Violin Bow by John Dodd c.1830
John Dodd (1752 in London – 1839 in Surrey) was the greatest English bow maker before and until Tubbs.
He was a gunlock fitter and then a money-scale maker before turning to bow making. John Dodd was a contemporary of François Tourte and worked in London. He arrived at a similar bow design to Tourte, though entirely through independent means.
He made fine bows, but his measurements and quality of bows are never entirely consistent. For example, some bows were made slightly shorter than the norm. His later bows are particularly fine, though judged to be a little short. The celebrated 20th century violist, Lillian Fuchs, owned a fine viola bow which sold in May 2014 for $22,800 at Tarisio Auctions.
Though Dodd was often in dire need of funds, it was recounted that he was very secretive about his art, and once turned down an offer of 1000 pounds sterling for a copy of his pattern. He also refused to teach pupils for the same reason. Dodd used 2 forms for the head ; the slender “swan” type and the squat ” hammer ” head type, more common in Italy and France.
An excellent choice of Pernambuco wood was available to Dodd and much of this came to England in the form of Barrels. This explains the numerous traces of nail holes which sometimes run right through his sticks.
According to Pierre Baillot, it seems that Viotti may have used a Dodd bow which was about 2½ cm shorter than the Tourte model.
Dodd had the innovative idea of using double saws to cut the curve of the bow directly out of a plank of wood – rather than bending a straight bow with heat to achieve the curvature. While this method creates a bow that draws an excellent tone, it lacks the ability to bounce off the string that the classical method supports.
John Dodd I
Bow maker (1752 – 1839)
Known as the ‘English Tourte’ for his leading role in the development of the modern bow in Britain, John ‘Kew’ Dodd was initially employed as a fine metalworker. Proximity to this trade afforded him the tools and expertise to develop the screw mechanisms being pioneered in Paris around the same time, and Dodd probably took up bow making in the 1770s–80s. He is first listed in the trade directories in 1794, and the earliest example of his work bears the brand of Norris and Barnes. Details about his working life are limited, but he seems to have been active in the trade and in the communities of Lambeth, and later Kew, until the beginning of the 19th century. Dodd supplied some bows to the Betts,Forster and Banks workshops, which bear their brands, though his other bows are stamped ‘Dodd’. The evolution of Dodd’s model is indicative of the great changes bow making underwent during the second half of the 18th century. His earlier work features the rounded heads, narrower ivory frogs and straighter sticks of classical bows. Over the course of his career Dodd helped to establish the definitive characteristics of the modern English bow, including the upward-tilting ivory face, large chamfers, ‘top-hat’ shaped mortise, and frog of ebony or tortoiseshell. Dodd was a heavy drinker, and it is likely that his business declined steadily after 1820, perhaps in part due to the death of his agent John Norris in 1819. In his last years he was brought to a workhouse in Richmond, where he died in 1839. He is, along with James Tubbs, considered the most important maker in the history of the English tradition.
John Dodd: a legend of oyster shells and silver spoons
John Dodd, the legendary father of English violin bow making, lived and worked in dire poverty. Notes on his life and art.
Envision a thickset figure with a slight waddle to his walk, meandering through the streets of London between cheap pubs and his shabby studio where the boards of old barrels lay stacked in heaps. Clad in a threadbare coat, the suspicious and quite eccentric craftsman carried oyster shells which could be heard clicking in his pockets; he was forced to beg for these shells so he could scrape out mother-of-pearl for his bows. The likes of such bows had never been seen before in England, and any profit made from selling them was already long since spent before the objects themselves could leave his atelier and venture forth and testify to their craftsman’s greatness. This greatness was that of a small man, a man who could barely write much more than his own name; in his lifetime, he was not to find a proper livelihood.
John Dodd is certainly one of the most moving figures amongst the early masters of modern bow making, many of whom also came from humble origins. Born in 1752 in Stirling, Scotland, the son of bow maker Edward Dodd (1705-1810) started out as a gunsmith and maker of money scales; these trades both required outstanding precision craftsmanship that would later become evident in his top-quality bow mountings. His professional path thus ran in a certain kind of curious parallel to his great French contemporary François Xavier Tourte (1747/48-1835), who is considered the inventor of the modern violin bow and originally trained as a watchmaker.
One of the remarkable twists of history is the fact that Tourte and Dodd both emerged as the greatest names in their fields at the same point in time: both produced comparably epoch-defining pieces, and yet they knew little about each other. With their complex geometry and masterful balance, John Dodd’s bows are almost equal in excellence to those of Tourte. If they can be said to have any shortcoming at all, it would be the fact that some sticks are comparatively short, which can pose certain impediments to soloist performance.
In many cases, the fact that John Dodd used shorter sticks may be attributed to the challenging circumstances under which he had to procure his materials. Nail holes in the (top-quality) pernambuco of some bows reveal the fact that the wood was repurposed from the boards of old barrels. It must be said in general that John Dodd showed an amazing ability to improvise, allowing him to craft sophisticated violin bows despite the most modest of circumstances. On more than one occasion he was said to have acquired the silver for the mountings used in especially fine pieces by taking cutlery from a housekeeper. He worked with odd tools he produced himself so he could carve in the unconventional technique he developed, an approach which in turn was the basis for the great stability of his bow sticks.
Given his daily encounters with need, John Dodd seems to have seen his skills and knowledge as the capital that could not be taken from him as long as he protected it vigilantly enough. Not even the sum of 1000 pounds sterling tempted him to disclose the secret of how he carved wood for a new stick, and no apprentice was ever initiated into the enigma of his art. On 4 October 1839 John Dodd died at an advanced age in the poorhouse of Richmond, utterly destitute and ill. His legacy is his masterful bows, which are true milestones in the history of instruments. He was one of the first to mark his work with a stamp, and “Dodd” and “J. Dodd” quickly became a sought-after brand which countless ateliers and companies were eager to claim as their own. They attempted to honour the first great master of English bow making, a man who never intended to establish a tradition.
Biography of John Dodd – William Meredith Morris
He was born in Stirling, died in Richmond workhouse, and was buried at Kew. He is styled ” The English Tourte,” and much of his work justifies the title. Had he lived a more virtuous life, he probably would have turned out work of uniform excellence. Many of his bows were evidently made in haste, and sold for a few shillings, to meet the exigencies of an empty cupboard and a parching thirst. His intemperate habit was the cause of many troubles to himself, and to others who interested themselves on his behalf, and he came nigh the last stage of starvation many a time. Had it not been for the kindly offices of Dr. Selle and Mr. Richard Platt, of Richmond, he would have ended his days on the roadside ; as it was, he ended them in the workhouse. He was the pupil of his father, the Edward Dodd previously noticed, and he improved so much upon the work of his father, and upon everything else in the whole of the violin world (excepting the work of his greater contemporary, Francois Tourte), that his bows have maintained an undiminished celebrity down to our own days. His method of cutting his bows was primitive, and it has not been adopted by any great maker since his time. He cut the bow in the curved form out of the block, and dispensed with the ordinary plan of cutting it straight and bending by heat. I have seen a large number of Dodd bows, and I am convinced from a close examination of them that they have all been cut in this manner. One of the finest specimens which I have seen is now in the possession of the Rev. J. Rhys Jones, Priest-in-charge, Maesteg, Glamorganshire. It is a fine stick, with a graceful camhre and good balance. Its length is exactly 28 1/4in., and the length of the hair 25 1/8in. It is of medium weight, and very dark in colour. The face of the heel is decorated with mother-of-pearl, and the ferrules are of thick silver. Dodd’s name was stamped on all sorts of wretched nondescripts in the middle of last century, and his fame suffered considerably in consequence. But his work has suffered more than his fame, for there are hundreds of mongrel “Dodds”” about, some with genuine heels, others with genuine heads, and not a few patched up in divers manners. The owner of a genuine Dodd, of regulation length, or anything near it, and made in his best style, has a treasure that he can well be proud of.
The round stick of pernambuco of a dark orange-brown colour, silver mounted ebony frog inlaid with pearl eye, three part silver adjuster inlaid with pearl eye.
Stamped ‘DODD’ on the shaft
- Weight 56.5 grams