Baron Knoop: The life & times of a violin collector
Philip E. Margolis
Part IV (continued from Part III)
Once Maya gained some independence from the Baron, she quickly became a favorite in literary circles and befriended many authors, including Graham and Ranier Rilke. But her closest friend – in fact they were almost inseparable from about 1911-1918 – was Algernon Blackwood, a journalist and novelist whom Maya met on a Nile steamer which belonged to the Baron. Blackwood specialized in books about the supernatural and occult. As Graham describes the relationship, Blackwood became her “Slave of the Ring.” “A love affair began,” writes Graham, “and lasted the rest of his life, though without physical expression. For him Maya became a wonder-child, and then a mystical being with an awareness of invisible things.” Blackwood dedicated virtually all of his books to Maya.
What the Baron thought of this relationship is not recorded but if he objected to it he was also resigned to the fact that there was little he could do about it, short of divorcing Maya. It seems that the couple had a devil’s pact. The broody Baron needed Maya’s presence – her lightness and gaiety. For her part, Maya enjoyed the Baron’s money and the freedom of being married in letter only. Though undoubtedly not the ideal union that each wished, the marriage nevertheless survived 19 years, and ended only with the Baron’s death.
The story about Maya’s Strad being locked in a bank vault is one I have not been able to confirm. Indeed, it’s not clear which of the many Strads owned by Baron Knoop was actually Maya’s. Interestingly, the accounts of Graham and Ashley conflict with what Doring has written. According to Doring, Baron Knoop actually purchased a Strad as a gift for his wife. This instrument was the ‘de Barrou’ Strad, previously owned by C.G. Meier. “After Meier’s death,” writes Doring, “this violin of 1714 was acquired by Baron Knoop as a gift for his wife.” But as Meier was still alive at least as late as 1911, and the Baron and Maya married in 1899, this cannot be the same Strad to which Maya referred.
By the early 1900s, Knoop and Maya were more-or-less permanent residents of England, living first in a mansion in Tunbridge Wells. It was here that Graham had his first and only encounter with the Baron. Graham described the castle as “an immense structure, a castellated aggregation of brickwork. . . The music room, in which no music was allowed, was as big as a church.”
Graham had travelled widely in Russia and had written many articles and books about Russia, including a biography of Alexander II, so one might have assumed that he and Baron Knoop would have much to discuss. But this was not the case. Graham and his wife were not invited to stay at the castle itself “because the Baron would not allow any guests to stay the night.” During the entire weekend they were there, Graham saw the Baron only once, for about 5 minutes.
The Baron had apparently been traumatized by the death of his first wife and child, and the near-death of his son. “He lived in a draught-proof little room,” wrote Graham, “where the temperature was not allowed to vary from 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of his spacious domain he ignored.”
“The Baron was not stricken by disease,” continues Graham, “but was mortally afraid of ill-health. “
Graham summed up his opinion of the Baron thus: Knoop was a “jealous and morose Russian baron. . . His idea when he saw anything beautiful was to take it for himself and hide it from the rest of the world.”
In 1903 Knoop purchased a large mansion in Wadhurst overlooking Kent and Sussex Weald, “with one of the most beautiful views in the south-east.” And although he himself remained in seclusion, he apparently allowed Maya to invite houseguests. Algernon stayed there frequently and even gave South Park as his forwarding address during the summer of 1911.
Algernon’s biographer, Mike Ashley, believes that Knoop and Maya were the models for characters in several of Algernon’s books and stories. In The Damned, for example, one of the main characters is Samuel Franklyn, a rich but gloomy man. But whereas the fictional Franklyn was grudgingly respected for his philanthropic works, the real-life Knoop seems to have kept his wealth mostly to himself. Aside from a Ruggeri violin that Knoop loaned to the Russian violinist, Carol Gregorowitch, in the 1880s, there is no evidence that he ever loaned any of his instruments to musicians, and the only record of philanthropy he left was a 75 pound scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music awarded each year, starting in 1899, to a promising violinist.
The period 1900-1914 was a critical time for the Knoop empire. Although the Knoop’s textile and machinery business lost some market share due to heightened competition, the company expanded into other areas, such as banking and insurance. It remained a highly profitable business right up until the outbreak of World War I. By 1912, the Kraenholm manufactory employed more than 10,000 workers, and had annual revenues of 26 million rubles. And this was just a small part of the Knoop family empire. According to Petrov, on the eve of World War, the Knoops participated in managing 26 companies, including 21 industrial, 5 commercial banks and an insurance company, and they directly owned at least six textile companies.
By the start of World War I, Baron Knoop had sprawling business interests and assets around the world – in Russia, England, Germany and Egypt, to name but a few places. But World War I, and the Russian Revolution, would prove to be costly events for the Knoop family. As early as 1915, the Knoop country house outside of Russia was burnt to the ground by an angry mob. Also, in the spring of 1915 the Knoop’s head office was destroyed as part of an anti-German pogrom carried out by the “Black Hundreds.”
Meanwhile, the Knoops were being similarly persecuted in their Prussian homeland of Bremen. In 1915, the Prussian government took control of their Muhlenthal estate, justifying this seizure with the fact that one of the owners, namely Baron Johann Knoop, had permanent residence in England, and that his wife, “Baroness May Knoop,” was German-American by birth. By this time, the Baron had anyway abandoned the castle, with his last visit there believed to have been in 1910.
In 1916, probably to give their company a more Russian flavor, the Russian Knoops reorganized their enterprise and renamed the resulting company ‘Volokno’. But as Russia was increasingly hostile to any successful companies, and especially those with German roots, the Knoop family transferred as much of their assets as possible into the Manchester de Jersey company, whose chairman was Baron Johann Knoop.
After June, 1918, all of the Knoops’ Russian enterprises were nationalized (with the exception of the Kraenholm cotton mill in Estonia), and the Knoops – Johann’s two brothers and their families – were forced to flee Russia.
A few months after the Knoop’s Russian empire was nationalized during the Russian revolution, Baron Johann Knoop died at his castle in Tunbridge Wells. The cause of death was not reported, but it was most likely the influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people 1918. In his will he had left most of his estate to his son Ludwig, but Maya received a generous annual stipend, with the provision that she would lose the income should she re-marry. This may have put Maya in quite a quandary in relation to Algernon Blackwood. While she undoubtedly loved him as a friend, it’s not clear that their relationship was romantic, and she had become accustomed to a life that his book royalties could not support. Graham writes that “Maya might have taken a chance and married him for love, but Blackwood would not.”
Graham continues that “Maya recovered her Stradivarius from the bank where the Baron had stored it, and organized a string quartet and gave music parties.” She belonged to a group called ‘Higher Thought’ which believed that thought more than actions worked miracles. Another member of this group was a coal magnate named Ralph Hilton Philipson, whose first wife had died in 1873. Once again, Maya was courted by a wealthy, elderly widower, and once again she accepted the marriage proposal. But where the Baron had been a dour, possessive personality, Philipson was his opposite – affable and generous, and a patron of many artists, authors and musicians. By all accounts, her marriage with Philipson was happier than her life with Baron Knoop, but the marriage was a short one. Philipson died of food poisoning in December, 1928. Maya herself continued to live in London until her death in 1945. What became of her Stradivari is not known.
As for the Baron’s violin collection, he had sold most of it through the Hills starting around 1904. Why he lost interest in the collection at this time is not known, but it may have had something to do with his souring relationship with Maya. Or perhaps his own declining health prevented him from playing the instruments. What was left of his collection when he died was inherited by Ludwig who sold the instruments to the Hills. Apparently, Ludwig had not inherited his father’s collecting passion.
Doring suggests that Ludwig may have been living in Switzerland during the 1940s. Other documents suggest that he and his wife (and possibly two daughters) lived at one time in Boston. But all trace of the family and its fortune seems to have vanished. The Schloss Muhlenthal continued to deteriorate until it was little more than a pile of stones. In 1936, the German government seized the property and it was later turned into Knoop Park, a lovely park featuring a bronze statue of Ludwig Knoop.
Like so many industrial titans of the 19th and early 20th century, Baron Johann Knoop would almost certainly be entirely forgotten today were it not for the fact that so many important instruments bear his name. He owned at least forty different instruments, including nineteen Strads, three violins by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, and some of the finest specimens ever made by other makers such as Maggini, the Amati brothers, Pietro Guarneri of Venice, Jacob Stainer and Santo Serafin. Whether Knoop would approve of his contemporary fame is unlikely. Certainly during his lifetime he led a quiet life that kept his name out of the press.