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The Bow – Part Two: New Inventions – and a Trip to England

The French Take the Lead, Followed by the British

By 1750, the French – having access to newly discovered South American woods – were pre-eminent in bow development thanks to the Tourte family, but the British weren’t far behind.

The heavy timber being felled in Brazil and Guyana had a double use, first as ballast in ships crossing the Atlantic and then sold on arrival. London was a busy port, with easier docking access than Paris.

Initially, pernambuco was imported to be reduced to shavings and dust because, in water, it yielded a fashionable pink/red color unobtainable by other means; artificial chemical dyes giving all the colors of the rainbow had yet to be invented.

Viotti Flees the French Revolution and Helps Make Bow History

Giovanni Battista Viotti. Engraving after Trofsarelli

Giovanni Battista Viotti. Engraving after Trofsarelli. Public Domain. From Gallica Digital Library, digital ID btv1b8425627w.

The Italian-born violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755 – 1824) was forced to flee his home in Paris due to the Revolution, and he crossed the English Channel to arrive in London in 1792.

While he had been in high society in France for ten years, he’d bought a superb violin – a Stradivari, now in an English collection – and bows. The bow maker everyone talked about was the Parisian François Tourte (1747 – 1835).

Engraving of François Xavier Tourte by J. Frey, 1818

Engraving of François Xavier Tourte by J. Frey, 1818. Public Domain.

François didn’t have to create the new ideas that went into the incurved, adjustable tension bow as he came from an inventive bow-making family. His father, Nicolas Pierre Tourte, was well-patronized by players.

From Timepieces to Bows

Although François trained in making timepieces for eight years, he worked on bows alongside his brother, Nicolas Léonard. From about 1780, he worked with Viotti to put all the ideas together into a very attractive (and expensive) “new” item. That left no time for clocks and watches.

Though he gained a good reputation during his lifetime that continues today, his judgment on stick quality was occasionally lacking; some sticks were considered too light and weak even when new.

DRAFT Trade card of Dodd, musical instrument maker, London

Draft Trade card of Dodd, musical instrument maker, London. Asset number: 1137437001. © The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

One family, the Dodds, that similarly seemed to be keeping the whole of London in more modest “everyday” bows, inevitably got to see at least one good example of a Tourte. Having successfully imitated it, they were doubtless initially inundated with orders from those with deep enough pockets.


Giovanni Viotti is shown holding his old pattern bow. Pen and black and grey ink with green, buff, and grey washes and touches of yellow and white. Asset number: 383033001. © The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Giovanni Viotti is shown holding his old pattern bow in the drawing above, whereas I’ve told you he had at least one Tourte. That’s because he became better known as a conductor later in his life; hence the score he is holding. He’s depicted using his simple out-curved bow as a baton to show he is still a violinist. It is an accurate, well-done drawing and sadly anonymous.

Tourte Family Bows: A Great Leap Forward

The following photographs show the great leap forward in workmanship and design that bows were given by the Tourte family workshop. The Library of Congress is incredibly fortunate to have acquired five of these priceless bows. Moreover, it proves that Tourte made bows specifically for the viola, thus pleasing me greatly.

Violin bow by Tourte, c. 1800. Library of Congress.

Violin bow #3 – Violin bow by Tourte, c. 1800: Russian. Library of Congress, Music Division.

All are from late in their workshop’s output, about 1820. The violin bow has gold mounts on a laminated turtle shell frog and little rectangular pearl panels set into each facet of the button; the workmanship is impeccable. The cello bow is humbler, with silver mounts on an ebony frog, but that is far more practical (and cheaper!).

Violoncello bow by Tourte, c. 1800. Library of Congress.

Tourte cello bow, c. 1800. Library of Congress, Music Division.

Two Innovations

Two innovations featured in the bows of François Tourte had given the now in-curved bow its last improvements. One was the screw tensioning mechanism, hidden inside the bow at the handle. The other was the ferrule, a band of metal containing the hair that fits onto the tenon (a wedge-shaped extension at the lower front of the frog).

The screw mechanism allowed the tension in the hair ribbon to vary according to playing style (and weather conditions affecting the hair length). The ferrule wedge ensured that the hair hank spread into a ribbon almost the width of the frog. To the player, that ribbon was now firm under pressure right near the frog, and a down-bow attack could be stronger and more secure. The Dodd family had no trouble copying Tourte’s innovations.

The Dodd Family

The first recorded bow maker of the family was Edward Dodd, born in 1705 in Northumberland. He moved to London in his 60s and apparently lived until age 105, passing away in 1810. He was therefore perfectly placed to see the bow develop from the outcurved, simple hair-tensioning ‘stick’ into the screw-adjustable, fully inwardly-curved bow we associate with Tourte.

His son, John Dodd (1752-1839), became nicknamed “The English Tourte” – they were near contemporaries. Although the family was capable of really fine work, the Dodd name was stamped on everything from serviceable ‘minimalist’ bows to gold and turtle shell (“tortoiseshell”) mounted wonders.

So many genuine examples survive (along with a multiplicity of copies) that their output must have been large and across generations.

A Dodd Cello Bow

Tip of Dodd Cello Bow. Photo courtesy Tarisio.

Frog of Dodd Cello Bow. Photo courtesy Tarisio.

Dodd Cello Bow frog 3/4 view. Photo courtesy Tarisio.

Dodd Cello Bow. Photos courtesy Tarisio.

Most of those were, when original, simple ivory-mounted, open-frog bows like the one pictured above. Though often copied by (mostly) German workshops and branded to appear as if the real thing, genuine Dodd bows are still far more numerous than Tourtes.

The arrival of Tourte bows meant the Dodds had to “up their game.” They were certainly capable of similar exotic work but weren’t asked to make such expensive items very often. For example, in an English collection, there is a stunning gold-and-turtle-shell mounted bass bow – and you don’t see those very often!

The cello bow above is elegant in its simplicity. Many Dodd bows, such as this open frog type, later found a new lease on life remounted with modern frogs. Dodd cello bows are especially popular. Unfortunately, they are barely discernible from ‘modern’ bows only a few decades old with that treatment.

The bow above also illustrates “brand confusion” as it comes from another age. The brand on this bow is Forster because his shop sold it (probably as part of an outfit). However, the bow itself was supplied by the Dodds to Forster’s shop. The makers were happy to take just the payment in this case, knowing their name and reputation were solid from other bows that did bear the Dodd brand.

The inked number on the underside of the stick points towards it being a bow from a collection. That explains the pristine off-white color of the ivory, since, over decades of use, ivory exposed to the atmosphere (and player’s hands) goes creamy-yellow.

DRAFT Trade card of William Forster, musical instrument maker and music seller, London.

DRAFT Trade card of William Forster, musical instrument maker and music seller, London. Asset number: 1137504001. © The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

However, not everyone could afford that sort of workmanship, so the Dodds carried on making basic bows for everyday modest players, especially those in the provinces, and even more, for the “church cellos.”

It is obvious from their bows that the Dodds met with players, probably played themselves, and always made bows that “worked.” But, as with many family dynasties, around 1850, the end was in sight. As with Cremonese violins a century earlier, the market was quite possibly saturated.

So the English bow-making style passed to another family, the Tubbs. They, particularly James Tubbs, found a way of replicating the popular Parisian bows but with slightly more weight.

The Tubbs Family

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

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

James Tubbs (1835 – 1921) found the bow market all on his own, just when violin playing among amateurs was becoming a popular pastime. With modest premises in Wardour Street, Soho (London), his work and that of his son, Alfred, was without peer. Their bows are sought after to this day.

Tip of Dodd Cello Bow. Photo courtesy Tarisio.

Frog of Tubbs Cello Bow. Photo courtesy Tarisio.

Frog of Tubbs Cello Bow, 3/4 view. Photo courtesy Tarisio.

Tubbs Cello Bow. Photos courtesy Tarisio.

Above is a typical and lovely cello bow by James Tubbs, with a silver head face on its head in the rather vertical “old French” style, a capped button, and a simple frog with no side inlays. The pernambuco stick has its natural finish. Others were chemically stained and polished significantly darker, a process developed by Tubbs.

The bow is practical, made efficiently, made to last, and made to play. Tubbs trashed his own reputation somewhat by making quite a few flexible and lightweight violin bows in his trademark (very) dark finish. They became a fashion among amateur players after about 1900. However, Tubbs’ heavier, stronger bows are without equal and, in my opinion, represent the finest English bow making.

If you like the way a Tubbs plays, you won’t be satisfied with much else. The ultimate accolade must be that the French, particularly the Bazin workshop, copied Tubbs’s bows, producing convincing examples.

The basic Dodd bows were thus left behind with players consigning them literally to the trash as they were outdated. It is a wonder that any survive.

A Partnership with William Ebsworth Hill

William Ebsworth Hill (1817–1895), a newly-established violin restorer in the same street, asked James Tubbs to do bow work for him – including making new ones. But, Tubbs was apparently fond of his drink, didn’t take fools gladly, and was very much his own man.

Tubbs started the “Hill” work around 1860. Only ten years passed before W. E. Hill accused him of theft of materials, and the partnership terminated acrimoniously. That severance affected bow making in England for at least a century, stopping it from progressing as the French bows did.

Mr. Hill decided to make “W. E. Hill & Sons” bows in his own purpose-built workshops. Before they were completed and ready for sale, though, some were supplied to him from France by F. N. Voirin. Other than the Tubbs bows, it was the only time bows were ever branded W E HILL, stamped by Hill’s without Voirin’s permission! They were swiftly instructed to avoid the practice . . .

In 1892, while visiting landowning friends in the New Forest, Hampshire, Hill took a chance on employing a teenager from their Ashley-Arnewood estate for his new workshop. Little did he realize that his hopes of setting up an “English bow” to rival the French and German products were about to be not only realized but made world famous.

The sixteen-year-old country boy’s name was William Retford – and he didn’t take to city life at all.

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