The Life and Work of Edward Keenan
Edward Keenan was born in the village of Clonalvy, Co. Meath on 18th July 1876. At sixteen he was apprenticed to a large coach building company in Dublin. He seemed to have done well and by the age of twenty four he was working as a foreman to wheel makers Messrs. Potter & Co. of North Wall.
It is not known for certain when he became interested in violin making, but it is likely to have been in the closing years of the 1800s. It is reputed that when he first came in contact with a violin that it had so weird effect on him that he felt compelled to pursue violin making as a career. As Edward had been married at the age of twenty and had seven children to support it proved impossible for him to abandon his job in favour of the precarious profession of violin maker. But he did make progress as an amateur and sought by every means possible to increase his knowledge of the craft. This included ‘interviewing’ every fine violin that passed through Dublin on the concert circuit. No doubt this meant numerous visits back stage to meet the various players and examine their violins – a practice which is still observed by violin makers worldwide today.
By 1913 he had made at least eleven violins. One (pictured here) from the same year was a copy of a Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesu. 1913 was also the first year he took first prize in the Royal Dublin Society’s craft competition’s instrument making category. This success was perhaps all the more extraordinary an achievement when one considers the political turmoil Dublin was undergoing in that year. It would take more than the infamous ‘lock out’ and the chaos and riots on the streets to deter Edward from achieving his ends. Strangely enough it was the outbreak of The First World War that was to give him the real break he needed to enhance his violin making skills.
A certain Captain Joshua Watson who lived in Dublin had been called to service to fight in the war and had given his violin into the safe keeping of a well to do gentleman by the name of Robert Cathcart. Cathcart was a connoisseur of fine violins and the violin was nothing less than the handiwork of Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737) better known as ‘Stradivarius’.
Edward must have been well acquainted with Robert Cathcart because Edward was granted full access to the instrument with a view to taking measurements and making templates. Edward may well have seen and heard violins by Stradivari before but probably only for short periods, no doubt at those back stage interviews. In a time before the colour photography and the advanced printing techniques of our modern media age, a violin maker’s understanding and visual impression of the work of Stradivari, could only be gleaned from direct contact with the master’s oeuvre. It can only be imagined how excited Edward must have been to avail of this opportunity and see a ‘Strad’ at close quarters for an extended time. Edward and Cathcart, who had also made some violins, probably spent endless hours scrutinizing the instrument, studying its curves, twists, turns and the tone of colour and patina of its varnish – perhaps engaging in endless hours of dialogue late into the night on purfling, the style of f-holes or the possible constituents of Stradivari’s long lost varnish recipe.
Watson’s violin, known as the ‘Vieuxtemps- Hause’ was from Stradivari’s golden period (ie. made between 1710 and 1720) and proved to be an ideal instrument to copy. Edward seems to have been sufficiently inspired in his work from his association with the Stradivarius and he went on to win more prizes at the RDS competitions in 1914, 1915, 1919, 1923 and 1925. Edward’s connection with Robert Cathcart continued with violin making as the focal point. Cathcart wrote to him from Geneva on 29th December 1920;
‘I called on a violin maker (here)… and found he had pine 11 years cut in his own possession. He said it was what he used himself and he had lately sent some to London. It seemed to me good and regular in the grain. The price is 5 francs each piece and the postage on half a dozen fronts would be 2 to 5 francs. I thought I would send you half a dozen but thought it better to write you first as I shall be here about a fortnight I shall have plenty of time to get your reply.’
Cathcart went on;
‘I asked to see one of his own (violins)…the tone was fairly good but nothing to yours.’…. ’He is the maker to the conservatory of music here and I presume, the best in this place but he could not compare to you.’
High praise indeed albeit from an acquaintance. However, Edward’s violins did get praise from other quarters. Desmond Fitzgerald of Limerick wrote in March 1918;
‘I had three persons to sit in a room downstairs while the violin was played on, and in every case the same passages were played on each string alternately with a first class well played on Wolff of the highest class. In every test your violin was picked out as being superior in quality of tone, fullness and carrying qualities – in a word your instrument has three times the quality of the Wolff, yours having a life before it whilst the Wolff is now at its best.’
Joshua Watson who thankfully survived the war went on to purchase one of the Stradivari copies by Edward – perhaps a compliment of the highest order in itself seeing he already owned the original! Watson wrote to Edward extolling the virtues of the violin;
‘The violin is a veritable masterpiece; the tone is wonderful, very great volume, quality, responsiveness and wonderfully even on every string. I have not been able to detect a bad note anywhere. The workmanship is of course magnificent, and leaves nothing to be desired, and it is very like the Strad. I should be a crank indeed if I were not pleased.’
Edward did not seek praise for the sake of praise alone. It should be borne in mind that it would have been his intention to become a fully fledged professional violin maker if at all possible and winning the approval of as many people as possible for his violins would have been seen by him as a necessary route to that end.
Rev. William Meredith Morris B.A was one such individual Edward engaged with to better his reputation. Rev. Morris was a connoisseur of violins based in Tonypandy in Wales and wrote a dictionary of violin makers entitled ‘British Violin Makers’. The book was first published in 1904 and then a revised edition was published in 1920. Edward had sent Rev. Morris a violin for assessment in 1915 and then another in 1919. On seeing the latter Rev. Morris wrote to Edward;
‘It is a superb instrument. Your progress since Jan 27th 1915 – the date on which I examined the violin you sent me before has been truly phenomenal. I knew you had the makings of a first class artist in you, but I had no idea that you would so quickly climb and reach the top rung of the ladder in so short a time. You can never make a better instrument than this, even if you live to work another fifty years. …. You are certainly now entitled to walk in line with Atkinson, Hesketh, Mayson and one or two others..’
Enclosed with the letter was a certificate which read;
‘This is to certify that I have this day examined and tried a violin made by Mr Edward Keenan in 1918, and that I consider the instrument to be as beautiful an example of the luthier’s art as the very finest I have ever seen. The workmanship is magnificent and the tone brilliant. The instrument is worth fully thirty pounds. The maker is certainly in the very front row of modern artists’.
Rev. Morris went on to include several pages on the life and work of Edward in the second edition of his book. The violin Rev. Morris examined was later sold to Captain Oakley from S. Africa who may or may not have taken it back to his native country. One of his violins that did travel belonged to a William McGrane who emigrated with his wife to New York. It seems he and Edward were close personal friends as Willie was in the habit of addressing Edward as Ned in their correspondence. Willie sought work in New York as a violinist and had to pass a qualifying exam to enter The American Federation of Musicians without which it would have been impossible to get work. This led him to admit how his violin had kept the experts bewildered, presumably to Edward’s amusement as much as his own – especially as the his violin was an early effort of Edward’s and not the ‘Sunday Keenan’ he aspired to own one day;
‘….then you have to pass a qualifying exam on your instrument which I did flying. There I was with five examiners and my old Keenan fiddle. For the first time it sang in Yankee Land and believe me I was not ashamed of it. Now Ned, my boy! This olde fiddle has puzzled a few of the wise ones already. Wurlitzer’s expert one day had a look at it and is still wondering what it is. I said it was Italian. Oh, that magic word! He is inclined to believe it is, but the maker is a mystery – if he only knew the Italian from 5 Spencer St. that made it, he would laugh. Anyway, I was offered $500 for it, that is £100 English money, from a Mr Mathews who will buy it anytime for its tone. So now who has the laugh? I am not selling.’
Edward stuck with the Stradivari model throughout the remainder of his making career. His carving was distinctive and bold. His scrolls were confidently cut with a slightly masculine poise. His f-holes were always neat and perfectly placed on beautifully arched fronts delineated with quite pronounced and accurate purfling. He often favoured one piece backs with a narrow flame slanting downwards from the bass side. He also tended to blacken the chamfers of the peg box and volute in the style of Stradivari. He always used oil varnish and used more than one variety and colour. Sometimes a rich amber colour as per a 1925 violin now in the musical instrument collection of The National Museum of Ireland and on other occasions a darker red as used on some examples dating from the post war period and through to at least 1923.
It is not currently known how many violins he produced, but judging by his earlier rate and his definite determination there must be a good number in existence. Some occasionally appear at auction in London and New York, while others come to light from time to time on the benches of Ireland’s luthiers when they need the usual attention required by old violins.
Edward did engage in repair work from his modest home in North Strand, Dublin. It is possible that when his children came of age he may have worked as he had always hoped as a full-time violin maker for some unknown period, but this though likely, is not certain. It is however certain that he had signed a lease on an upstairs premises on or near the junction of Dawson Street and St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin intending to open a violin shop. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Aged just fifty seven, and despite his best plans he suddenly took ill. On February 23rd 1933 he underwent surgery from which he was never to awake. In a letter of condolence to his daughter Joshua Watson wrote speaking of his long time and true friend;
‘..I feel he is happy, happier than if he were to live and not have his health. His name will live , in this world for many generations, in his violins, true works of art, and I am so proud to possess one and will treasure it more than ever, an intimate creation from his brain and hand – it is in the case with my Stradivarius, who knows but he might meet him, where all secrets are revealed.’
A perfect epitaph.