Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bows from W.E. Hill & Sons

Written by: Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violin
 and Angie Newgren

The Hill Violin shop was one of the greatest and largest violin shops in the world from the mid 1800s until the firm's demise in 1992.

W. E Hill violin bow with a fleur-de-lys design in the frog

Hopefully you have read our blog on the history of the firm. Some of the best products of W.E. Hill & Sons were their bows. Beautiful violin, viola and cello bows! Bows made of the finest Pernambuco available.  With fittings (frogs, butons, slides, and tips)  made of silver, gold, ebony, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, abalone and ivory. Sometimes with elaborate designs. Sometimes very utilitarian looking. But almost always producing a great playing stick! 

Were the bows made by W.E. Hill or any other member of the Hill family? No. Not at all. Alfred Hill became quite the connoisseur of French bows. Alfred imposed on a long succession of bow makers the "Hill" bow style based on a Tourte bow for violins and a Voirin bow for cellos. It was Alfred's expertise and taste, combined with the skill of the bow makers, that produced incredibly consistent, high quality and very recognizable bows.

Silver and nickel silver tip plates of Hill violin bows
One of the Hills' distinctive contributions, and one I admire and reproduce, is using a metal tip of nickel silver, silver or gold on the head of the bow instead of a traditional two layer system of ebony and ivory. The metal tip cracks and breaks far less often, provides better protection for the Pernambuco stick of the bow, and adds a slight amount more weight at the tip. 

Of course, bow makers are humans and artisans with egos and thoughts all their own. There was a constant give and take between the Hills as supervisors and the bow makers churning out bows with the Hill name on them. James Tubbs made bows for the Hills starting around 1860. Later in life Tubbs established his own bow shop. When a bow that he had made for the Hills came in to his own shop, he would often stamp his own name over the stamp of "W E HILL". 

James Tubbs in his bow workshop

Tubbs and another early Hill bow maker, Sam Allen (1838-1914) (working for the Hills 1880-90), were probably the only two bow makers that made all of the separate parts of each bow themselves. After these craftsmen, the production of Hill bows was a team effort. Some people just made sticks, others made frogs and fittings, and others did windings and put the hair on the bow.

In Sam Allen's ten years, his standards for the bows he made were upheld until the end of the company a century later. Sam Allen was also the only other bow maker for the Hills to leave and set up his own shop. The Hills continued to send him their bows for rehairing work. Of all the bow makers in the history of the Hills shop, his are the ones most based on French model bows.

Sydney Yeoman (1876-1948) was another bow maker in the shop. His work was deeply influenced by Sam Allen's work. Yeoman was originally hired as a cleaner or "odd job man" doing various tasks around the shop. Allen requested that Yeoman begin learning bow making because demand was too high for Allen to keep up production. Yeoman, who began the bow making in 1885 worked at the shop until 1914, when he set out for war for WWI. He returned unharmed, but suffered from PTSD and did not continue to work there.

Charles Leggatt (1880-1917) worked at the shop after Yeoman, when demands were at their highest. His work consisted of using gold and tortoiseshell. Sadly, his work was cut short when he was killed in action in 1917, three years after he began working for the Hills. There also was William Napier (1848-1932) who began working at the shop in 1889. He quickly became shop manager and continued to work there until his retirement in 1930.

Working along the side of William Napier was William Retford (1875-1970). The two did not get along. Retford referred to Napier's techniques of bow making as "carpenter's work," and they did not speak to each other the twenty years they worked together. Although Retford made enemies, he also made admirers. His stubborn perfectionism of bow making made him known as the best bow craftsman of his time, even by those who disliked him. Retford also is recognized as developing the Hill bow, along with Alfred Hill. He also was the first to use the "fluer de lys"  design on the frogs of the best quality gold and tortoiseshell shows. He wrote a book in 1964, Bows and Bowmakers, which gives insights into English bows. He trained his son, William Richard (1899-1960) as a bow maker, but William Richard found it hard to live up to his father's name. Although he was employed by the Hills, he mainly worked on rehairing bows. 

William Johnston (1860-1944) worked alongside William Retford also. He was originally hired as a violin case maker, but began learning bows in 1900. For ten years he did bow making, then switched back to violin cases. When Napier retired, Johnston received the job. Retford was furious, feeling he deserved the position, but the Hills referred to Retford as "temperamentally unsuitable" to manage the shop. In Retford's book, he never once mentions Johnston's name even though they worked together for 50 years.

In the Hill bow shop with Retford were Edgar Bishop (1904-1943) and Albert Leeson (1903-1946). Both worked directly with Retford and helped him with the most difficult projects. Retford had high regards for both bowmakers. They were the only craftsmen allowed to work unsupervised.

Arthur Bultitude (1908-1990) was brought to the shop by William Napier. Bultitude also held a close relationship with Retford. Retford shared knowledge with him of many technicalities on bow making. He worked for the Hills from 1922, until 1961 where he left to set up his own shop-focusing on Hill Tourte-based models.

The Hill bow shop continued producing fine bows until the firm closed in 1992. A tremendous number of great bows were produced bearing the Hill stamp. With the Hills, and their clientele, demanding a steady stream of perfection, life in the bow shop wasn't always happy and collegial, but they produced wonderful bows. If you get the chance to play on a hill bow, do it. You will always remember the feel and the sound.

We're proud to offer Violin, Viola, and Cello bows made in the tradition of the Hill bow shop.

As of November, 2011, we have a very nice W.E. Hill & Sons violin bow available at our shop.
W.E. Hill & Sons violin bow

See more pictures of a W.E. Hill & Sons violin bow we have available in the shop on an album we have on our Facebook site. 

1 comment:

  1. Anthony Gale6/27/2013 4:53 AM

    A very interesting and infomative article, and quite amusing too with all the workshop politics which went on there. I did notice one small omission however where you describe Tubbs and Allen as being the only Hill bow makers to leave the firm and set up their own workshops. There is another: John W. Stagg, who was the senior bow maker at Hills until he left to set up his own workshop in 1983. His workshop is currently in a small medieval part of Bristol called 'Christmas Steps'.