Preserve or play?
Conservator Robin Tait outlines her research and conservation work on the AE Smith quartet.
AE Smith made the instruments in the National Museum of Australia's quartet in what is loosely termed his 'golden period', from the 1940s to the mid-1950s.
They belonged to various owners until the late 1970s when Mr and Mrs Ernest Llewellyn assembled the quartet. Mrs Llewellyn was AE Smith's daughter and Llewellyn was director of the Canberra School of Music, where Llewellyn Hall now bears his name.
The Australian Government purchased these instruments in 1978 and since then they have been in the National Historical Collection of the National Museum of Australia.
Historical integrity retained
The historical integrity of the instruments has been retained. Two small repairs on the cello were completed by members of AE Smith's family. His daughter Kitty Smith and grandson Daffyd Llewellyn both took on the trade.
Smith made these instruments at a time in history when he was able to benefit from the lessons of the early makers, the past innovations and the changes to violin construction.
His instruments have not been altered and were constructed with a craftsmanship that has ensured that no major interventive repairs have been required. His original varnish exists on all the instruments in the National Museum's quartet.
Functioning objects in a museum collection challenge curators and conservators and the AE Smith quartet is no exception.
Debate over whether to play or preserve is interesting, though the National Museum believes it has adopted a position of compromise.
Robert Barclay, a conservator from the Canadian Conservation Institute calls it 'display and occasional use'. The instruments are played occasionally, and displayed and stored in controlled conditions. Barclay says:
the quartet is still celebrated for its cultural value and pedigree and the conservation practices reflect concern for historical value and integrity. This compromise also highlights the fact that 'to play or to preserve' is by no means an exclusive choice.
Origins of the quartet
Smith crafted 210 instruments over his career, comprising 170 violins, 40 violas and three cellos.
The 1946 violin in the National Museum quartet is modelled on the 'Maurin' Stradivarius. This instrument was originally made for Mrs Swinburne Johnson, who gave lessons under the name of Madame Rolunde.
The 1954 violin is modelled on the 'Alard' Stradivarius and was given personally by Ernest Llewellyn to ensure the high standard of the quartet.
The viola made in 1952 was modelled on Brescian lines meaning that it follows the early Italian makers ideas in its construction. It was originally made for Priscilla Kennedy and this instrument came to the quartet by way of a swap or an exchange.
The cello, made in 1953, is modelled on the 'Haussmann' Stradivarius. He studied the Stradivarius original very closely as it was owned at the time by Edmund Kurtz and needed repairs while he was on a concert tour in Australia.
Kurtz played the Smith cello at several venues on his Australian tour as he considered the Smith to have comparable qualities to the Stradivarius.
Smith used traditional European timbers and while he did limited testing of timbers such as Australian King Billy pine he did not feel they had the same qualities of the European timbers.
He also formulated his own varnishes and used only materials available to the Cremonese makers such as Maggini, Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri.