The Becket Collection was started by Elise Becket Smith (now Lady Smith) in 1998 to encourage and facilitate the study of historically informed performance. It comprises a complete orchestra of 25 Classical-period British stringed instruments and a full set of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. Lady Smith, together with her fellow Trustees of the Becket Collection, donated this entire unique and important working collection of period instruments to the Academy in 2012.
The stringed instruments include a Daniel Parker violin (1720), a Nathaniel Cross cello (c 1740), a Henry Jay viola (1768) and the only known example of an English piccolo violin, by John Barratt (c 1725). The earliest instrument in the Becket Collection is a Robert Cuthbert violin of 1676.
Apart from the fine level of craftsmanship seen in these instruments, the fact that many remain in unaltered period condition makes this collection both unique and of highly important scholarly significance. The Becket Collection also incorporates a group of 15 specially commissioned modern copies of Venetian baroque masterpieces and their bows — an ensemble of the type that Vivaldi would have used for performances in Venice in the early 18th century. Three years in the making, this was the largest single instrument commission of its time and involved some of the finest luthiers from Europe and the USA.
Distinguished musicians who have worked with the Collection include Margaret Faultless, Jonathan Cohen, Sir Roger Norrington, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Trevor Pinnock CBE and Laurence Cummings. Many of the students who have used the instruments during their studies are now playing with the leading period orchestras in England and abroad.
In 2010, the Royal Academy of Music published the much-praised book The Becket Collection of Historical Musical Instruments to mark the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the Collection.