Toby Faber - author and lecturer


Synopses of lectures offered through NADFAS and elsewhere

The Genius of Antonio Stradivari

Two hundred and fifty years after Antonio Stradivari’s death, his violins and cellos remain the most highly prized instruments in the world. Loved by great musicians and capable of fetching fabulous sums when sold, their tone and beauty are legendary. Every subsequent violin-maker has tried to match them. Not one has succeeded. How can that be?


This lecture explores that central mystery by following some of Stradivari’s instruments from his workshop to the present day. It is a story that travels from the salons of Vienna to the concert halls of New York, and from the breakthroughs of Beethoven’s last quartets to the first phonographic recordings.


My book Stradivarius was described in The New York Times as ‘more enthralling, earthy and illuminating than any fiction could be.’ The lecture is illustrated with pictures of violins and of key individuals and locations, as well as with some short musical recordings.


Cremona and the golden age of violin-making


For about two hundred years until the middle of the eighteenth century, workshops in the small Northern Italian town of Cremona produced the violins and other string instruments which remain the most desirable in the world.


This lecture traces the story of that golden age, beginning with Andrea Amati in the 1560s and following it through the generations to the death of Antonio Stradivari in 1737. It will talk about the shape of the violin, the principles behind it, the methods used in its construction and the innovations made by successive makers before Stradivari brought the form to perfection. It will address the question of why techniques have been lost and whether they can ever be recovered. And it will introduce some of Cremona’s celebrated customers: not just the most famous violinists of their era, but also Galileo Galilei and royal patrons like Catherine de Medici, Queen of France.


Illustrated with diagrams, with pictures of Cremona, people and violins, and with some recorded music. Note that there is some overlap in slides and subject matter between this lecture and The Genius of Antonio Stradivari.


The Imperial Easter Eggs of Carl Fabergé - before the Revolution

Between 1885 and 1916, Carl Fabergé made fifty jewelled eggs – Easter presents from Russia’s last two emperors to their wives. They have become the most famous surviving symbols of the Romanov Empire: both supreme examples of the jeweller’s art and the vulgar playthings of a decadent court.


Given almost total artistic freedom, Fabergé and his designers had to conform to only three rules: that each year’s Easter present should be egg-shaped, that it should contain some surprise to amuse or delight its recipient, and that it should be different from any predecessor. The result was a series of creations demonstrating phenomenal ingenuity and creativity, whose styles and materials range from traditional Russian to Art Nouveau, and from carved hardstone to exquisite enamelled gold. Their maker’s relentless search for novelty also means that they provide a fabulously quirky illustrated history of the decline of the Romanovs.


P.D. James described my book Fabergé’s Eggs: One Man’s Masterpieces and the End of an Empire as a ‘fascinating story which combines unique decorative art, contemporary culture, history and the murder of the Romanovs with the excitement of a crime novel’. The lecture is illustrated with pictures of the Romanovs and their palaces, and, of course, with photographs of the eggs themselves.



The Imperial Easter Eggs of Carl Fabergé - after the Revolution


After going missing in the Revolution, most of the eggs re-emerged in the store-rooms of the Kremlin, where they were immediately identified as a source of much-needed foreign exchange. Their subsequent history holds up a mirror to the twentieth century and encompasses Bolsheviks and entrepreneurs, tycoons and heiresses, con-men and queens. Eggs have been sold and smuggled, stolen and forged. Now, as they return to Russia, their history – like that of Russia itself - seems to have come full circle.


Then there are the eight eggs which remain missing. What prospect is there that they will ever emerge, and if they do, will anyone believe that they are genuine? The lecture is illustrated with pictures of the eggs today and their owners, and with archival material showing some of the missing eggs.


Faber and Faber – its history and designs     


Since its foundation in 1925, Faber and Faber has built a reputation as one of London’s most important literary publishing houses. Part of that relates to the editorial team that Geoffrey Faber and his successors built around them - TS Eliot was famously an early recruit - but a large part is also due to the firm’s insistence on good design and illustration.


This lecture traces the history of Faber and Faber through its illustrations, covers and designs. Early years brought innovations like the Ariel Poems – single poems, beautifully illustrated, sold in their own envelopes. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was an emphasis on typography, led by the firm’s art director Berthold Wolpe; his Albertus font is still used on City of London road signs. In the 1980s, the firm started its association with Pentagram, responsible for the ff logo. Along the way, it has employed some of our most celebrated artists as cover illustrators – from Rex Whistler and Barnett Freedman to Peter Blake and Damien Hirst.


Slides will range from book covers, advertisements and photos of key individuals, to illustrations of the concepts behind the designs. The talk will also be peppered with personal insight and anecdote. Faber and Faber is the last of the great publishing houses to remain independent. As the grandson of its founder, I grew up steeped in its books. I was managing director for four years and I remain on the board. I am passionate about the firm’s success, and intensely proud of my association with it.

Indians, Buffalo and Storms: the American West in 19th Century Art

Artists were never far behind the explorers who opened up the west of America in the 19th Century. Sometimes they painted what they saw. Sometimes they painted what they wished they saw. Either way, painters like Alfred Miller, Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt have left us a powerful, if romanticised, record of the country and people that the settlers found. Now we can use their pictures to chart the  history of the opening of America’s west - the arrival of the railroad, the confinement of native Americans into reservations, and the extermination of the buffalo.

This is a story on a big scale and it seems appropriate that among the pictures illustrating the lecture are some of the largest and most grandiloquent paintings of the era. After a period of deep neglect, they are now very much back in vogue, but whatever one thinks of their artistic merits, I hope audiences will agree with me that they are, above all, great fun.



 All my lectures use digital powerpoint slides