In Focus: The English Tourte

By Leanne O’Connor

Exploring the history of English classical bow craftsmanship in relation to the upcoming collaborative show Archived. , which combines the talents of BA (hons) Photography students with the beauty of the Historical Instrumental collection – housed at The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.


dodd bow CROPPED


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: a legend of oyster shells and silver spoons, – 2018

The Craftmanship of John Dodds is further extended upon the knowledge of the humble materials that he had at his disposal, coupled with creating bespoke tools that he utilised in developing the striking, unconventional curve of the bow – which would go on to mark his work apart from his fellow contemporary bow makers. John Dodds inherited  his passion of instrumental craftmanship from his father Edward Dodd (1705-1810) and subsequently passed on to his nephew James Dodd (1792-1885).

Dodd Bow Collection in the Historical Instrumental Collection

The craftsmanship of the Dodd family is now one of the major collection within the Historical Instrumental Collection.  This holds a number of English violin, cello and double bass bows by John Dodd, James Dodd and Edward Dodd junior, and one French violin bow by Tourte. It has been in the possession of Birmingham Conservatoire since the early 20th Century, when it was donated to the Birmingham School of Music by E S Fry, in 1904. This collection has been added to over a number of years, which is now one of the vastest of its kind that has fortunately stayed intact – which may not have been the case in the hands of a private collector.

The reason for E S Fry’s fascination with bows is assumed to be mostly personal, as at the time of his curiosity there was little interest in the collection and preservation of instruments – particularly in bows for string instruments. Birmingham Conservatoire’s Historical Instrument Collection has realigned these histories, and contains many beautiful instrumental artefacts dating from the 17th to early 20th century. Spanning from woodwind to percussion, the collection was founded in the early twentieth century and has been transformed by a number of major donations.

You can listen to recordings of these bows in use, playing pieces from the same time of development by following this link:

In conversation with…

The mathematical beauty of John Dodd’s bow-making has been captured by Alex Tindal, a 3rd Year BA Photography student. Alex caught up with us to discuss his work to be shown at the newly established Parkside Platform – the show is a collaboration with BA photography students, which aims to bring to life the historical instrument collection of The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

L: Hi Alex thanks for catching up with us today to talk about your work and how that’s factored in to your pieces in the upcoming exhibition for Parkside Platform

A: Glad to be here and talking about my practice

L: Firstly, I just wanted to ask what made you choose to photograph a Dodd’s Bow? The historical instrument collection has hundreds of instruments and you chose that particular bow, as a photographer you must have seen a very particular quality about it.

A: Out of all the bows that I viewed, I found this one to catch the light the nicest. I found it difficult to photograph the smaller details of the engravings of other bows as you lost the sense of what it was, so I opted to shoot it in a more

L: Does the way you have framed the image relate directly to your practice or is this a new development?

A: In my practice I shoot a lot of flora, photographing this bow and a flower isn’t too dissimilar.

L: So that’s how you framed it in your mind’s eye? So to speak before you pushed the button?

A: Yes, compositionally I like to capture the simplicity of the stem or a single flower stalk – alike to the way I have framed the photograph of the Dodd’s Bow. I photographed my other work in the exhibition in the exact same way – I wanted to enhance the shadows and light of the objects in frame, this factored in to my set up process. I didn’t want to lose the tonality and texture of the object.

L: So you’ve chose a carefully curated part of the instrument that you have chosen to capture, the part that people don’t usually take notice of.

A: Yes, definitely, I was going to photograph the handle of the bow but you had a half distinction of what it was, I wanted it to be recognisable. The craftsmanship is really accomplished so I wanted to prioritise that by spending longer on picking the right lighting and set up.

L: Well I think it has been accomplished in this photograph particularly, I’m happy you chose this as it realigns John Dodd’s history of having to scrimp for the materials to make his bows.

A: I thought bow making was quite an affluent profession?

L: More common than not Bow-makers came from very humble beginnings, so the wood came from barrels, the handles on his more ornate pieces scrapped from oysters and the silver gilding melted down from cutlery.

A: Wow, that is dedication to his craft.

L: Precisely, well thank you for joining me today to talk a little more about your practice.

A: Thanks for having me, If you want to check out my work please do at!

Alex’s work and other captivating instrumental portraits can be seen at Parkside Platform’s upcoming show Historical Instrument Archive, which commences…

In addition to this new show we also have The Birmingham Folk Ensemble playing at Birmingham New Street Station on 25th January to mark the opening of The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

You can keep up to date with all Parkside Gallery’s news on the related social media:

instagram: @parksidegallery

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