James Briggs, Instrument maker

The cello above sold for £13,800 in Bonhams in 1996. It was made in Glasgow in 1924, and it set the record price for an instrument by its creator, James William Briggs. He was a maker of violins and cellos of some repute, and a resident of Strathbungo.

Briggs (1855-1935) was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and moved to Glasgow in 1893. He had premises at 122 Sauchiehall Street, and lived at 12 Queen Square (at that time known as 5 Queen Square) from around 1905 until his death.


His portrait is in the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre , gifted by his son Henry after his death.

James Briggs Portrait

James W. Briggs, Violin Maker in Glasgow by Robert Cree Crawford; Glasgow Museums

He was a

“very fine maker and distinguished connoisseur, unique in being elected to the Violin Maker’s Association of Germany. Employed Philip Schreiber as assistant for over fifty years. Many fine copies of classical instruments with richly-hued varnish of good texture, including an imitation of cellist Pablo Casals’ Gofriller cello. Excellent materials generally, but often with locally sourced pine in the fronts, albeit of fine structure.” (John Dilworth )

A contemporary review by William Meredith Morris reads

“He works at 122 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, and was born at Wakefield on July 9, 1855. He received elementary education at the Friends’ School, Rawdon. His father, who is a worthy old Quaker, gave the son a sound grounding in various subjects on commercial lines. Mr. Briggs has supplemented his early training with wide and varied reading in after life. He is a pupil of the late William Tarr, of Manchester, the famous double-bass maker. Up to the end of January 1899 he had made eighty-four violins, eleven violas, eleven ‘cellos, and nine double-basses. All the work is personal, with the exception of the scrolls of the last ten instruments, which have been carved by his son Harry. He works on the Stradivari and Guarneri model, and also on an original one. The measurements of the original model are as follows : —
Length of body … 14 3/16ins,
Width across upper bouts … 6 3/4ins,
Width across middle bouts … 3 7/16ins,
Width across lower bouts … 8 1/4ins,
Length of C’s … 3 1/8ins,
Length of sound-holes … 3 1/16ins,
Depth of lower rib … 1 1/4ins,
Depth of upper rib … 1 3/16ins,
Distance between sound-holes … 1 9/16ins,
The outline is bold and assertive, and moderately pronounced. The scroll, although original, is much in the manner of Joseph (Del Gesu). The button is well designed, but a trifle more circular than that of Strad’s. The corners are full and piquant, and when viewed in conjunction with the widened waist, they give the instrument a breadth of conception. The sound-holes also are original ; they are beautifully cut with a firm hand, and are a sort of compromise between those of Strad and Joseph. The varnish is an oil one, of the maker’s own composition. Colour : golden amber with a rose flush. The tone is strong, bright, and bell-like. When Mr. Briggs works as a copyist, he may be said to be a member of the Vuillaume school, except in the matter of artificially seasoning the wood. His copies of some of the classical violins are, indeed, very fine and correct — too correct, perhaps. It is questionable whether the time spent in copying every little scratch and patch be time profitably spent. A facsimile copy, like that of Mr. Briggs’ Paganini-Joseph, requires immense skill and patience, and it also requires a length of time. To exercise the greatest skill and patience is commendable, but to consume over-much valuable time is against the interests of the art. The fiddle world cannot afford to allow a born artist to dally with scratches and patches. Mr. Briggs had the largest exhibit of instruments at the Glasgow Exhibition, and in many respects the finest. The wood of the backs and ribs was exhibited as timber at the Paris Exhibition of 1880, and also at Vienna in 1890, where it was awarded a gold medal. The bellies were made from wood three hundred years old, taken from an old church in Warsaw, Poland. As an original worker, Mr. Briggs is remarkably free from conventionality, and allows his genius unlimited liberty. At one moment he worships at the shrine of old Antonio, and at the next he is an uncompromising iconoclast. Genius ever was a mystery.” (William Meredith Morris )

James Briggs Violin

James Briggs Violin

You can hear one of his violins on YouTube , or one of his cellos at Aitchison & Mnatzaganian , who at the time of writing are offering one for sale for a mere £38,000.

In 1932 James was also commissioned to make a replica of the famous 15th century Queen Mary Harp in the National Museums Scotland. James’ copy is now on display in Urquhart Castle. it was his son, Henry, however, who was to become renowned for his harps.

queen mary harp

James Briggs’ replica Queen Mary Harp, 1932

Henry Briggs

Henry was born in Wakefield in 1879, and moved with the family to Glasgow in 1893. Henry was sent to Germany to learn violin making before returning to his father’s workshop. He was never, to my knowledge, a Strathbungo resident and in 1905 was living in Stepps. In 1932 Mrs Duncan MacLeod, of the newly formed Clarsach Society, persuaded Henry to start making clarsachs (celtic harps), as the instrument was at risk of disappearing from Scottish tradition. The music had never been written down by the harpists, and was thought lost during the suppression of Scottish culture after the Jacobite uprisings. He wasn’t keen initially but went on to become known not only for restoring the clarsach into Scottish music, but the harp into Irish music too in the 1950s. He was said to have made over 150 harps. He died in 1963.

Henry Briggs Dalriada Harp

Henry Briggs Dalriada Harp

References

1.
Queen Mary Harp [R] [Internet]. Collections | Historic Environment Scotland. [cited 2019 Jun 24]. Available from: https://collections.historicenvironment.scot/objects/20427
1.
Martin C. scotlandsmusic: Henry Briggs - 20th century Scottish harp maker. [Internet]. scotlandsmusic. 2012 [cited 2019 Jun 24]. Available from: http://scotlandsmusic.blogspot.com/2012/09/henry-briggs-20th-century-scottish-harp.html
1.
James W Briggs 1924 [Internet]. Aitchison & Mnatzaganian Cello Specialists. [cited 2018 Sep 20]. Available from: http://www.aitchisoncellos.com/antique-cellos/cellos-for-sale/james-briggs-1924/
1.
James W. Briggs, Violin Maker in Glasgow | Art UK [Internet]. [cited 2018 Sep 20]. Available from: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/james-w-briggs-violin-maker-in-glasgow-83639
1.
Maker: James Briggs [Internet]. Amati. [cited 2018 Sep 20]. Available from: http://www.amati.com/maker/briggs-james-william
1.
Pagabunni. Sound Sample: A Scottish violin by James Briggs [Internet]. [cited 2018 Sep 20]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0BDNT17uoc

4 Comments

  1. another couple of fascinating posts Andrew. Thanks again for the trouble that you take, always a treat when there is a new post from you.

  2. Pamela Baker nee Briggs

    June 22, 2019 at 8:20 pm

    James Briggs was my (adoptive?) great grandfather. I’d really love to know more about his son Henry, who I believe carried on the business. I was given a violin by him when I was ten years old, but it was subsequently lost, alas!
    Any information would be wonderful to have.

  3. That’s all I know, based on internet digging. You could try the Glasgow Resource Centre, given Henry donated the picture. Good to make contact with a descendant!

  4. Although I did find this http://scotlandsmusic.blogspot.com/2012/09/henry-briggs-20th-century-scottish-harp.html?m=1
    Claims Henry had a major role in revitalising the clarsach in Scotland and harp in Ireland, when there was no one else who could make them.

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