Baron Knoop: The life & Times of a violin collector
Philip e. Margolis
Part II (continued from Part I)
Referring to the economist Joseph Schumpeter, who emphasized the role of “wild-spirited” entrepreneurs in bringing technological change to nations, Historian D. T. Jenkins described Knoop as “an entrepreneur cast in the true Schumpeterian mould. His manufactory at Kraehnholm in Estonia, ranked for fifteen years from 1883 as the second largest in the world. After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 the small estate mills yielded place to large integrated concerns, which thenceforward ranked as the largest in all Europe. “
Considering that textiles accounted for 28% of Russia’s industrial output, and 30% of its workforce, it’s easy to see why the Czar gave Knoop the title of Baron in 1877. But not everyone was pleased with Knoop’s contributions. In 1895, a year after Knoop had died, the Russian Technical Society (RTO) engaged in a bit of revisionist history by attacking Knoop for having actually retarded Russian industrialization. The RTO report was wide-ranging, but it may have been based, at least in part, on injured pride. As Thompstone notes:
Certainly offended national pride coloured the RTO’s attitude towards the wide embracing influence of the Knoops. While Ludwig Knoop himself had a legendary rapport with the Russian business community, his decision in 1861 to return to live near Bremen and to conduct his business from there meant that day-to-day business dealings with Russian entrepreneurs were conducted either by his sons or by the firm’s employees.
But this attack, some 23 years before the Russian socialist revolution, was a preview of things to come. Increasingly, the Russian industrial magnates, and particularly those like the Knoops who had emigrated to Russia from another land, were resented for their great wealth.
Despite his business success in Russia, Ludwig remained loyal to his hometown, Bremen. As noted, he moved back to Bremen in 1861, by which time he and his wife Luise had six children. In 1859, the Knoop family spent the summer in Bremen and Ludwig decided to make it his base of operations. He purchased a large tract of land in St. Magnus, a small village just outside of Bremen. There he had a large house built, which was later expanded into a castle, known as “Schloss Muhlenthal.” It was here that the Knoop family would congregate, especially in the summers, when Ludwig could play the role of patriarch of his large and successful family.
Johann, born in 1846, was the second child and first son. He was born in Russia and spent his childhood there. Many years later, Johann’s sister, Adele, would write a book recalling their time in Russia as a happy period, and describing their father as extremely good-natured, with blond hair and head so large he required custom-made hats. Their mother, Luise, played piano and all of the children were required to take piano lessons, but Adele does not mention any string players in the family.
Before the house in St. Magnus was completed, the two oldest sons remained in Bremen to complete their schooling at the trade school in Eschenhof, followed by three years of apprenticeships in Bremen companies. After completing their apprenticeships in Bremen, all three sons were sent back to Russia to manage the family enterprises. But while Theodor and Andreas remained in Russia – Theodor becoming the head of the company –Johann emigrated to England, possibly as early as the 1870s. In Petrov’s article about the Knoop enterprises in Russia, there is not a single mention of the eldest son Johann, while his two brothers are known to have played an active role in the family businesses from about 1870 until 1918.
Ludwig Knoop and his 3 sons, circa 1890. (I'm not sure which one is Johann, but I think it's the one seated next to his father)
In the meantime, Ludwig’s brother Julius had transformed the De Jersey company into a colossus. By 1875 it was likely the largest cotton buyer in the world. By 1882, the firm was thought to be worth more than 1 million British pounds. Not to be outdone by his brother, Julius also acquired a title. His came from the Prussian emperor in 1888, a year after Ludwig had received his Russian title. But whereas Ludwig’s title was a simple “Baron Knoop,” Julius’s title was “Baron von Knoop”. Living in England, Julius changed this to “Baron de Knoop,” which had a pleasing symmetry with his company’s name, de Jersey & Co.
In 1867, Johann worked in Paris with his friend G. Wolde, who would later marry his sister Adele. In 1874, Johann himself married Gretchen (Margrete) Kern at the family castle at Muhlenthal. The 1881 British census lists a 25-year-old “Baroness Margette Knoop,” married to “Baron J.G.L. Knoop,” staying at the “Bull Hotel” in Woodbridge. A year later, Gretchen died of tuberculosis, leaving the Baron in charge of their two children, only one of whom survived childhood. That same year, Knoop became a full partner of the de Jersey company..
It must have been about the time of his first wife’s death that Knoop began investing in fiddles. The earliest records of purchase I have found are for the “King” del Gesu of 1735 and the “Court” Strad, both bought from Laurie in 1882. The Court Strad was an infamous instrument whose name derives from the fact that Laurie was sued for misrepresenting the instrument as a “Stradivarius genuine in all its parts,” despite the fact that it was actually a composite instrument composed of pieces from several Strads. Laurie admitted as much in court and, having lost the case, was forced to take back the instrument from a Mr. Johnstone, who had sued him. But within months of losing the case, he had sold the instrument to Baron Knoop. Knoop later claimed that he had to take the “Strad” in order to get the “King” del Gesu. By 1885 Knoop had at least three other instruments: a very fine viola by Jakob Stainer, a Stradivari cello of 1730 (ex Ben Venuto) that had been brought to Paris by Tarisio, and the “Alard” Nicolo Amati violin of 1645, which Knoop loaned to the 1885 Loan Exhibition of Musical Instruments and Inventions. He is listed in the catalog without his title and his name is anglicized to “Mr. John Knoop.”
Jenkins, D. T., “The wester wool textile industry in the nineteenth century,” The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Cambridge University Press, 2003.