William Charles Retford

Posted By on April 13, 2011

I’ve just got some fascinating bows for sale. Principal among them is a beautiful silver-mounted violin bow by the legendary William Charles Retford. It has a really good octagonal stick, and weighs 62 grams. It is accompanied by no less than thirteen letters by him to the original buyer, a Mr. Atkinson, who was an enthusiastic collector of bows. The letters are all from 107, Grove Avenue, Hanwell – the address of Sydney Yeoman’s son, Jack, and his wife Monica. It was just across the railway and a few hundred yards from the Hills’ workshop. Sydney Yeoman had been a bowmaker for the Hills for six years before Retford joined the company, and the two were lifelong friends. Sadly Yeoman’s health was permanently ruined during the great war. He died in 1948, and his son and daughter-in-law lived there afterwards. In old age, Retford moved in with them and they looked after him. Retford’s son, William Richard (also a bowmaker) had died in a car accident in 1960, and his wife was also dead.

violin bow by William Retford

The letters are very chatty and usually mention the English obsession with the weather and the garden, and the writer’s state of health and so on, and his small holidays in Bournemouth. However there is a lot to fascinate those interested in bows.

12th Oct 65
“I was working on fiddles in Bond St. 1892. George Fillion came over from France and worked there for a time on restorations . . . ”
“This is my position in regard to bows. I don’t buy and sell. Since I retired from Hills I have made about a dozen bows as souvenirs for friends etc. I am now on long promised cello bows . . . I am old but fairly well with good sight. When sight fails bow-makers are finished. I work a few hours a day, but cannot take definite orders. I will add your name to the queue and let you know when I have a bow. It will be rather a long time.”
“Buying a costly bow is risky. There are only two men in England who really know the bow, and as the book says many bear false names. Prices also are unfairly crazy, but a costly bow is quite unnecessary. Many cheaper ones have good sticks. You probably know this . . . “

Letter by bowmaker William Retford

7th April 66
” I saw every bow that came to Hill’s for 50 years. Also all the new passed through my hands and I was able to get photographs. There are no other Tourtes like the two Francois illustrated [in Retford’s book]. They are in mint condition as though from a shop show case. There are three of those, worth £500 each now. I don’t know where they are and I’ll never see them again. There is one in the U.S.A. I restored by making a new half to the nut. [Here there is a picture] I would be the only one now aware of it.”

Letter by bowmaker William Retford

25th April 66
“I have not made any gold bows since I retired, but several people would like one for their collection.”
“This was the procedure for gold work at Hills. A man made 12 sticks. Among these would be one or two we reserved for gold. Never the heavy ones. Since those times demand has changed. Players are buying heavier bows that they wouldn’t then consider. I am a bit fuzzy but apparently they want what I call an orchestra hogger. The professional player has to be heard or he gets the sack! They seem to have cash and Bultitude makes gold mounted bows for them – heavy, though.”
” . . . but I wouldn’t claim to be a fiddle expert, although I have seen many and I made mine in 1900. Only the one.”
” I’ve several samples of Brazil wood that I hope to make into sticks, and I am hoping it will turn out well . . . I suggest you have a silver bow when I have one ready. You could then trade it in for a gold one if I get round to making them.”
“I am not exactly a feeble old man . . . I think I could have been a jockey. I used to ride a lot . . .”
“Glad you like the book . . . the best page to me is the one of photos of my fellow workmen, all gone now.”

Letter by bowmaker William Retford

16th May 66
“I am still on cello bows long promised. I have had to make tools and jigs for cello work; I had none at home. When I retired things were left at Hills. They owned most of the tools etc.”
“I didn’t know Tubbs. We workmen didn’t get about much to meet people . . . I heard a lot about the Tubbs family from Alfred Hill. He was the clever one . . . Much of Tubbs’ work is poor in my opinion. The black iron stain is not very attractive. He overdid it. It was iron dissolved in nitric acid. Hides a nice piece of wood. He could and did make some nice bows. Withers told me he drank a bottle of scotch a day – and the excessively whippy bows are a puzzle. People bought them.”
“Some time I shall be making up some number [with] wood I have. Buying Brazil is a gamble . . . Take it or leave it. It may be good. It may be bad.”

Letter by bowmaker William Retford

6th June 66
“When I have finished the cello bow yours will be next. There is no queue.”

Letter by bowmaker William Retford

5th Oct 66
“I have been asked to make two elaborate gold and tortoiseshell bows. I don’t see much prospect of this. It’s a job for a younger man under ideal conditions. I can still do young man’s work . . .

12th Feb 67
” I am now bow-making – about 2 bows a day. Doing some violin bows. One of them will be yours. “

Letter by bowmaker William Retford

7th June 67
“Young folk don’t worry me much. My people are not near my [age] but I never grew up. We old people have fixed habits and don’t like them disturbed. Young people can’t understand that. We are alone. Monica and Jack look after me well . . . they are very unselfish. About 60.

3rd September 67
“I have got 6 bows well in hand. There will be one for you, but it’s a slow business at my age. I have had some joinery . . . to the house that couldn’t wait for the winter weather . . . “

Letter by bowmaker William Retford

27th Nov 67
” . . . several queries you have asked – a cello bow stamped “Hoyer”. They are a German family of makers, mainly of the cheaper type. They are usually German-silver mounted, but the sticks would be good. Few good makers used German-silver on cheap work. I have seen some by Thomassin, Paris. They would be classed as student bows . . . There is an American Dictionary that gives names of continental makers, also the English. The information [on] the English makers is very inaccurate, so the continentals may be the same. The title is Bows for Musical Instruments by Joseph Roda. It costs about £7. I wouldn’t expect it to be otherwise. It is full of photographs of bows.

3rd Jan 68
“I wish you good luck for your proposed exhibition . . . insurance is important. Bultitude had 2 gold bows on show in London. They were stolen.

26th Mar 68
“Your bow is now finished . . . we have not discussed the price. I am not in business as a maker. The few I have made have been souvenirs and not for rich men. Can you afford £10? If not £7 -10s would do. This bow is now £30 in London. A bit crazy . . . You could get £50 in the U.S.A. for the bow.”

And there is a Christmas card postmarked 17th Dec 1969 “feel a bit worn out.”

William Charles Retford died on the 17th September 1970, aged ninety-five. He had been with the Hill’s for sixty-five years, and had retired in 1956, aged eighty-one.

There is another letter addressed to Mr. Atkinson from the same address dated July 6th 1973. This is from Jack Yeoman, who had been caring for the old man.
Sorry to disappoint you over the Roda book of bows, I have not got it – I am not sure if Mr. Retford had one. What books there were they were distributed amongst his friends . . .

Finally there is an interesting, undated Christmas card from Jack Yeoman to Mr. Atkinson, referring to another bow in the same collection – a silver and tortoiseshell-mounted W.E. Hill & Sons violin bow, with the full stamp. This weighs 63 grams.

Letter by bowmaker William Retford

So pleased to hear you have acquired one of my father’s bows. I hope it was one he made prior to the 1914-18 war. As you may know he was badly shell shocked at the Battle of Arras.
W.C. R. used to tell me how he used to help my father over his work, so his best work must have been the 1900 period . . .

Other bows in the collection include a silver-mounted violin bow by Percival Wilfred Bryant, the frog of which has his characteristic chamfered heel. I’ve no way of dating it – but it’s probably from the mid 1960’s, when the collection seems to have been assembled. It’s in very good condition. This also weighs 63 grams.

There’s a French silver-mounted violin bow by Charles Bazin, a very typical example dating, probably from around the turn of the century, weighing 59 grams, and an excellent viola bow – 65 grams. This latter is unstamped, and is the only bow that is not in perfect condition, having a few scratches in the stick above the frog. I’m not clever enough to identify the maker. It has a good strong octagonal stick, the bottom plate is screwed, not pinned, to the frog and it has clearly visible slide grooves in the heel – very French.

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