Obituary: William Luff
Wednesday 22 December 1993
WILLIAM LUFF was one of the few great British violin-makers of the present time. In a lifetime devoted to his craft, he probably did more than anyone to dispel the idea that only old instruments produce the best tone. His instruments are sought after and played by leading musicians all over the world.
Luff was born in Essex in 1904 into a musical family; his father was the well-known tenor Harry Luff and his uncle a violinist. He was given a fiddle on his eighth birthday and took lessons with a Russian who had studied with the legendary Leopold Auer in St Petersburg.
On leaving school at 14 he took a job as a clerk, and, purely with the idea of finding a hobby, he enrolled in an evening class in violin making run by Frank Howard at the Northern Polytechnic in London. It was the first smell of wood and varnish that cast its spell. From this moment nothing mattered in his life except violins.
The teacher soon recognised he had an extremely talented pupil on his hands and mentioned the fact to the famous dealer Arthur Dykes when he came one evening to inspect the students' work. As a result, young Luff suddenly found himself in Bond Street employed by Dykes as a full-time repairer and restorer. It was here that he shared a bench with the young Max Millant and his brother Roger who was spending some time in London before opening their shop in Paris. He often said that Millant had been one of the strongest influences on his early career.
In 1932 he set up a workshop in his home, but at the outbreak of war in 1939 his skills were recognised and he was employed in a civilian capacity for the RAF identifying and repairing radar equipment.
After the war Luff received a number of lucrative offers from London dealers and in 1946 joined the staff of John and Arthur Beare in Wardour Street, where he spent nine happy years, in which time he had the opportunity to work on some of the great master instruments that passed regularly through their hands.
Eventually the desire to set up on his own returned and he found a shop near the BBC TV Centre at Shepherd's Bush. He had decided not to open for a week so as to get the shop in order, but the news had spread and within a few hours a well-known teacher arrived carrying an armful of violins. From this moment business thrived, and during the years that followed many great violinists regularly crossed his threshhold. One of Luff's most devoted customers was the late Albert Sammons.
Occasionally there were strange requests. One day a woman arrived with a cello which had hinges on the front so that it opened and shut. When questioned she said she had used it as a cocktail cabinet but had heard instruments were fetching good prices so she wanted it restored to its original state.
In 1956, following the death of Frank Howard - his old teacher - Luff took over the department of violin-making at the Northern Polytechnic, and the response was overwhelming. He once told me that he was 'so glad the ladies came along as well as the men. I've always thought that violin-making was something they could do well.' One of these was Pay Naismith, a New Zealander who became his star pupil. When the classes transferred to the London College of Furniture, in Pitfield Street, and the number of students increased he took her on as his assistant. When Luff retired from the college in 1964, he handed over the entire department to her. She still runs it today as part of the London Guildhall University.
In 1969 Luff gave up all repair work and retired to the Sussex coast where he concentrated on making. Although his instruments are respected everywhere, he took little credit for his talent. 'We're all copyists. Everything we are able to do is a result of someone else's work, or example. I don't have patience with the people who think they have done it all themselves.'
William Luff never passed any of his instruments off as anything but copies of the great makers. Each one bore his label with the year of its make. Luff admitted to making more copies of Guarneri del Gesu violins because he always felt they were better for tone, but, irrespective of the model, owners of his violins will tell you that there was also something of William Luff in his instruments and that the tone was superb. They had an appearance of age too, which people seemed to prefer.
As a man, Luff was well liked by everyone with whom he came in contact. He had a cherubic smile and, perfectionist that he was, his word was his bond even to the precise minute of an appointment. What may not be so well known is that Luff also had feet that were as nimble as his wonderful hands. His hobby was ballroom dancing and he was qualified by both the Imperial and the National Societies of Ballroom Dancing as a teacher.
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