By Matt Wehling
As I round a corner in Paris, I see a French flag hanging from a third-story window. In the five years I lived in France and nearly a dozen visits since moving home to Minnesota in 2001, I’d only seen French flags on government buildings. Most of the French people I know found it odd that so many Americans display flags, but since last year’s terrorist attacks, Paris had changed—the sight of their blue, white, and red has become a common sight, a signal of solidarity. It’s a small change in a city that’s always changing, yet always seems the same.
I’ve come to Paris to work in L’Atelier D’Arthur, the shop of bow makers and restorers Arthur DuBroca and Alexandre Aumont. Both of these men are graduates of the Mirecourt violin-making school, but gravitated toward bows and worked many years in the shop of celebrated bow expert Jean-François Raffin.
My reason for coming is many-fold and some of what I’m doing is reflecting on the past, some is looking toward the future. It’s been three years since I last spent a month in Paris (which was also spent at L’Atelier D’Arthur) and 20 years since I quit my job as research chemist to spend five years in France learning bow making from French masters Benoit Rolland and then Georges Tepho, both of whom learned their craft from Bernard Ouchard at the Mirecourt bow-making school in the 1970s.
This is an opportunity to observe beautiful old bows first-hand and integrate as much old-world wisdom as I can into my own making. My shop is in my house in a town of 20,000 people, 45 minutes south of the mid-sized cities Minneapolis and St. Paul. While we have two great orchestras in our Twin Cities, in order to see a variety of older bows, I need to go to where great bows are—major markets such as Chicago, New York, or Paris.
L’Atelier D’Arthur is in the Batignolles section of Paris, about a half-mile from the hubbub of all the violin and bow shops on rue de Rome, where there are perhaps as many as 30 shops in a region of a few square blocks. The space is calm—the people who come through the door are seeking out Arthur and Alexandre, not just walking in any old door on the celebrated Violin Street of Paris. The neighborhood was fairly run down when they opened in 2004, but has since become rather gentrified and full of black-clad “bo-bos,” short for bourgeois bohemians, what Americans might call yuppies but who presume an artistic edge. Sadly, the nearby shop specializing in drag-queen attire has recently closed. “He may have just retired, not actually forced out [by rising rents],” says Arthur, “It’s sad, as he was really the best.”
This is how it goes in France, where someone good at his job, any job, is recognized for his excellence. Waiters are professional waiters—they’re not actors with a script in their back pocket waiting on their big break, not my table. The local dry-cleaner boasts of being a “Master Artisan Shirt Presser.” And we are bow makers.
After a weekend spent getting over jet lag, I start to work in earnest. On Monday, Arthur and Alexandre work on making their own bows; the rest of their week is dedicated to meticulous restorations and rehairs scheduled well in advance. I’m there simply to work on my own making for three weeks, though I’m observing their repair methods, asking questions, and learning from their vast experience dealing with high-level clientele. It seems every other person who walks in the door is in one of the major French orchestras, and a fair number of those are concertmasters or soloists.
But A+A are also watching me, and ideas are exchanged freely and openly.
“You are from a different branch of the tree,” Alexandre says. “We are from
the Morizot branch of French bow making, having learned from J.F. Raffin who learned from Monsieur Millant, who learned from the Morizots. You learned from Rolland and Tepho who learned from Ouchard, and are thus from the Ouchard branch. Same tree, same basic techniques, but differences as well.” This differs from the view in America, where most people talk about working according to the French tradition, as if it is all the same.
There are three drawers [in Sartory’s bench], and the front edge of the table has numerous grooves worked into it from where the master would have stabilized his files, saws, or the bow he was working on.
Arthur and Alexandre are sensitive to the subtle differences in different schools, and are always learning. These differences can be miniscule, but can lead to a better understanding of great makers of the past. An example would be seeing different tool marks on bows made by particular makers. The way a maker holds the piece he is working on will determine his natural, ingrained gestures, which will in turn determine what tool marks might remain to be seen on finished bows (for example, the angle of file or knife marks left on the chamfers of the head). These tiny clues can help those with that knowledge and understanding in the identification of bows.
One of my first orders of business is to modify the bench I would work on, a bench that came out of the important Paris shop of the late Etienne Vatelot. To me it’s a bit like sacrilege to put a slot into the edge to hold the frog while I work on it, but to Arthur and Alexandre the bench is a tool that should be modified for the best use. It is surprising to me that they don’t use this slot in their work, but they learned slightly different methods from a slightly different branch of the tree.When work shifts to repair on the next day, Alexandre pulls me aside to show me a bow. “Look at this,” he says, “A very good example of Charles Nicolas Bazin—long button, second collar angles back, wide bottom facet, very long mortise, and notice how this facet (the vertical, audience side facet) leans in. All these are very typical.” You hang out with these guys long enough and you could learn something.
Bows come in waves. The last time I was here, it seemed every bow that came to the shop was made by Joseph Henry. This year, as luck would have it, we are flooded with bows by one of my favorite makers, E.A. Ouchard. In the States, we mainly see his bows made after he moved to the US and his sticks got quite heavy and stiff, following the desires of his New York clients. Every bow I see here, however, is from my favorite period of his work: either while he’s still in Mirecourt but after he purchased the family firm in 1937, or from after he went to Paris in 1940 but before he left for the US in 1946. These bows are still robust, but not nearly as strong as the American ones, with a natural springiness that a stronger bow doesn’t always have. Beautiful, beautiful bows.
One day, a husband-and-wife luthier team from a city about two hours out of Paris comes for lunch. The husband was at the Mirecourt school at about the same time as Alexandre, so they’re old friends, and he has brought a number of bows he found through different sources. When I was working with Georges Tepho in the late 1990s, you might still find the odd treasure at an antique store or market stall, but M. Tepho said it was nothing like when he first got out of the Mirecourt bow-making school in 1980. At that point, very few people realized that bows could have value, and the pickings were relatively plentiful for someone with even a little knowledge. Now it’s barren out there, and this guy must be working hard to find halfway decent bows.
But his work has paid off—in fact, he has scored big. He pulls out a bow by—who else?—E.A. Ouchard from the late 1930s, certainly with the original grip, and the wife of the pair speculates it may even be the original hair. Fantastic wood, slightly flamed, firm enough but also supple enough—it’s an incredible bow. To put it in playing shape, the bow would need a little work: hair, of course, a bit of camber/straightening, and the head is twisted a bit out of alignment. The luthier asks Arthur what he would do.
“What would I do?” asks Arthur. “I’d put it in a box for another 40 years.” Which is to say it is so pristine it should be saved as an example of one of that master’s best surviving works. This isn’t the answer the luthier wants, however, and he has a client he feels will be perfect for the bow as soon as it can be made playable. So Arthur gives him a rundown of needed repairs, and then looks at another half dozen bows.
In all, he spends a good two hours telling the couple about what they have found, providing free expertise, confirming some of what they suspected, debunking other ideas. Later I ask Arthur if he charged them for his time. No, he says, they’re old friends. Plus this way any restoration done will be all the better, this time or in the future.
By the second week, I get into the groove of work. I had started a gold-mounted cello bow, but a violin bow comes in that takes my breath away and I switch gears. It’s a beautiful Pajeot, and I’d roughed out and bent a stick following this model before coming over. So in the few days I have with this bow from around 1840, I work on absorbing as much knowledge as
I can that I will put into my own bow. This comes back to one of the reasons I’m here: a bow like this doesn’t come walking into my shop very often in Northfield, Minnesota, founded in 1855. Which doesn’t seem like very long ago when you’re in Paris.
Everywhere in Paris (and the shop) contains bow history. I walk past the grave of J.B. Vuillaume, having tracked down the houses of the Lamys and Vignerons on previous trips. Arthur is an avid collector of violin and bow ephemera—including books, postcards from old Mirecourt, and receipts from older makers. It’s a passion I share. One afternoon during my stay, we are fortunate to spend time with the wonderful and energetic Bernard Millant, a man who, besides continuing to be an important bow expert at age 85, is an important link to our bow-making past.
Every day I sit at a bench that came out of the Vatelot shop when they upgraded a few years back. One day near the end of my trip, I am invited to share in the ultimate experience in bow-making history right here in our little section of Paris.
I go to the shop of Pierre Carodot, which is the former shop of Philippe Dupuy.
M. Dupuy is the grandson of Eugene Sartory, and M. Carodot’s assistant, Martin Chandonnet, has invited me over to see Sartory’s former bench and tools. Martin is an outgoing, engaging Canadian and he takes me to a room in the spacious, second-story shop.
“It’s a bit of a mess right now. We’re painting another room, so everything’s kind of piled on the bench,” he says. This seems somehow appropriate: It’s all history, but it’s living history, and sometimes a bench is handy to put things on. The bench looks like it might originally have been a desk, with legs that have been turned on a lathe.
It’s something I’ve never seen on a workbench, so I’m guessing Sartory modified a piece of furniture. There are three drawers, and the front edge of the table has numerous grooves worked into it from where the master would have stabilized his files, saws, or the bow he was working on. It looks like the front edge may have been replaced a number of times—there is a strip of wood about an inch thick, not of the original top, which has borne the brunt of the work. It’s interesting to me that there is no central block to work off, as I was taught by my Ouchard-trained masters.
Same tree, different branches.
As moving as it is to see the bench, I was unprepared for the moment I was handed Sartory’s planes. Sometimes when I go to violin shops, I’m handed a Strad or Guarneri. I appreciate the trust the shop places in me and the pride they have in their work, but frankly, other than a touch of fear, the experience is wasted on me.
I know so little about violins (well, unless it’s a Peter of Venice, which always stuns me). But to heft the planes of the 20th century’s foremost bow maker is unlike anything I have ever experienced. They are similar to the planes I had to make before coming
to work in France 20 years ago, though a bit stouter and more massive—which is sort of how I imagine Sartory himself. To hold his planes in my hands is so moving. When I describe it to A+A later, Arthur jokes, “Look, he still has goosebumps!”
Sartory’s grandson, M. Dupuy, is working on a book about his grandfather. Martin tells me it will be a book about their family life, with reminiscences of Sartory as a person and grandfather, photos, along with some receipts and correspondence. I’m excited to hear that Irish bow maker Gary Leahy has offered to help translate it into English.
On one of my last days of work, Alexandre is rehairing a bow. It is, quelle chance, an E.A. Ouchard from around 1940, and Alexandre has a curious look on his face. Before he hands me the stick he twirls it with one hand and uses the other to feel the shape, implying that I should do the same. The stick is triangular from the head all the way to the grip, much like some Vigneron bows, though less pronounced. This is definitely different from Ouchard’s usual very symmetrical round stick. We bring Arthur into the conversation and postulate why Ouchard did this. An experiment? Special request from a client, or just thought it might work for a particular musician? Something to do with the wood?
These are conversations I don’t have often in my little solitary shop at home, and I feel grateful my friends and colleagues Arthur and Alexandre allow me into their world.
As I’m packing my tools on my last day, I am handed a stick. It has a long mortise, a very wide bottom facet, a rather long button, and an audience-side facet that really leans in. From these clues, even I could identify it as a CN Bazin.
Hang out with these guys long enough and you could learn something.