years carry a little of the Hellier DNA.
The violin was acquired by the Hellier family of Wombourne, Staffordshire, in England’s West Midlands — which is why it is known by their name. Family legend had it that Sir Samuel Hellier, a musicologist, bought it in the 1730s from Stradivari himself — who would by then have been in his nineties. But archival documents suggest that the instrument may have come into the family at an earlier date, no later than 1719.
Either way, it seems likely that the Hellier lived with its maker for four decades at least. ‘All artists occasionally make things that they can’t bear to part with,’ says Leonhard. ‘It is easy to suppose that Stradivari said to himself, “This is my best violin. I am going to keep it.”’
If so, then he must surely have picked it up from time to time, turned it over in his hands, and congratulated his younger self. And when at last he sold it to a visiting Englishman, that must have felt like saying goodbye to an old friend.