Baron Knoop: the life & times of a violin collector
Philip E. Margolis
Part III (continued from Part II)
What led Knoop to start collecting violins can only be guessed. As already noted, his childhood education included piano lessons and it’s also possible that Knoop learned to play violin. This speculation is supported by the obituary of William E. Hill, one of the famous W.E. Hill brothers. William himself worked in the family firm for only about 10 years and was the only one of the brothers to achieve any kind of facility playing the violin. He was a fine amateur who enjoyed playing chamber music, and his obituary in The Times lists many of the famous amateur musicians with whom he played, such as Alfred Borick, Alfred and Frederick Pawle, and Sir John Muir Mackenzie. Included in this list is the intriguing phrase: “and Baron Johann Knoop, who led his own quartet.” This seems to indicate that Knoop not only played violin but was reasonably proficient. But this is the only evidence I have found that Knoop knew how to play the violin.
Knoop was most likely introduced to violin collecting by another businessman from Bremen who had found success in England, C. G. Meier. Seven years older than Johann, Meier had founded a London-based import/export company specializing in pharmaceuticals. He was very successful and became an avid violin collector. In fact, he was so active in the violin business that he could almost be considered a dealer. Unlike most of the other British collectors, such as Knoop, who bought and sold almost exclusively through W.E. Hill & Sons, Meier purchased instruments wherever he could find them. He was a frequent participant at the musical instruments auctions held several times per year by Puttick & Simpson, and he also brought many instruments into England from Germany and France.
Knoop and Meier had much in common. Both came from Bremen families, lived in England, and were involved in import and export as well as banking and credit. It seems plausible that Meier, being the elder, might have taken Johann under his wing, introducing him to violin collecting as well as to dealers such as Laurie and the Hills. Doring states that Meier purchased the ex-Bevan Strad of 1715 “for his friend, the Baron Knoop.” By 1883, Meier and Knoop had something else in common -- both were widowers raising a single child. The 1891 British census lists the Baron as living at St. Magnus with his 13-year-old son, Ludwig (Ludi), and nearly a dozen servants.
In 1893, the entire Knoop extended family converged on Muhlenthal to celebrate Ludwig and Luise’s golden wedding anniversary. This was to be the last great family event for Ludwig and his wife. Less than two years later, Luise died, and Ludwig, ailing more from a broken heart than from any physical malady, followed her six months later. The family fortune was divided among the six children. Johann, being the eldest son, inherited Schloss Muhlenthal. Whether he actually lived there yearlong is uncertain.
In the years following his father’s death, Baron Knoop travelled widely. He was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the English de Jersey company and appears also to have been responsible for the Egyptian side of the Knoop business. And he had other reasons for visiting Egypt, as it was believed at the time that the waters in Helwan were good for one’s health, and his son, like his wife, was also suffering from tuberculosis. The Baron’s son, named Ludwig, eventually recovered fully, and Baron Knoop, out of gratitude, had a sanatorium built in Helwan, about fifteen miles south of Cairo. Later, the sanatorium was expanded into the luxury Hotel, Al Hayat.
During these early 1890s, Knoop was especially active in the violin trade. In 1895, after he acquired the ‘de Beriot’ Maggini, Arthur Hill wrote in his diary: “He [Knoop] now unquestionably has the finest collection of stringed instruments in existence, and I doubt if any collection of the past is quite equal to his as regards quality. “ Later that year, William Hill visited Knoop at Schloss Muhlenthal.
By 1900, however, the visits to Schloss Muhlenthal changed character. Whereas earlier visitors, during Ludwig’s reign as patriarch as well as Johann’s early ownership of the property, were almost exclusively family members and business associates, the castle now became host to a more artistic crowd. The poet and designer, Rudolf Alexander Schröder, was a frequent guest, and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited at least once.
This new focus on literary guests was due to the influence of Johann’s second wife, whom he married in 1899. Maya Stuart-King (1875-1945) was a young violinist who had run away from home at the age of 18 to search for her godmother, a German princess. She never did find her godmother, but she did find a Baron. She met Baron Knoop while playing at a salon in Vienna. The Baron fell in love with her and eventually convinced her to marry him, despite the fact that he was 30 years her senior.
There are a couple different versions to how this marriage came about. According to Mike Ashley, the author of a biography about the writer Algernon Blackwood, Knoop first hired Maya as a governess for his son and only married her some years later when Ludwig turned 18. On the other hand, the author Stephen Graham, who knew both Maya and Algernon quite well, remembered Maya relating events differently:
‘It was in Vienna. I was a violinist and I lived for music. I had my own Stradivarius and was one of a string quartet enjoying high social patronage. One evening a guest at a musical entertainment saw me. It was the Baron and he became infatuated. At first he tried to make me his mistress, but I was elusive and drove him to what was an unwise decision. I was a poor girl of no family; he was a nobleman of great wealth and he was sixty. But he made me a formal proposal of marriage. For me that made his courtship serious. I consulted my friends. They all said it was a golden opportunity for me because the man was fabulously rich. So I accepted him. The wedding itself, in the Russian Orthodox Church with crowns on our heads, was most impressive, and I felt at the time we were achieving something magnificent.
Whatever the case, the marriage was not a happy one for Maya. As Graham recalled, Maya continued with the story as follows:
But once married I soon realized I had lost my freedom. Courtship ceased and the Baron showed himself fanatically possessive. He stopped my playing and deposited my Stradivarius in a bank. It is still there for all I know. He cut me off from my acquaintances and friends and the patrons of my music. I was switched away to Russia, to Paris, to Egypt, and finally to England, and all the while I was his private – almost his secret – personal property. He affected to despise music and would never go to a concert. When he came to live here he had no guests beyond a few members of his family.’
At first Maya obeyed the Baron and did completely as he wished. But eventually, according to Graham’s account, she broke free, thanks in part to a certain German philosopher:
‘He stinted me for money and I was dressed always in black, like one of his German maids. Whatever he told me to do I did. I had no resistance. But one day I discovered Nietzsche and his philosophy was an inspiration. The sloppy faith I had been brought up in was no good; turning the other cheek had made me a slave. The German philosopher said, “Be hard as a diamond”. I could not get as hard as that, but hard enough to begin to live my own life and defy the restrictions which my husband put upon it. Then his power over me dissolved as if I had wrought a spell.”