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One Eccentric Bowmaker

by Kathy Cohn

 
 

In late eighteenth century London a short, thickset man named John Dodd dons his threadbare coat and wide-brimmed hat, leaves his workplace and shuffles his way to his favorite cheap pub, hat askew. The staff and regulars know him well as he comes in at least four times a day.

Fortified with spirits, he waddles back to his shabby atelier. The corners of this room are piled high with old barrel boards. One workbench holds a heaping pile of oyster shells and a glinting silver piece he has recently filched from a local housekeeper.

The barrel boards are of dark, dense pernambuco wood from Brazil, in plentiful supply in London at the time. He rejects most of the pieces he examines and meticulously selects those which will become, in spite of occasionally visible nail holes, some of the finest musical instrument bows in England. He caresses the wood, smells it, maybe even tastes a shaving. The oyster shells, which he has begged in order to scrape out the mother of pearl, and the stolen silver, will become inlay for the frogs. Sometimes he also has ebony or tortoise shell on hand.

Dodd has his own ways and he guards them. The shades on his windows are drawn. Eccentric and suspicious, he keeps all his techniques secret. He takes on no apprentices. He refuses a good offer of 1000 pounds sterling for a copy of his pattern. Even when his reputation soars, he continues to live in poverty.

Son of a bowmaker, Dodd has first learned to do precision work as a gunlock fitter, then as a money scale maker. This collective experience makes him nimble and confident, resourceful and creative. He has also amassed an impressive array of tools.

In 1772, virtuoso violinist Wilhelm Cramer arrives in London from Germany and soon shows up at Dodd’s studio. Together, they create the concave bow as opposed to the convex bow of the time. The inward bend in the bow not only makes it stronger, it also allows it to produce a fuller sound. Concert halls of the time are getting bigger. The bend also improves the action of the bow and allows for a wider range of playing techniques. To maintain proper distance between stick and hair they develop a larger head. This bow, though most likely signed “Dodd,” becomes known as the “Cramer,” the best bow in England.

Instead of bending a straight bow with heat to get the curvature, Dodd has improvised a technique using double saws to cut the curve directly out of a plank of wood thus creating a beautifully crafted, graceful bow with excellent tone and stability.

Around the same time, in Paris, Cramer’s musical rival, Giovanni Viotti, shows up at the studio of Francois Tourte, a bowmaker who has trained as a watchmaker. Having surpassed Cramer as a soloist, Viotti wants an even more agile bow than his “Cramer,” one that can project sounds even further. Bowmaker and violinist conspire to make an even deeper bend on the concave bow and lengthen it slightly.

The two great bowmakers of their time know little of one another yet they have some of the same ideas. Tourte’s bows become highly sought after. Dodd remains an important presence in his trade and has many admirers. He becomes known as the “English Tourte” for his leading role in developing the modern bow in Britain. Soon Tubbs, another famous bowmaker, will come onto the scene in London.

Desperate for funds to quench his insatiable thirst, and to buy food, Dodd makes some bows in too much of a hurry. Some he does not sign. Some he makes a little bit too short. The measurements and quality of his work are not consistent though many of his bows, especially the later ones, are sought after to this day.

Two kind friends, a music professor and a doctor, often come to his rescue when he descends into his habitual dire straits. After 1820 his agent dies, his business declines, his friends tire of their role. Left without resources, he enters, along with others unable to support themselves, a workhouse in Richmond. Elderly inmates chop wood, clean the wards, and do other domestic tasks. Beds are provided only for the sick. The healthy sleep on straw and rags. Dodd dies there of bronchitis in 1839 at the age of 84.

In 2014, a John Dodd bow once owned by violist Lilian Fuchs sells at auction for $22,800.

Gordan Nikolitch, concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra says “…the Dodd has such a different sound that it can be heard by its difference rather than its power.”