Review: The Best in Sound and Form and Hue by John Hughes Thomas
Google the name “John Squire” and I guarantee every single result will be the guitarist from Manchester rock band the Stone Roses. Search for “Artist and Musician John Squire”, and you’ll see he’s also a fine artist, Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery showing a retrospective of his work in 2019.
It’s a cruel twist of fate for his namesake, a Victorian banker and artistic polymath whose legacy slipped into obscurity in the years following his death, only to be further erased by the advent of search engine optimisation.
This alone makes John Hughes Thomas’s biography of John Squire (1833-1909) so welcome, especially for those interested in Britain’s provincial musical world in the second half of the 19th Century. As well as offering a cradle-to-grave account of its subject’s life, The Best in Sound and Form and Hue is rich with detail and insight into the many amateur musicians who performed in villages, towns and cities across the country.
Born in Liskeard in 1833, John Squire was the 13th of 14 children. His father, also named John, moved to the small market town in 1809, working as a clerk at its branch of the East Cornwall Bank. The England of John’s childhood was hardly fabled for its composers and concert halls, its provinces even less so. As the German poet Heinrich Heine seethed, “There is verily nothing on earth so terrible as English musical composition, except English painting.”
It’s all the more remarkable, then, that John went on to become an accomplished musician and painter, with little formal training. Thomas identifies several candidates for those who may have influenced him, from teachers and governesses to Liskeard’s band of amateur musicians, performing at public events such as the opening of the new Polperro road in 1849.
By then, young John was already at the East Cornwall Bank, having joined the company aged 13. Two years later he was at its Bodmin branch, working under his older brother Frederic. It was there that he encountered the vicar Edward Starkie Shuttleworth, who taught him to play piano. The local lunatic asylum’s medical officer, Thomas Boisragen, was a cellist, while its superintendent played the violin.
With these men as mentors, he soon developed a lifelong enthusiasm for music, prompting him to join a wider circle of friends, all amateur musicians. By 1855 he was playing in a string quartet, performing at Bodmin’s Royal Hotel. Describing that performance, the critic of the Liskeard Gazette wrote: “He bids fair to be a first-class violinist.”
He returned to Liskeard later that year to play in a charity concert in aid of the Literary Association, and the praise from the Gazette was even more glowing, calling it “the best amateur concert yet given in the town.” When another writer for the same paper suggested he wouldn’t receive the kind of training he needed in Cornwall, John began making plans for a trip to London.
He went in the spring of 1856, spending several weeks with his friend and fellow musician Thomas Craddock, while studying under the renowned violinist H.C. Cooper. While there he may have attended performances at the Hanover Square Rooms, home to the Philharmonic Society, of which Cooper was leader and solo violinist. Concerts performed around this time included symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Mendelssohn, and a guest appearance by the pianist and composer Clara Schumann.
There was choral music and chamber music aplenty, with Charles Halle giving recitals at his Bryanston Square residence, and elsewhere performances of Handel’s Messiah and Rossini’s Stabat Mater, the latter featuring a young Clara Novello as one of its soloists. Meanwhile, exhibitions at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham and the Royal Academy would have satisfied John’s appetite for the visual arts, and so he must have returned to his native Cornwall with his passion for both music and painting reinvigorated.
In 1857, aged 24, he was appointed musical director of Truro’s Philharmonic Society and began teaching piano and violin, eventually joining forces with Thomas Craddock, though the enterprise was short-lived. Realising he needed a more stable career he returned to banking, taking up a position in the quiet mining town of Camborne. There he appears to have taken a step away from music-making, focusing instead on painting. Some of his Cornish landscapes won the silver award in the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society’s art competition of 1860.
Two years later he was offered a role in Bristol at the West of England and South Wales Bank. A small fish in a big pond, there were few opportunities for him to participate in music, but its concerts and cultural life were bigger and better than anything he’d experienced in Cornwall. He was also able to focus on painting, with three of his watercolours exhibited at what is now the Royal West of England Academy in Clifton.
The Squires’ move to Ross-on-Wye in 1864 may seem odd, with all that Bristol had to offer, but though it was much smaller it was well-connected by rail to Hereford and Gloucester, and the Three Choirs Festival – still going strong in 2022 – was even then a regular fixture in the cultural calendar.
Furthermore, John was well-situated when it came to sketching and painting, living in the scenic splendour of the Wye Valley, which had famously inspired Turner and Wordsworth before him. He began performing music again, and through these performances he met the pianist Emma Fisher, who soon became Mrs Emma Squire.
The Squires and their growing family spent over a decade in Ross, during which time John helped to organise and encourage the town’s burgeoning musical culture, and he and Emma began teaching their children to play music. By all accounts, Ross-on-Wye was sad to see the family go when they set off for Kingsbridge in Devon. It was while living there that their son Willie played the cello in his first performance in front of an audience.
From Kingsbridge the family moved on to Exeter, and though John wasn’t able to find any organisations of his own, he and Willie performed together on several occasions, the 10-year-old cellist already being touted for a scholarship at the newly founded Royal College of Music.
Leaving Exeter with little fanfare the Squires then moved to Swansea, where John became the manager at its branch of the Bristol and West, living above the bank’s premises on Wind Street, a grand neo-classical building that some readers may know as the now defunct bars and nightclubs Revolution and Liberate.
Their time in the town was one of mixed blessings. John’s attempts at inspiring a musical revolution, as he’d done in Ross-on-Wye, were often scuppered by a dearth of instrumentalists and a lack of commitment from local musicians. Having experienced the grand orchestras of London and Bristol he expected and demanded better, wishing to hear the music of Mozart and Beethoven “in its integrity”, to use his own turn of phrase.
Despite fierce criticism from some quarters the Squires became popular figures in Swansea’s music scene, with John, Emma, Willie and Emily performing a concert at Swansea’s Albert Hall, described by the Cambrian as “The first of its kind in living memory.”
One of their biggest supporters at this time was the world-famous soprano Adelina Patti, who came to Wales in 1879, living at Craig-y-Nos Castle, a grand Scottish Baronial style mansion in the upper Swansea Valley. Recognising the contribution, the Squires had made to the town’s music scene she invited them to a presentation in her private theatre, in front of an audience of VIPs. Willie Squire, visiting home away from his studies at the RCM, directed the music, and he and Adelina Patti performed together, thus beginning a fruitful working relationship which saw them collaborate at Craig-y-Nos and later Covent Garden.
Though still students at the RCM, Willie and Emily were already enjoying successful careers, with Emily performing at the Ninth Triennial Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace in 1888. Willie graduated a year later and almost immediately joined the orchestra of the Italian Opera Company at Covent Garden. While their father remained frustrated by his experiences in Swansea, his children were thriving.
In February 1894 his youngest son, Barré followed in his older siblings’ footsteps, successfully auditioning for a scholarship at the RCM. It was an achievement and a cause for celebration marred by tragedy when, two months later, and following a long period of illness, Emma Squire died. On the day of her funeral the businesses of Wind Street lowered their blinds as the funeral cortege passed by. In November of that year the Squires left Swansea for London.
During the last years of his life, John Squire would have watched London’s music scene transformed with the opening of the Queen’s Hall and new orchestras forming. Now adults, his children were making their mark in the world of music, Willie touring Australia and performing in some of Henry Wood’s early Proms, Emily a successful soprano. Youngest son Barré’s career was just beginning to take off when John died at his home in Ealing on March 8th 1909, at the age of 76.
What followed John’s departure were, for him, decades of relative obscurity. His children were all renowned in their day, especially Willie. Indeed, he is the only Squire with a Wikipedia page, though one hopes The Best in Sound and Form and Hue might change that.
Those years in the wilderness are what makes this book such an impressive achievement. It’s a hefty doorstopper of a tome, intimidating when you first pick it up, but it becomes clear that much of its weight is taken up by the extensive and very useful notes and appendices, proof of what a labour of love this must have been, and how valuable a resource it may be for future scholars and music buffs.
Thomas’s enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and he builds not only a compelling portrait of a musician, artist, father and husband, but a convincing case for how men and women like Squire and his contemporaries helped create a culture receptive to orchestral music, paving the way for popular British composers of the early 20th Century.
This book may also point you in the direction of music you’ve not listened to before. That was certainly the case for this reviewer, having spent the last few days listening to some of John’s favourites, including Carl Gottlieb Reissiger. If my Spotify “recently played” selection is anything to go by, the spirit of John Squire lives on!
The Best in Sound and Form and Hue is published by Y Lolfa and can be purchased here or from good bookshops
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