Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, Arthur Edward (1880–1978)

by Ann G. Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Arthur Edward Smith (1880?-1978), violin-maker, is said to have been born in 1880 at Islington, London, son of William Edward Smith, medical practitioner, and his wife Emma, née Bartrop. He left grammar school at 14 and was apprenticed in the design office of Bentall's engineering firm at Maldon, Essex. However, his hobby of violin-making, initially undertaken to improve upon the inferior instrument he played in the Maldon Amateur Orchestral Society, soon eclipsed engineering as an interest. Self-taught, guided by A. E. Hill's book on Stradivari, Smith rapidly acquired expertise, attracting the attention of the Maldon antique and musical instrument dealer, C. W. Jeffreys, whose firm he joined in 1905 as repairer and violin-maker.

By 1909 Smith had made twenty violins and a quartet, his instruments being already notable for their excellent outline, arching and scrolls. Wishing to set up on his own in an environment with fewer established competitors, he purchased choice violin-making woods, including some which had been exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1851, and migrated to Melbourne. In 1912-14 he worked with Carl Rothhammer at San Francisco, United States of America, then moved to Sydney where he briefly continued his partnership with Rothhammer. In 1919 he established A. E. Smith & Co. Ltd in Hunter Street.

His firm's basic business was fine imports and the repair and maintenance of stringed instruments, but Smith also trained his craftsmen to produce violins, violas and cellos, enabling them to pursue the art privately if they wished. His expertise encouraged the development of local orchestras and violin teaching and helped to give foreign virtuoso violinists the confidence to accept Australian concert engagements and subject their precious instruments to the long sea-voyage. During World War II when German strings were unavailable, Smith, under the trade name 'Paganini', further supported the Australian music world by designing and building machines to manufacture fine strings and fittings.

Smith created his own masterpieces at his Roseville workshop, producing between one and six violins a year and an occasional viola and cello. His total output between 1899 and 1970 was about 250 instruments, the details of each carefully recorded in a series of notebooks; his best work was done before an illness in 1957.

Tall, large-boned, his square-tipped hands remaining steady into old age, Smith acquired great dexterity. He used only traditional, well-matured woods—European maples for the ribs, scrolls and backs of his instruments and Swiss or Italian pine for the bellies—aiming, through the Italian method, for the structural perfection of Guarneri and Stradivari models. He took a musical approach to the science of acoustics: one of his methods was to graduate the thicknessing of the plates according to the pitch and clarity of the tones produced when the separate violin backs and bellies were bowed while being held firmly against the bench-top. His varnishes, grading from golden to red and of excellent elasticity and transparency, were produced to suit each individual instrument.

Smith's reputation for an even sound and tonal quality reminiscent of the Cremonese masters attracted the custom not only of leading Australian players but of the world's great violinists and cellists; many, including Menuhin, Stern, Spivakowski, Ricci, Oistrakh and Balokovic, acquired A. E. Smith violins. In 1949 Smith was awarded diplomas of honour for both violin and viola at the International Exhibition of Violin Makers at The Hague and next year was the first Australian to be elected to the International Society of Violin and Bow Makers. He was appointed M.B.E. in 1971.

A. E. Smith is remembered as patient, precise, decorous and absolutely dedicated to his craft. For relaxation he played viola with his family musicians; he also enjoyed an occasional fishing trip.

Smith died in Canberra on 16 May 1978 aged 98, predeceased by his wife Kate, née Dènèrèaz, formerly Davidson. He was survived by a pianist son and two daughters—Kitty, who succeeded her father as violin-maker and manager of A. E. Smith & Co. until its closure in 1972, and Ruth, wife of Ernest Llewellyn, director of the Canberra School of Music. A grandson Roderick Smith is also a violin-maker. An A. E. Smith quartet of instruments is held by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, and a violin by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Henley, Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers, vol 5 (Brighton, Eng, 1960)
  • People (Sydney), 2 June 1954
  • Canon, 2, no 6, Jan 1958
  • Hemisphere, Jan 1972
  • Australia Now, 6, no 2, 1976
  • Journal of Association of Musical Instrument Makers, 1, no 2, June 1987
  • Canberra Times, 22 Apr 1972, 7 Jan 1976, 17 May 1978
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'Smith, Arthur Edward (1880–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-arthur-edward-8463/text14881, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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