Lydia Child: The 18th-century bowmaker’s daughter

We know next to nothing about bow makers in England before the Dodd family emerged in the late eighteenth century, so every possible clue is valuable. Violin bows exist from the middle of the eighteenth century. England was amongst the the earliest country where bows were consistently stamped with a name – bows stamped for Nathaniel Cross, Peter Wamsley, Thomas Smith and Norris & Barnes are all known from the eighteenth century, but these are always the names of the retailers of the bows and are unlikely to be the people who made them.

Clues about the history of bow making come from all kinds of sources, and sometimes, none more bizarre than a eulogy to Lydia Child. She made her debut at Norwich on 17 March 1764 as Mrs Webb, though her life was evidently complicated, married by 1765 – according to an account in A Sketch of … John Palmer (1798) – to the actor George Day. Somewhat confusingly she seems to have acted across the country under the names of Miss Child and Mrs Day, reaching as far as Edinburgh and Dublin on the routes taken by the travelling theatre companies of the day. George Day seems to have died after 1772-3 season and she remarried to Richard Webb by the winter-spring season of 1774. Thereupon the Webbs worked seasons both in Edinburgh and London, becoming one of the most popular comediennes acting on the stages of the Covent Garden and Haymarket theatres.

 

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George Romney’s depiction of John Henderson as Macbeth at Drury Lane (1778) identifying Richard Webb amongst the other actors. (The Garrick Club)

By 1778 Mrs Webb had become very fat, so much that The Secret Admirer remarked that “she studied cooking more than Shakespeare” indeed the admirer continued to claim that she had attracted her husband through her culinary ability: “A more jolly couple than Mr. and Mrs. Webb never trod the Stage – their appearance was not at all calculated to excite compassion, and make a lucrative benefit in a country town… they had however, a good income from the Edinburgh Theatre, which enabled them to indulge their favourite passion”. The cruelty of Eighteenth-cenutury critics was unkind – in The Morning Post for her 1778 first appearance at the Haymarket, “We think her a first rate, in point of bodily size, and second rate as to theatrical merit…”

In 1789 her colleague, John Williams (alias Anthony Pasquin) published a set of poems about notable actors and actresses. His eulogy to Mrs Webb is given below, with the footnote

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Mrs Webb by James Gillray (Harvard Theatre Collections)

 * Mrs. Webb is the daughter of the late Mr. Child, a celebrated violin bow maker; since his death his bows are almost as scarce and valuable as a Cremona fiddle. She came out as a dramatic candidate in Ireland by her maiden name of Child, in 1770. In 1772 she played in Scotland by the name of Day. Her first appearance in London was at the Haymarket Theatre, on Friday, June 5th, 1778, in the character of Mrs. Cross, in the comedy of Man and Wife. Mrs Webb played Patty in the Maid of the Mill, at Lynn, in Norfolk, when she weighed at least eighteen stone. – Her weekly salary is 4l. 10s.

Scant information indeed, and whilst there is no real evidence to substantiate the claim that her father’s bows were as valuable as a Cremona fiddle, there is no reason to dispute the claim either. Whatever the truth – even if they sold for a quarter or a tenth of the price paid for an Amati, the statement gives considerable weight to a cultural concept of bows being valuable. When we examine violin bows made from Snakewood in Britain in the eighteenth century, they include exquisitely worked specimens which go well beyond the minimum requirements for making a decent bow.

 Mrs. WEBB.*

Like a lusty old Sybil, who rambles elate,
With a raven-ton’d voice, to anticipate Fate;
Mark WEBB, like a whale, bear her fatness before her,

As the sprats of the Drama for mercy implore her;
Her high-garnishd’d phiz give young Pleasantries birth,
And her well-fed abdomne’s a mountain of mirth:

See the coarse-hewn old Dowager’s mix’d with the rest,
Like a piece of brown dowlas near lace from Trieste;
And darts her huge beak for the prizes and pickings
,

As an overgrown hen amidst delicate chickens:
Impertinent Doubts run to measure her size,
While Temperance looks at her frame with surprise.

Her airs are as harsh as a Brighthelmstone dipper,
And loosely assum’d like a pantaloon’s slipper;
Tho’ base without force, like the oath of a harlot,

Or the impudent grin of a shoulder-deck’d varlet.-
This mould of the fair sex is true female stuff,
And warm at the heart, tho’ her – manners are rough:

Like QUEEN BESS she disdains the resistance of man,
And knocks down a peer with the end of her fan;
Old Care knits his brows to coerce and impale her,
And eyes her with hatred, but dare not assail her.
For focial contumely cares not a fig,

For if none call her great, all the world swears she’s big.
She’s a beef-lin’d adherent to thundering Rage,
And a prop of vast import to Wit and the stage;
But Bards have too potently season’d her song,
Which like garlic in soup makes the pottage too strong:

For by playing old furues so apt and so often,
No human device can the habitude soften;
Thus an exotic sapling we frequently see,
When engrafted by Art, become part of the tree. –
So poignant a mind in a vulgariz’d shell,
Resembles a bucket of gold in a well;

‘Tis like Ceylon’s best spice in a rude-fashion’d jar,
Or Comedy coop’d in a Dutch man of war.

 

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