Shapely bottoms and well-made bows

In recognition of Dorset and the wider Wessex region’s emergence as a fount of quality violin-making in the mid to late 20th century, bow maker and violin repairer Andrew Bellis has embarked on a project to collate details of makers. They include William Luff, for many Britain’s finest violin maker, who lived near Beaminster for a few years after retiring from London in the late 1960s.

Jeremy Walsh shapes a body

The list also numbers possibly Britain’s only pre-war female violin maker, K M Laurence, who set herself up in the garden of her Worth Matravers home in 1934 in a wooden hut facing the sea; and other such notables as Nelson Tomalin of Gussage All Saints, a former oil industry engineer who came to violin-making late in life. ‘His instruments were quite agricultural but played well,’ says Andrew, ‘although his eccentric varnish choices meant they ranged from transparent yellow to bright red.

There was one occasion when a photographer asked a BSO violinist to put his violin, a Tomalin, behind his back because the red was drawing all the colour.’
In Andrew’s opinion, today’s crop is headed by Jeremy Walsh, who operates in secluded splendour from a workshop at home in Notton, between Frampton and Maiden Newton, where he is examining a Tomalin that Andrew has brought to him. ‘What barbarian has had this apart?’ he asks. ‘This will never do.’

It’s not long before they are immersed in the lexicon of the luthier (someone who builds or repairs stringed instruments), discussing ‘well spoken’ instruments, ‘shapely bottoms’, ‘ribs’, ‘necks’ and ‘bodies’. That the vocabulary of stringed instruments relates directly to the human form is perfectly apt, as the physicality of building and playing them has much to do with their sound.

As Jeremy explains: ‘Every aspect of a great violin, let’s say a Stradivarius, can and has been measured and slavishly reproduced, yet the copy may sound nothing like the original, no matter who plays it. Extensive research is enabling makers to get closer to the quality of the old masters, though. A Stradivarius will not make a good player better, but it could help them make a more beautiful sound.

‘Violin-making is 90 per cent carving; it’s sculpture, essentially the harmonisation of complex curves in three dimensions. There are rules that must be obeyed for an instrument to work, yet there has to be room for the maker to put something of their own in there as well.’

Andrew broadly agrees and well remembers his one encounter with a Guarneri violin, the only instrument the great players will accept even comes close to the Strad: ‘It was like it already knew the notes; it was quite wonderful. A great instrument is great in every aspect. You can feel it just by seeing it before you even hear the warm, singing tone of the top E string matched by the tenor growl on the G.’

Jeremy traces his exploration of the intricacies of making violins back to the Airfix models he built as a boy and stuck to the ceiling of his room. ‘I learned double bass and played in some chamber groups and a few dreadful jazz bands. I lugged it around at uni quite a lot, to the detriment of my politics degree, but it kept coming apart so I was often in the repair shop where it struck me that these people spent their lives working with wood and listening to Radio 3 so why, if I was able, would I want to do anything else?’

Andrew Bellis bows a viola

Andrew’s passions were fuelled in the company of the late Jack Stott, proprietor of The Violin Shop in Winton, who supplied violins to local schools. His father, George Theodore Stott, is included in the Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers. For reasons only he knew, Jack constantly referred to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as the ‘Town Band’, but he was a magnet for young musicians. According to Andrew: ‘He was irascible and told the filthiest jokes. I was only about thirteen, but my friend, Andrew Foot, and I used to go to his house in the evenings to play quartets and by day it seemed we were always at the shop. Jack used to supply cheap violins – this was the 1970s, the heyday of the peripatetic teacher, when we thought life would be always improving – but he’d also repair them in the back of the shop. Front of house was his wife, Vi, who was tone deaf, so she could put on a string but she had to take it to Jack to be tuned and he would do so with a torrent of foul language.’

Today, Andrew is one of perhaps just six professional bow makers/repairers still at work in England. He has been making for more than forty years and counts around 170 bows to his name. A freelance viola player, he also teaches and since 1991 has run courses in the fine art of bow-making, despite the certain knowledge the craft is headed for extinction. ‘There is now a finite amount of raw material,’ he explains.

‘The best bows are made of pernambuco wood, which only comes from one area of Brazil and is now protected – it’s illegal to fell a pernambuco tree. Like all makers I have stockpiled, but stockpiles won’t last forever. Bows are now made of moulded carbon fibre and they’re very good, particularly the American ones. They are made on a machine and there’s nothing I can do to individualise them: they’re perfect as they are, so no more need for bow makers.’

He does, however, see a glimmer of hope in the gathering revival of interest in all things artisanal. ‘It may yet prove to be the saving of these old crafts. Bow-making involves the cutting of wood to the grain then the drying and curving of it to the correct weight and balance. The fixings are in the realm of clock-working, so I machine those and then use silver, or sometimes red gold, on the grip with a mother of pearl inlay and white horse hair – it has to have been white on the horse, as bleaching weakens the hair.’

There’s no doubting the beauty of a well-crafted violin and bow like those made by Jeremy and Andrew, and it’s no stretch to see them as art. ‘We try,’ smiles Andrew. ‘At the end of the day, let’s remember the jobbing musician sitting at the back of the violins in another rehearsal of the same familiar repertoire. The poor soul’s got to have something beautiful to look at and hold on to.’

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine

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