We are always on the lookout for great sounding small violas and this English instrument from the late 18th century is particularly successful. A broad and bold model made in the circle of Richard Duke, it has a rich and powerful tone.

This viola bears the Hill number P481, and the Hill records reveal that it was bought and sold by them in 1947 as “Duke School”. To my eye it looks more closely related to Banks, but either way it’s a late 18th century English instument of some quality. While the back length is standard for the time (39.5cm) it’s unusually broad, and with deep ribs up to 35mm the volume of air is significant.

This is a finely made instrument – the scroll is very precise and symmetrical, the edges are generous, the wood is first class and the varnish is a very attractive golden brown.

The condition is pretty good – the table has 3 repaired cracks below the f-holes and 2 wing cracks but no post crack or patch, the back has some restoration below the button and a small repaired crack upper right.

We see a lot of small English violas from this time period, and it’s clear that makers were putting a lot of thought into the great “viola question” ie. how to make an instrument that’s easy to play yet which spans the tonal gap between the violin and the cello.

Making the instrument broader rather than longer is an elegant solution, as with the right tension strings you can still get a big viola sound with a manageable string length.

This is a lovely instrument to play, very responsive, smooth and rich – lots of satisfying resonance under the chin with a nice crunch to the note.

Just a very well conceived instrument that would stand up to scrutiny in a demanding professional environment, and ideal for an accomplished player who needs to scale down!

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We also welcome customers by appointment to our showroom in Wells, Somerset, and we make regular trips to meet clients in London, Brussels, Cologne, Munich and Vienna.

Martin Swan