By Philip J. Kass | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
My first article for Strings, back in the late 1990s, was about English bows and the marketplace. Twenty years on, have they found a place in the market? Well, yes, after a fashion. Do they receive the appropriate respect today that they lacked back then? Well, it’s complicated…
Let’s look back at the late 18th century. London had a rudely vigorous fiddle trade, in which there was demand for bows to use in playing the fiddles. There was nothing much different between the status of English makers and that of the French and Germans, and initially, not much difference in bow style. Furthermore, the British had a family devoted to bow making, the Dodds. So far, so good. Except that there was a genius of the sort that comes along perhaps once a generation, a man who literally reinvented the bow and its possibilities with a violin, and he was French. François Tourte, over a career spanning the 1780s to 1830s, redefined bow making as we know it. But, just as he was hitting his stride, France had a revolution and eventually ended up under Napoleon’s rule, resulting in about 20 years of warfare, during which time England, a tight little island, was pretty much cut off from Continental crafts and ideas. By the time it ended, the British were a generation behind the French in bow making, and their local markets were collapsing, depriving them of demand for the best-quality work.
In the middle of the war, John Dodd—the finest maker in the family, the one we remember best today, and the only London maker who seems to have seen Tourte bows and understood what was significant about them—moved to Kew, far out in the suburbs, where his initial commercial success eventually declined into penury. His brothers and nephews remained in London, making, well, Dodds, but of a more workmanlike quality. To further cloud the picture, every one of them used a brand that said either DODD or J. DODD, and even bought bows from other English makers and (later) from commercial sources on the Continent and branded them the same way. Sorting out what is John and what is everything else has been an ongoing dilemma ever since.
Nonetheless, John’s fame spread over the years, because what he was making was indeed much like Tourte in terms of feel and response, if not in general style and construction. British bow making followed different methods than did French bow making, and an awareness of these methods can distinguish one from the other. For example, when the mortise is cut into the head to hold the hair, it was traditionally a narrow rectangle, which only permitted a narrow band of hair to be spread. The French developed a trapezoidal mortise, allowing for a broader strip; the British instead cut notches out from the leading edge, allowing for the same effect, but leaving as evidence a T-shaped cutaway with a broad stem. This is the famous “T mortise” that one frequently hears referred to when it comes to old English bows.
Similarly, when one feels the roundness and thickness of the stick behind the head, one finds, with a few notable exceptions, that French bows gradually broaden from directly behind the head to the center of the stick. Dodd bows, on the other hand, often reach their thinnest point several inches behind the head before widening again. If you see a bow with an octagonal stick, this becomes clearer: whereas the French bows have corner facets that tend to be narrower than the top and bottom facets, on English bows the corner facets are usually broader. And as far as proportions are concerned, French violin bows are longer than French cello bows, but with the English it was the other way around, which results in short, light violin bows and long, heavy cello bows.
As for John’s work, as progressive as some of his ideas might have been, it doesn’t appear that the local market was that interested. As a result, much of his work was made following the old styles, with open frogs without ferrules, and so much of it has either lost its original mounts or been substantially altered. What remains intact is still less useful for modern players, although the early style bows remain justly popular with the early-music crowd. But, the uncertainties of identification have kept their values down. It is the rare John Dodd that can command a price in excess of $20,000, and then usually because it has some precious metal or ivory as part of its make-up.
And the rest of the family? They can be maddeningly confusing. Indeed, the entire family seems to have always chosen John, James, Edward, and Thomas for first names, which just adds to the tangle of mismatched identities. The first was called Edward, who died in 1810 at age 105 (trust me on this; the cause of death listed on his death record is “old age”!). His three sons were John (1752–1839), James (1753–1833), and Thomas (1764–1834). Thomas was a bow maker but soon became a celebrated violin maker, and fathered sons named Thomas (1789–1818) and Edward (1793–1843)—a piano builder, usually called Edward III. James, who made bows for the trade, in turn had two sons named, as you guessed, James (1792–1867, known as James II) and Edward (1797–1851), known as Edward II, in spite of being younger than his cousin. So, we have bows by Edward I, John, James I, James II, Thomas, and Edward II. How can we keep them separated?
In truth, we can’t.
The only member of the family, besides John, whose bows can be confidently identified by maker was James II, although his ten-year partnership with his brother leads to added confusion. Mostly we know him because he was the primary user of the J. DODD brand, seeing as his brother Edward (named after their grandfather and thus called Edward II or III, depending on whether you count his namesake cousin who built harps and pianos) was working as a bow maker at the same time.
James II worked from the 1820s until the mid-1860s, and his work very much absorbed the construction innovations from the Continent: underslides and frog liners as well as an increased use of metals, and even occasional tortoiseshell. However, he also developed some very strange mannerisms and oddities that make his work rather less interesting to us today. Heads become strangely elongated or angular; frogs also become similarly weird, sometimes very long, sometimes very low, and the metalwork is generally quite heavy. James’ bows, when somewhat conventional and usable in modern playing, usually sell in the $10,000–$15,000 range; a lot of the others became artifacts in bow collections, mostly because they were, well, strange.
Like his uncle, James left central London for a distant place, moving in the 1830s to a quiet little farm cottage on the Holloway Road, today a bustling residential area. He seems to have been unaffected by the change in ideas that was brought on by the Great Exposition of 1851, in which exhibitors included both J.B. Vuillaume and the bow-making partnership of Pierre Simon and Joseph Henry of Paris. From this point onward, English bows and players are far more aware of Continental ideas. While James might have ignored this, the numerous bow makers of the Tubbs family did not, and henceforth we see new ideas incorporated into English bows, most notably by James Tubbs, then at the start of his career.
The other Tubbs family members occasionally imitated Dodds, most notably James Tubbs’ father William, who was Edward Dodd II’s assistant. But, of course, the French never copied the Dodds—except when they did.
By the late 19th century, when the biggest French commercial workshops were developing, they started creating “Dodds” as differentiated products in their sales catalogs, along with “Tourtes,” “Lupots,” “Peccattes,” and other such brands. The big producer was Jérôme Thibouville-Lamy, who also exported these worldwide, but the nicest ones were made by the somewhat smaller businesses of Charles Nicolas Bazin and Eugène Cuniot-Hury. And the Germans also made them—the big manufacturers in Markneukirchen, of course, but also Hermann Richard Pfretzschner, although he never actually branded his “Dodd.”
And so, the name of Dodd is as celebrated as his work is obscured. This seems a common destiny for a number of English violin and bow makers. But, in our modern age, there is no reason that we cannot change that perception. And, with prices being such as they are today, to own a fine bow with nice playing qualities and an interesting historical and cultural heritage, well, this is no bad thing either.