Context c.1740–1820

In 1740 the Baroque period was drawing to a close. Bach and Handel were in the last decades of their lives, as were Vivaldi and Rameau. Music was about to undergo an astonishing transformation over the next 60 years, through the Classical period of Mozart and Haydn to the emerging Romanticism of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Berlioz in the early 19th century.

These musical developments took place during a period of political and social upheaval, with the French Revolution of 1789 taking centre stage, and together they were to affect bow making dramatically. Our exhibition explores the bows of this period and questions the traditional view of the evolution of the bow from the Baroque and Classical (or Transitional) styles to the modern form known today.

Early bow making was seen as an experimental, evolving process, with clumsy or imperfect results, until François Xavier Tourte finally established the form of the modern bow in Paris around 1810. After this time the earlier bows fell out of use and were eventually relegated to the level of obsolete


artefacts, displayed in museums or hidden as curios in bow connoisseurs’ collections.

It is true that bow makers lacked social status in the 18th century. In Paris they were not permitted their own guild or even to belong to the luthiers’ guild, and instead had to pay to establish themselves in the lieu privilégié areas of the city, which allowed them to work free of the many guild restrictions. Makers in the lieu privilégié areas had to stamp their work with proof of their address, hence brands such as ‘Leonard Tourte Aux 15 vingts’ and ‘Lefebvre au Cimetière Saint Jean’. Perhaps as a result, few makers specialised in bows, and workshops such as that of Nicolas Pierre Tourte in 18th-century Paris produced bows alongside instruments.