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The Bow – Part Five and a Half: Percy Bryant and Lawrence Cocker

Previously in our bow series . . .

Having teased you with the next-to-unknown (certainly in the USA) names of Percival Wilfred Bryant and Lawrence Cocker in Part Five, I thought it would be appropriate to explain why they should be appreciated more than they currently are – and not just in the UK. Also, in the case of Bryant, it’s rather a nice story.

Percival (Percy) Wilfred Bryant

Percy Bryant, as he was known to his colleagues and friends, was born in London in 1902 and died near Brighton in 1994. As a young man, something drove him to be interested in making bows. I’m certain he played a stringed instrument; maybe one day, his inquisitive mind wondered how they came to be.

James Tubbs at his workbench in the shop at 94 Wardour Street, London. The photo taken in 1917 in his last years.

James Tubbs (1835 – 1921) at his workbench in the shop at 94 Wardour Street, London. The photo was taken in 1917.

He visited James Tubbs, but apart from a brief overview of the process, the elderly bow maker (who by then had lost both his wife and his son) told young Percy that he was too old to teach the young man adequately. After all, when Percy was 15, Tubbs was 82. However, he suggested it might be in Percy’s interest to drop by another establishment.

It was a short walk down Wardour Street to the George Withers shop in Leicester Square, where Percy’s enthusiasm was realized, and he was taken on. Fortunately, he was six years too young to be called up for service in WWI even though he had left school at age 12 in 1914. The compulsory schooling age in England was only raised to 14 in 1918.

French Training in London

Withers had, like other larger violin shops of the period, employed workmen on the premises to carry out repairs. When time allowed, they could engage in new work. These workers were “journeymen;” similar to my woodworking grandfather, they went where the work was. In the violin world, the labor force included foreign workers. It had to, because the specialist skills involved were not taught in England, apart from a few apprenticeships in particular shops.

Withers’ bow workers – only one “master maker” was needed at a time – were French, trained in Mirecourt, and the young Percy Bryant was therefore brought up solely in the French tradition of bow making and repair. He would be the only English bow maker ever to be so trained.

Tradition Transitions

Life and its fortunes being what they are, George Withers’ shop closed in 1932. As it happens, George had a brother, Edward, who ran a violin shop a few streets away, with whom he did not get on.

Ultimately, Withers’ shop was done in by a combination of the economic depression and films with sound coming in vogue. The advent of these “talkies” and their accompanying soundtracks meant there was no need for cinema orchestras anymore. This was probably the final straw for Withers’ store.

Off to Ovingdean

Thus, Percy was without a job. Worse, his apprenticeship – excellent though it had been – limited his employment to the violin trade at a time when such work was not exactly expanding. He must have had some money put aside because he then made the best decision he could ever have. He turned his back on the London trade and its excesses, took himself down to Ovingdean on the south coast. There, he bought a plot of land that was peaceful and full of trees, built his own bungalow from a kit, and set up in bow making. If it failed, he owed no one a penny. But if it succeeded . . .

Violin Bow by . W. Bryant , c.1937

Violin Bow by . W. Bryant , c.1937

Violin Bow by . W. Bryant , c.1937

Violin Bow by . W. Bryant , c.1937

P. W. Bryant silver mounted violin bow, c.1937, after he had set up his own workshop but before the outbreak of WWII. My apologies to cellists for featuring a violin bow, but the only obvious give-away is the head; Bryant’s frogs for contemporary bows always followed the same outline, from violin through to (French) bass, with the canted heel plate copied from the old Dodd family ivory mounted bows. He also fitted the frog to the stick with a traverse system (two rails cut into the stick), like Hills and Vuillaume, but unlike the former, he fitted a silver lining to the frog (though very early bass bows lack this), and unlike the latter, he used a three-sided rebate in the frog. It is a superb system but takes time and additional metalworking skills to make the linings accurately with four long bends. Cello bows by Bryant appear rarely; I’ve only seen one against a few violin bows, and many bass bows (all French pattern).

Ovingdean was then a small village on the outskirts of Brighton, an area where Londoners would decamp at weekends. Often, lower-paid workers in the City would only rent a room during the week. On Friday night, they took the train down to Brighton, where they kept a weekend/holiday home, maybe just a caravan, traveling back early Monday morning. Percy reckoned that he’d get enough trade from London players visiting at the weekend, and so it proved. But he needed materials, and he bought a batch of pernambuco sight unseen.

Bass Bows

Much of Percy’s pernambuco, once cut, turned out to be of low density and rather broad grain. Initially depressed, as such a purchase would not have been cheap, especially when transport was included, something must have rung a bell in his head.

Up until then, the English had never been renowned for double bass bows after the Dodd family died. But Percy tried, and with the help of advice from players (especially Eugene Cruft), he used his lightweight pernambuco to advantage. He soon became highly sought after for his bass bows. His early work imitated the newly popular Sartory model.

Lower-density wood is, up to a point, an advantage in bass bows as the reduced weight “outboard” is popular with players. Strength isn’t an issue, as the deep curve put into properly made bass bows means that almost any pernambuco will make a playing stick. After a few successful sales, he was able to order more suitable, denser wood for the smaller bows.

Snakewood Bows

Later, from the 1970s, Percy became popular for making simpler bows from exquisite snakewood with ivory mounts. He copied originals from the 17th and 18th centuries that had become popular with players so that the members of the emerging “period” orchestras were able to enjoy suitable bows.

He never had any need to advertise; happy customers did that for him. As a visitor, you only had to obey one rule – that of never mentioning violin dealers (or, worse, being one). He vehemently disliked them without exception. One dealer who did appear was actually chased off Percy’s property. If I’d been there, I would have cheered.

After Percy died, the plot of land he’d bought in the early 1930s for a few pounds was put up for sale. It fetched over £1 million.

Lawrence (Laurie) Cocker

Lawrence Cocker, always known as “Laurie” to his colleagues, was born in 1912 and died in 1982. He lived all his life in Derby. A talented instrument maker, he tried making bows from pernambuco but was disheartened by the amount of wood in the plank that was wasted, especially when the cost was taken into account, let alone throwing away purchased wood that was simply unsatisfactory.

From Fishing Rods to Bows

Cocker bow brochure

The violin bow shown in the advertising illustration is obviously an early model, as the mounts are German-made. With the Art Deco typeface, I suggest it’s from the period just before WWII.

He considered the shafts of built cane fishing rods and figured they would work for violin bows, but needed to find a way of curving the stick and attaching a head and a root. For the curve, he simply assembled the six triangular sections of Tonkin cane and glued them in a special jig so that when the glue cured, the strips were set into the curve automatically.

Heads and roots were made from suitable attractive and contrasting hardwoods and put in with splices. Initially, the splice was secured with violin glue so that, in the event of a head breaking, it could be neatly separated from the stick and replaced. However, cane is not friendly to violin glue because the surface of the wood is very “shiny.” Early ones separated in time. Later, he used the same two-part resin glue as he had for the stick sections.

Laurie made the mounts rather crudely; they were perfectly practical but not the prettiest to look at. To the “experts,” they probably looked a bit coarse. Despite that, Laurie’s built cane bows were much used in the Midlands and the North of England but less favored in London and the South.

Steel Rods Inside

The bows were economical to buy and worked very well. The cello bows may have been the least successful because the cane was not dense enough to make a properly weighted cello bow. To make up for that shortcoming, Laurie simply made the cane stick hollow and put a slender spring steel rod up the inside!

L. Cocker cello bow

L. Cocker cello bow

L. Cocker cello bow

L. Cocker cello bow

L. Cocker cello bow

L. Cocker cello bow, c.1965. Cocker made this bow for a professional cellist in the Bournemouth Sinfonietta as one of a pair. The stick is of built cane construction, the head and root splices from kingwood, and the frog is African ebony mounted with silver. The head splice has begun to come apart near the head, hence the thread whipping. I would guess that it is one of the bows he made with the splices glued with ‘violin glue’ (hot hide/bone glue) which doesn’t happily take to either cane or kingwood. The photo from above the head shows the arrow splice joint. Cocker stamped the patent number on the root of the stick on the opposite facet to his name – allowing a younger bow maker to pay a visit to a patent library and (almost) find out how they were made. In my opinion, Cocker wasted a lot of money patenting an idea that fishing rod makers had been using for decades, but it was the application that was being patented, not the material. Patents in the UK only last for 25 years, anyway. Note how Cocker has fitted the frog to the stick with the same system as Bryant – two precision rails cut into the stick, about 0.75mm wide.

The cane bows (referred to by many as “bamboo”) are the closest natural material I know to carbon fiber. The assembled stick has that “ping” quality, but the player has to put up with the visual appearance of the pale stick. Cane cannot be darkened without injuring its qualities, though it does slowly darken in air if not varnished. Laurie coated his bows with a clear, practical 2-pack polyurethane varnish so they stay pale. Personally, I find the contrast with the dark splices very attractive, especially as I know how they are done!


With both these makers, craftsmanship was the aim, regardless of cost, producing a practical yet beautiful item that would do whatever the owner asked – and do it well. It would have a long life, be easy and economical to maintain, stay looking good, and be lovingly passed on to the next generation. Little could they predict the troubles that would visit future workmen attempting to look after such products, let alone make replacements.

Up Next

Next time (honest), part 6 – how bow making developed in the USA, written by an Englishman. What could possibly go wrong?