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The Bow – Part Four: William Retford and Arthur Bultitude

Previously in our bow series . . .

In part 3, about the original company W. E. Hill & Sons (“Hills”)*, I mentioned an extraordinarily talented workman who moved into their new Hanwell (West London, UK) workshops in 1893 to help restart their bow making: William Charles Retford.

Retford’s most remarkable apprentice was Arthur Bultitude, who joined Hills 32 years later in 1925. Some 55 years after that, beginning in 1980, Bultitude found himself pestered by me, always asking questions. But I’m glad I did. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this.

William C. Retford

William Charles Retford, (c.1902).

William Charles Retford, (c.1902). Richard Sadler, W. E. Hill & Sons: (1880-1992) A Tribute (Ealing Strings, 1997), Plate 4.

W. E. Hill & Sons struck gold, maybe unexpectedly, by employing the teenage William Charles Retford (b.1875, New Milton, Hampshire) in 1892. He was recruited when W. E. Hill went to stay with a friend in the New Forest, Hampshire, and the friend mentioned the son of one of his estate workers who seemed especially keen on miniature woodwork.

WE Hill & Sons

This is the W E Hill & Sons shop front on their 140 New Bond Street premises from 1897 to the mid-1970s. Apart from the Hill name being blanked out, the Art Nouveau Flemish-style decoration remains on the “Grade 2 listed” building (such grading is a UK listing of buildings with significant architectural interest) that hides five floors behind its façade

A country-loving lad, at first William Retford worked in Hill’s central London, New Bond Street shop on menial tasks. He hated it – coming close to returning home – but came into his own a year later when he moved to the quieter new workshops in Hanwell, also acquiring a secondhand penny-farthing bicycle.

Hanwell Workshop of W. E. Hill & Son

The Hill workshops in Hanwell, West London. The two buildings were connected following an almost immediate expansion after the first was built. They are now prestigious apartments.

Happy to work unsupervised, due to being self-motivated and trustworthy to a fault, he was soon placed into the bow workshop to work alongside Sydney Yeoman, who became a lifelong friend both at work and at home. Retford and Yeoman combined to replace the bow maker Samuel Allen, who had quit in 1891. For Hills, this would be “third time lucky” trying to establish a bow workshop.

W. C. Retford / Hill Violin Bow c.1908

W. C. Retford / Hill Violin Bow c.1908. Richard Sadler, W. E. Hill & Sons: (1880-1992) A Tribute (Ealing Strings, 1997), Plate 27.

Retford, in turn, taught others, and they were the makers that established “The Hill Bow” from about 1910 to 1950, where even the cheapest ones were finely constructed. However, they were never economical items to buy, and the firm traded on their reputation somewhat.

Changing Technology

Unfortunately, the company did not read the market well. It failed to realize that the Hill bow model, developed in 1900, had become a period item by 1930. The violin set-up had changed significantly. In 1900, all violin strings were gut with only the G being overspun with silver. By 1920, most players were using steel strings. By 1970, they had progressed to synthetic core ones. French violin bows (around 3 grams heavier) were preferred by professional players from around 1920 – and remain so – but Hills management decided not to follow that example.

While the makers were in the firm’s employ, they had to make what they were told, which meant following the company’s template. By 1950, the Hills 1900 bow design was definitely an anachronism yet they were obligated to adhere to the pattern. However, when craftsmen left Hills, if they continued working privately and expected to sell their bows, they would use a more modern design.

Retford Continued Making Bows in “Retirement”

W. C. Retford retired from Hills in 1956 at the age of 81. Sadly, his son, William Richard Retford, a bow maker at Hills from 1919, predeceased his father in 1960. W. C. Retford became a widower soon after. Jack Yeoman, the married son of William’s workmate Sydney, lived next door in Grove Avenue, Hanwell. A fortuitous exchange of skills between neighbors – Retford did their garden, they did his cooking and housework – meant he could carry on making bows at home, mostly for his colleagues in the Ealing Symphony Orchestra. Retford charged only for materials, claiming that his pension was enough – what a gent!

W. C. Retford Violin Bow

W. C. Retford Violin Bow. Richard Sadler, W. E. Hill & Sons: (1880-1992) A Tribute (Ealing Strings, 1997), Plate 31.

These bows were updated from the Hill style, being slightly stouter and heavier, and are now highly cherished items. Although they would have been considered excellent products from a maker of any age, that they were produced by someone in his 80th decade is nothing short of a miracle. Retford retired from playing in the Ealing Symphony Orchestra when he was 88 years old, in 1963.

In his later years, W. C. Retford always holidayed in the Bournemouth area on the South Coast, not far from his birthplace, having a relative who ran a chain of music shops there. But, William couldn’t resist bow work even while taking a vacation. During the 1960s, he taught a local freelance violinist both bow making and repair, so those shops could offer a bow maintenance service.

Retford Redesigned the Cello Bow

At the age of 90, Retford decided to redesign the cello bow, making the stick where the bow is held larger, as the sticks themselves were getting heavier and stronger. Another take is that players were going back to the bow strength that old English makers, such as Dodd, had produced.

New tooling and jigs were made, and it all worked superbly. It is a system I use myself, but it is interesting to see how many makers have yet to catch up with Retford’s skill and foresight. His last batch of bows, including six for cello, was not completed. Only one was made playable, in 1967/8 for an American friend.

William C. Retford (June 1970)

William C. Retford, Photo taken in his back garden at 107 Grove Avenue, Hanwell (June 1970). Richard Sadler, W. E. Hill & Sons: (1880-1992) A Tribute (Ealing Strings, 1997), Plate 11.

Retford’s Legacy

William Charles Retford died in 1970; that last cello bow came back home in 1992 to go straight into a public collection. Besides creating fine bows and teaching others to do the same, maybe his greatest achievement was writing a book, Bows and Bow Makers, which rightly became an immediate classic upon publication in 1964.

Absorbed into The Strad Library around 2000 from Novello, it is shameful that, after a short run with them, it is no longer in print (at the time of this writing in early 2022). Far from being a bow-making instruction book, it is meant more for one who is already a maker.

W C Retford Bows and Bow Makers

Retford left his tools and bows to Oxford University, specifically The Bate Collection in St. Aldates, Oxford, so that future makers might learn from his techniques. The exhibit cleverly takes the viewer through the making of a cello bow utilizing Retford’s last partially completed examples. I wrote a guide to the exhibit explaining the making process, Retford style. During the time I taught bow making there as a summer school (1991–2003), I met Brenda Neece, the founding curator of the Cello Museum.

Bows and Bow-Making: The William C. Retford Gift by Andrew Bellis - The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, University of Oxford.

Arthur R. Bultitude

Arthur Bultitude

Arthur Bultitude

Through the early and mid-twentieth century, Hills continued to recruit apprentices locally to Hanwell when they needed to maintain or even expand the workshops. Between the two World Wars, they trained eight bow makers. Of them, one maker stood out as having an extra interest in the craft – even though he didn’t play the violin. Arthur Richard Bultitude (1908-1990) was recruited at the age of 14, and Retford took him on as one of his potential bow makers and restorers in 1925.

An Unhappy Promotion

In 1945, Arthur was promoted to Works Manager when Hills reorganized after the war. It was a job he came to dislike, although he carried it out perfectly, and it was financially a promotion. But Arthur was a workman, not a pen pusher. After fifteen years at it, he saw the opportunity to leave.

He was not happy with both a change of management at Hills and the introduction of an imitation “tortoiseshell” material for frogs. After he’d gone, these became a disaster for the company. The cellulose-based material shrank visibly, and the mounts (the metal parts) became loose.

Bultitude Strikes Out on His Own

Arthur succumbed to the “country cottage” urge and, in 1961, gave in his notice. His employment agreement meant he could not leave and work close to his ex-employers, so he moved 55 miles away to Hawkhurst, Kent. However, his management position meant he knew all the useful suppliers and subcontractors. Players would have found it easy to get to him by train – in those days, not many London-based players owned cars – and they did so.

Arthur Bultitude was the first bow maker to intentionally leave Hills before his retirement age and continue making bows commercially. With loyal customers both in Britain and abroad, he was a great success and his output in the years up to the early 1980s was phenomenal.

Arthur Bultitude Cello Bow. Photo: Andrew Bellis.

Detail of the Tudor rose on the cello bow by Arthur Bultitude is described below. Photo: Andrew Bellis.

He immediately made heavier and stronger bows than Hills – those made by Arthur, particularly in the 1960s, are treasured items. Having been reprimanded for using the fleur-de-lys inlay away from Hill’s, he developed his own inlay of a Tudor rose (they were stamped out for him in two sizes and in both silver and 14ct red gold). Hence, an A. R.  Bultitude bow became instantly recognizable.

A Top-of-the-Range Cello Bow by Arthur Bultitude

The following images are of a “top of the range” cello bow made by Arthur Bultitude. It has an octagonal pernambuco stick, 14ct red gold mounts on a Hawksbill turtle shell nut, with inlaid Tudor roses.

A professional player ordered this bow in 1970 as a copy of a Tubbs that the player owned; the cellist wanted a spare that felt the same. The translucent turtle shell is referred to as “blonde.” The tip (“button”) core has to be the same material. The octagonal stick is heavy and strong, being over 50 grams without any lapping. The assembled bow, ready to play, weighs 86 grams.

Arthur Bultitude Cello Bow

Arthur Bultitude Cello Bow Frog with a Tudor Rose

Arthur Bultitude. Photo: Andrew Bellis.

Arthur Bultitude Cello Bow. Photo: Andrew Bellis.

Arthur Bultitude Cello Bow. Photos: Andrew Bellis.

Bultitude cello bows have fairly narrow heads because Arthur always bought ½” pernambuco planks. As a result, the hair sometimes spills over the sides of the face. It was down to me to ask our supplier to send some 5/8” planks, so I could easily make copies of English and French cello bows that have wider heads.

One also needs a bit of “wiggle room” with head widths. So, if you are copying a Tubbs cello bow at 13.20mm or even a Tourte at 12mm, wood of 14mm or wider is essential. As you can see here, the hair spills over the side of the face; this is not good practice.

Earn yourself many extra points if you have spotted that the head face is a different color gold from the rest. It was like that from new. The traditional gold for English bow makers is referred to as “14ct red,” but here, the sheet for the face has been mistakenly sent to the bow maker in “yellow.” Before polishing, it is not easy to tell the difference, especially when goldsmiths protect the surface from scratching. I imagine Bultitude must have been annoyed when he realized the error.

Notes on the Restoration of This Bow

This article was delayed because the bow had to go into my workshop for essential work to the screw and eye. The original had long gone, as 3mm-diameter steel screws and their matching brass “eyes” don’t last long in strong cello bows, they are intended for violin and viola bows – see Retford’s thinking I mention above, where he enlarges the screw to 3.5mm/4BA.

So that’s exactly what I did here, but because they cannot be sourced commercially, I have to make the screws and eyes myself – hence the need for a (relatively) large and expensive lathe. The replacement metalwork should last for decades as long as it is kept lightly lubricated and the steel screw remains free from rust.

Desirable Bows That Can’t Travel (These Days)

To my eyes, the proportions are excellent. I particularly like the narrow bands on the tip. After all, they are only protective reinforcements and shouldn’t “take over” the tip. Arthur had larger “Tudor rose” inlays made for cello bows supplied by a specialist jewelry company. The whole item is an excellent balance between durability and beauty. When new, it cost about £100, a sixth of the price of a Mini car at the time. These days, the cars are £16k, yet the equivalent bow would cost £2,700. Now you realize what a bargain a Bultitude bow was!

What player would not want that in their case nowadays? Sadly, any cellist traveling to play. Such items can no longer pass through international boundaries, so their value is limited value and they are difficult to sell. This bow can no longer leave the U.K., a retrospective law, with which I do not agree. When it was made, it could go anywhere – and many Bultitude bows did, to the U.S.A., Australia, and Hong Kong.

A Connection with Jacqueline du Pré

Bultitude made these changes because he was now directly in touch with players ordering and buying his bows. At Hills, that was done miles away from the workshop. The differences between what he made for his customers and what he made for Hills is obvious – would Hills have been happy copying Jacqueline du Pré’s Dodd cello bow (stamped “Panormo”) at over 90 grams? I doubt it.

Bultitude did copy it at her request, using a very dense piece of wood. If you’re quick, you can see it in Christopher Nupen’s film of Jacqueline playing the Elgar Concerto. The clue is the size of the Tudor rose inlay in the frog.

Learning the Art of Bow Making

If approached by someone with an obvious interest in the craft, Arthur Bultitude would happily give advice – not teaching as such, more acting as a mentor.

It is my opinion that violin and bow makers should be so taken by their task that they can almost teach themselves, only needing advice when something can’t be worked out. To wit, there are no comprehensive bow-making instruction books.

As such, Bultitude mentored David Newton, Roy Collins, Brian Tunnicliffe, Henry Byrom, and myself. I am the only one of that group still working.

In my experience, Bultitude was a perfect gentleman. When I first visited, I thought I’d got the wrong house, as the door was answered by a man in a tweed jacket, white shirt, and neat tie. But he’d dressed that way over four decades for work and obviously saw no need to change; it impressed customers.

Sadly, in the late 1980s, Arthur Bultitude’s mind deteriorated to the extent that he remembered nothing of his working life. He died in 1990 having made over 1,000 bows bearing his name and also, proudly, “ENGLAND” near the root on the underside of the stick.

Coming up in Part 5: What happened to bow making in England?

* Please note – any reference to “W E Hill & Sons” or “Hills” refers only to the original company that was in existence from the late nineteenth century until 1992.