Toby Faber - author and lecturer

Study days

Synopses of study days offered through NADFAS and elsewhere

The violin


A wide-ranging discussion of the history of the violin and its design, encompassing makers, players, dealers, restorers and composers, paying particular attention to Antonio Stradivari, the most famous maker of them all, and arguably the greatest craftsman that ever lived.


The story starts with Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, who bought the first known modern violins from Andrea Amati in the 1570s. It discusses the innovations made by the Amati family in Cremona and contrasts them with the violins being made by their rivals in Brescia, also in Northern Italy.


Antonio Stradivari entered the scene in 1666, the year of his first surviving violin. By the time of his death in 1737 he had made over a thousand violins and the crucial design changes necessary for the violin to flourish as a solo instrument. He was successful even in his own lifetime, but the full scale of his achievement was not appreciated until years after his death, when violin-playing moved from the drawing rooms of the aristocracy to large concert halls.


In the second half of the seminar the focus shifts to players, how they passed on their love for Strads (or possibly for the violins made by his only real rival, Giuseppe Guarneri ‘del Gesu’), to the dealers, as the prices of great violins become ever-more stratospheric, and to makers who are still trying to emulate Stradivari’s achievement.


The seminar will be illustrated with slides showing aspects of the violin’s design and construction, along with pictures of key individuals and locations. There will also be recorded music showing the way in which violin playing has developed through the centuries. Finally, there will be a chance to get ‘hands-on’ with a violin – not a Strad and not (necessarily) to play one, but as a way of appreciating the elegance of the design.


In a full day I will go into these subjects in more depth, with more slides and more (and longer) musical extracts. I will also expand the discussion to the other members of the violin family: the viola and the cello. Stradivari’s cellos, in particular, are just as important as his violins. Their robust construction and relative scarcity mean that a single cello can encompass stories that span generations of players. Mstislav Rostopovich, for example, played the 1711 Duport Stradivarius. It bears scars from the time Napoleon, still booted and spurred, approached its player with the words ‘How the devil do you hold this, Monsieur Duport?’



Fabergé’s Imperial Easter Eggs


This half interest day combines the content of my two lectures on the Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs, to deliver a single narrative covering the history of the eggs from the first egg in 1885 to their current whereabouts.


That first egg, given by Tsar Alexander III to give to his beloved wife, Marie Fedorovna, was apparently plain white.  It was the ‘surprises’ hidden inside that made it special: a golden yolk that further concealed a hen, a diamond miniature of the Imperial crown and a ruby pendant. The gift began a tradition that would last for over three decades and that would send Fabergé on a relentless search for novelty, exploiting and extending almost every jewellery technique and style available. 


The designs that resulted would inevitably reflect the lives and characters of the empresses who received them. Lavishly extravagant eggs commemorate public events that now seem little more than staging posts on the march to revolution. Others contrast Marie’s joie de vivre with the shy and domestic spirituality of her daughter-in-law, Alexandra. The muted austerity of the final few eggs seems all too appropriate for a country fighting for survival in the First World War. Above all, the eggs illustrate the attitudes that would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Romanovs: their apparent indifference to the poverty that choked their country; their preference for style over substance and their all-consuming concern with the health of the sickly heir – a preoccupation that would propel them toward Rasputin and the doom of the dynasty.


After the Revolution, the eggs embarked on a journey that included embattled Bolsheviks, desperate for foreign exchange, acquisitive members of the British royal family, eccentric salesmen, and such famous business and society figures as Armand Hammer, Marjorie Post, and Malcolm Forbes. Now, the interest of Russian oligarchs means that their story is turning full circle, as the eggs begin to return to Russia.


Finally, there is the emergence of new information, as researchers delve into the Kremlin archives, in particular to piece together the designs and possible fates of the eight missing eggs. The extra time available in a half-study day means that I will be able to take people through the information available – from photographs of old exhibitions and Fabergé’s original invoices to auction catalogue descriptions – to explain why it is highly likely that at least three of those missing eggs are only waiting to be rediscovered by their Western owners.


As with the lectures, illustrations will include picture of the eggs themselves, of the artwork and palaces that inspired their designs, of their owners – both pre- and post-Revolution – and of the archival photographs that are behind much modern detective work.



Faber and Faber


This half day essentially divides into two sections. In the first, I talk about the history of the firm and the design decisions it took up to the 1990s. This was the period in which the firm built its reputation as a pre-eminent publisher of poetry, and published novelists like William Golding, Laurence Durrell, PD James, Kazuo Ishiguro and Peter Carey.


For much of this period Faber’s covers were designed by Berthold Wolpe, a German refugee and master of typography, who designed the Albertus typeface. In the 1980s, the firm began its association with Pentagram, who designed its famous ff logo and were responsible for all its covers for almost 20 years.


In the second section I will be talking from personal experience, discussing a number of the design decisions taken while I have been a director of the firm - both the aesthetics and the business case behind them. For this section I will be bringing examples of those decisions: its rather lovely ‘jacketed paperbacks’, poetry specially printed with the ‘weft’ of the paper so that it falls open naturally in your hand and an illustration of some of the firm’s latest apps.