19 December 2012

Christmas at the Bindery

A commission-in-progress at the bindery: ingredients for a set of bespoke Parvum Opus Christmas
crackers include fountain pens, tiny bookmarks, ink  cartridges in fun colors,
and of course, a paper crown and a very bad joke. The center of the cracker awaits decoration.

Each Christmas, along with our holiday commissions, we look forward to constructing Christmas crackers at the bindery. We make them in small batches in the traditional way, jacketing cardboard tubes in beautiful papers and filling them with special treats customized for a particular family or event.  Of course the classic ingredients are all there: friction snaps, tissue paper hats and very bad (yet artfully chosen) jokes, but we take great pleasure in choosing extra special  trinkets for our crackers.

Some of the elements for this project gathered on a work table.

In the past, these have included vintage sterling silver charms and lockets, antique bird calls, antique collapsing travel cups, monogrammed seals and sealing wax sticks, custom address labels, and more. Today, we're putting the finishing touches on a set of six crackers for a family of bibliophiles, and so have filled each one with a Kaweco Sport fountain pen. 

The Kaweco Sport fountain pen is available in a variety of fun colors 
and nib sizes, making it a nice choice for these literary crackers.

This petite German pen was chosen for its beautiful line quality, and since it's only 4" long when closed, it's a perfect fit for the limited capacity of the cracker tube. Along with the pen we've included a packet of ink cartridges in festive colors, and a set of tiny handmade bookmarks made here in the bindery. For this particular set, the crackers are finished in a classic embossed tartan paper and tied with bright green double-faced satin ribbons--simple and festive!

A bundle of tiny 4" tall duodecimo bookmarks made with
Italian, French and Japanese papers here at the bindery.

According to Wikipedia, "The Christmas Cracker was devised in 1847 by an English confectioner and stationery manufacturer,Thomas J. Smith of London, whilst on holiday in Paris with his family. In the early days, the crackers were called Bon-Bons - meaning lollies or sweets in French - and as a consequence were still quite small in size with a fairly plain wrapping. Later he added a colored outer wrapper and a friction strip – consisting of two overlapping strips of cardboard coated with a small amount of explosive powder - that is inside all ordinary crackers - and joined together, which became known as a "snap" - because when the cracker is pulled apart the strips rub across each other setting off a chemical reaction that produces an audible bang."

An early example of Tom Smith's Christmas Cracker packaging

Upon his return to London, Mr. Smith combined the elements of the bon-bon with a trinket, novelty gift, tissue paper hat and a joke, and the Christmas cracker as we know it was born. The English tradition of placing a cracker at each place setting at Christmas dinner has spread cheerfully across the globe, and is a highlight of the season for countless families, my own included. 

Another example of a box of Tom Smith crackers, this one ca.1891
Participating in this Christmas tradition is a joy for us at the bindery, and we look forward to these small but meaningful projects all year long.    

We send you all our warmest wishes for a wonderful holiday season, a very Merry Christmas,  and hope that the new year brings health, happiness and all good things for you and your families. 

09 December 2012

Sunken Treasure

The third painting from the 2013 Parvum Opus Desk Calendar:
A Gold Cup, Peru? 1670-1715, from the cargo of the Santo Cristo
de San Roman, sunk in 1715

After a long absence due to an incredibly busy few weeks in the bindery, I'm very pleased to be back and to bring you the third installment of posts on the antique art objects from the Parvum Opus 2013 Desk Calendar. As you may recall, each year we add twelve new motifs to our library of original watercolor paintings, which are then featured in our desk calendars, ex libris bookplates and address labels. All of these can of course be seen at http://www.parvumopus.com.
For the month of March, I chose to paint a three hundred year-old  gold cup, probably from Peru, filled with a jaunty posy of hydrangea and ivy: a perfect complement for any elegant desk, wouldn’t you say? Interestingly, it’s one of two pieces of sunken treasure featured in this year’s calendar. This cup was part of an enormous load of treasure aboard the Spanish galleon, San Cristo de San Roman, sunk during a hurricane off the coast of Florida in 1715.
A Spanish galleon, by Everett Hickam:
a sister to the Santo Cristo de San Roman, perhaps?
According to Allen Tony at Wrecksite.com, “Santo Cristo de San Roman brought up the rear of the fleet and acted as a guard ship. The 450 tons ship was armed with 54 cannons. The holds of the ship contained the second largest amount of treasure within the fleet. The manifest is as follows: 2,687,416 pesos in silver and gold, 53 chests of worked silver, 14 chests of Chinese porcelain, 728 leather bags of cochineal, 1,702 leather bags and chests of indigo, 139 sheets of copper, 682 tanned leather hides, 26 chests of pottery, 48 chests of vanilla beans, balsam, liquid amber, chocolate, oaxaca, cochineal, brazilwood and sasparilla. During the hurricane of 1715 she ran aground on a reef when 1,500 feet from the shore, eventually coming to rest on the second reef when 700 feet from the shore in 12 feet of water.
A map of just a few of the shipwrecks off the coast of Florida,
including the San Roman, second from the top.
The San Roman’s treasure had been destined for Spain where it surely would have been useful to the heavily debt-burdened Philip V (no comment). After her sinking, recovery of the San Roman's treasure began almost immediately. Our gold cup was among those objects recovered by divers in 1715.
As you can see in the painting, despite being slightly dented from its underwater adventures, this is a very sensitively worked cup. This is not at all surprising given the long history of goldsmithing in South America. Metal working in the New World seems to have developed in the Andean region of modern Peru, Colombia and Bolivia with gold being hammered and shaped into intricate objects, (particularly ornaments) as early as 2155 to 1936 BCE. Gold in the Americas was an especially prized material, valued for its religious symbolism. For the Inca and other peoples of the Andean region of South America, gold was thought of as the "sweat of the sun," the most sacred of all deities.

An early Inca sun motif gold mask

Our anonymous South American goldsmith formed this beautiful cup from a sheet of gold, alternating between hammering and heating the metal until it had the desired shape. This was no brutish, primitive task: the molecules in the gold had to be hammered carefullly into alignment to create a rigid, but not brittle finished vessel.  He would have soldered the two handles, and then worked the design on the cup using  complex techniques of repoussé and chasing. In repoussé, specialized tools are used to impress the design into the metal from the back (repoussé being from the French, “pushed up”). About three hundred forty years ago, then, our artist ancestor would have refined his design by delicately working with chisels from the front of the cup (chasing). Having studied metalwork during my art school years and after, I romantically imagine that his chasing tools, made specifically for his hand, would not have been so very different than my own handmade tools, forged with the guidance of my undergraduate mentor.

 A selection of handmade chasing tools, reminiscent of some of my own,
courtesy of Anvil Fire
How wonderful that in a time in which we value the virtual more highly than many things, working with one’s hands provides a unique path towards understanding our ancestors and the objects they created. Using the traditional, sometimes even ancient craft techniques and tools passed down through generations of artisans, allows us to relate to the people and objects of the past on a very human, intimate level. Brilliant.
If you'd care to learn more about the history of gold in South America, I invite you to take a look at this video tour of the magnificent Gold Museum in Bogota, Colombia. Having visited many times myself, I can tell you that the predominant golden hue of this video wonderfully represents  the fantastic, unreal glow of the place. Enjoy!

15 November 2012

Anatomy of the Well-Dressed Desk, Part 4: Pen Wipes

A  very stylish bronze lizard pen wipe with boar bristles, ca. 1900
Every well-dressed desk includes fine writing tools, and we all have our personal favorite pens and pencils that perfectly suit our needs. There are many excellent sources for information on writing instruments, and one of my favorites is the very informative blog, Palimpsest. So today, rather than concentrating on writing instruments, I thought I'd introduce a lesser known desk accessory, the pen wipe.
A rare Tiffany glass mosaic pen wipe, 1906
In the early years of letter writing, before the ballpoint pen and fountain pen, writers used quills or dip pens which were dipped into an inkwell for use. Since this operation tended to result in messy drips, pen wipes were developed and came into widespread use along with the steel nib pens produced in Birmingham England in the very early nineteenth century.
A more humble early 19th century cloth pen wipe:
the pen nib is inserted between the layers of fabric for cleaning
Thankfully, our letter-writing ancestors were not content to simply use a scrap of fabric to clean their pens. Pen wipes were made in countless ingenious forms, from hand-sewn discs of cloth with embroidered embellishments, to fine figurative sterling silver examples. Usually measuring no more than 3 inches across, they make helpful and alluring writing mascots.
A sterling silver pig pen wipe with boar bristles, hallmarked Birmingham, 1912
Even today, a carefully chosen pen wipe can be a charming and functional addition to a handsome desk. I favor fountain pens for my correspondence, and have found that not only are my little pen wipes enjoyable to use, but they've become something of a record of the colored ink experiments that accompany my letter writing, like a well used artist's palette.
A recent commission at the bindery for a fountain pen enthusiast:
A set of stacking fountain pen trays and a matching chamois pen wipe
all made with French marbleized paper
A cold painted bronze dog pen wipe, Vienna ca. 1900
Another cold painted bronze example from Vienna, ca. 1900
A simple and handsome Sampson, Mordan & Co. Victorian pen wipe in sterling silver 
A 19th century tartanware pen wipe in the form of a knife box
The next time you find yourself scribbling on a scrap of paper to get the ink in your pen flowing, perhaps you'll be inspired by these stylish and functional objects produced by our very elegant predecessors. As William Morris said, "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." Wise words, indeed.

05 November 2012

Porcelain of the K'ang-hsi Period

The February 2013 desk calendar illustration: a porcelain jar and cover, 1661-1722, China
Today I'd like to share another watercolor painting I did for for our 2013 desk calendar, which depicts a stunning Chinese blue and white porcelain jar and cover from the reign of K'ang-hsi, 1661-1722. With so much mass-produced junk on the market, some may feel blue and white porcelains are uninteresting ubiquitous. I feel, however, that antique blue and white porcelains from Asia and Europe are so finely made and have such interesting histories, that perhaps a little background information on this exquisite art form and the ruling emperor of the period will restore the magic...
A porcelain charger from the K'ang-hsi period
According to Jeffrey Munger and Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chinese porcelains were introduced into Europe in the fourteenth century, and were regarded as extremely rare and luxurious objects. "By the early sixteenth century—after Portugal established trade routes to the Far East and began commercial trade with Asia—Chinese potters began to produce objects specifically for export to the West and porcelains began to arrive in some quantity...The porcelains were often stored at the lowest level of the ships, both to provide ballast and because they were impervious to water, in contrast to the even more expensive tea stored above. The blue-and-white dishes that comprised such a significant proportion of the export porcelain trade became known as kraak porcelain, the term deriving from the Dutch name for caracca, the Portuguese merchant ship. Characteristic features of kraak dishes were decoration divided into panels on the wide border, and a central scene depicting a stylized landscape." (You may notice that these features are indeed visible on the lidded jar in my  painting above.)
A grouping of K'ang-hsi miniatures
Mr. Munger and Ms. Frelinghuysen continue, "Porcelain decorated only in blue pigment painted under the glaze dominated the export trade until the very end of the seventeenth century...With the appearance of porcelain factories in Europe in the early eighteenth century, the demand for Chinese export porcelain began to diminish, and by the second half of the century the trade was in serious decline... New geographical markets, however, revitalized the export porcelain industry. Following the nation's newfound independence in 1784, America officially entered into trade with China. Consistent with European trade, American agents in China expedited special orders for clients... By the late nineteenth century, Chinese export porcelains, especially blue-and-white ware, had achieved a status in this country above the merely utilitarian. Looked upon with nostalgia, they became emblematic of the colonial era."
The young K'ang-hsi Emperor

From Jonathan Spence of  Yale, we learn about the fascinating K'ang-hsi Emperor himself: "Hsüan-yeh, born in 1654, reigned from 1661 to 1722 as the K'ang-hsi Emperor. He was one of China's greatest rulers, and his reign was not only the longest but also one of the most vibrant and complex in the history of imperial China. Though he could be callous or negligent at times, and made errors of judgment, he possessed a self-analytical acuity and a sense of imperial mission that mark him as one of those rare individuals who, by acts of will, change the course of human history. It has not escaped the notice of numerous historians – Chinese, Japanese, and Western – that his reign coincided chronologically with those of Tsar Peter the Great in Russia and King Louis XIV in France, and that the three shared certain common characteristics that marked perhaps the apogee of traditional kingship in pre-industrial societies."

The K'ang-hsi Emperor in court dress,

Tsar Peter the Great,
and King Louis XIV-- three peas in a pod.

"Any emperor of China was, of course, merely one individual, occupying a special position within his society but unable to comprehend all that society's ramifications. Also, the actions and thoughts ascribed to him were often those of others, of relatives, courtiers, eunuchs, bureaucrats. Therefore we must be cautious about seeing the ruler as the reign, of narrowing our own vision to the emperor's own. Nevertheless, the K'ang-hsi Emperor acted decisively in so many matters, and took so great an interest in affairs of governance and of culture, that his actions and his personality serve as a valid entry point for comprehending the myriad elements that led to the consolidation of Ch'ing rule."
From the series: The Cambridge History of China
Volume 9 Part 1Part one: The Ch'ing Empire to 1800
Chapter TitleChapter 3: The K'ang-hsi Reign
Publication Date2002
AuthorJonathan D. Spence

Jonathan Spence is also the author of a highly regarded biography of K'ang-hsi entitled  Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-hsi. It is widely available through online booksellers, with an ISBN as follows: 978-0679720744. I just ordered one myself!

If your curiosity has been piqued, you may  also enjoy this link to a very interesting YouTube documentary video on the history of Chinese porcelains:

And as always, you are most welcome to visit www.parvumopus.com to see all of our 2013 calendar motifs.

01 November 2012

Treasured Books, Vol. 1: An Almanac for Moderns

This post is the beginning of a new series in which I'll share some of my treasured books. As you will see, my favorite books from a sort of interrelated web of ideas. Given the change of seasons, an appropriate place to start is with An Almanac for Moderns, by Donald Culross Peattie. Born in Chicago in 1898, Peattie studied poetry at the University of Chicago and then botany at Harvard.

In 1935, he published An Almanac for Moderns. I was first introduced to this book by one of my favorite essayists, Clifton Fadiman (more on Clifton later) in his excellent "Reading I've Liked." Here's what Mr. Fadiman had to say about Peattie's Almanac:

"Though not of their stature, Mr. Peattie has in him the spirit of Thoreau and Huxley. He makes tadpole and ants exciting, celebrates the charms of springhouses, pays judicious tributes to the great naturalists who preceded him, comments upon the fact that Edward Lear at twenty was the perfect painter of parrots, ascends to poetry in his comparisons ("the warning cries of herons, like the drop of an old chain on its own coils"), and yet, with all this warmth, never departs from "the scientific frame of mind which does not humanize or sweeten what it must report."

Fadiman continues, " I recommend this book for your spring reading, and, for that matter, for summer, autumn and winter. An eye that, without losing its sense for the human and the transitory, trains itself on such constants as the nuclei of our cells, the death of stars, and the silent multiplication of bacteria can never record observations that are merely seasonable. It reveals, in this case, the very poetry of biology."

"An Almanac for Moderns" is one of the books which I keep always at hand, and no matter how many copies I have at any given time, I always search used bookstore shelves for another to be given as a special gift. It's not a book that needs to be read through in one or two sittings, although I have done many times with great pleasure. But my preferred method is to follow Peattie through the subtle changes in the seasons by reading only one passage per day, enjoying Peattie's elaborations on chitin, or slime mold or Aristotle. It makes me more alert and conscious of the passage of time, and to the world's rhythms.

Donald Culross Peattie. Interestingly, his home in Illinois featured a stained glass circle on the large leaded glass window in the main room. This circle is placed in such a way that the moon appears encircled here on the vernal equinox in the spring and autumnal equinox in the fall--how appropriate for this scientist-poet!

A passage from the "Almanac for Moderns":


The keynote of spring is growth amongst the plants, reproduction amongst the animals. In summer, it is the reverse; it is the plants that reproduce, the animals that grow. But autumn is the time of fattening. Now the beech nuts ripen their oily kernels; the walnut swells its rich meat through black wooden labyrinths; the wild rice stands high in the marshes, and the woods are filled with their jolly harvest of berries, blue buckthorn, and scarlet bittersweet, black catbrier, holly and mistletoe and honeysuckle. The great green cannonballs of the osage orange drop from the prickly hedges with a thud; under the hawthorns a perfect windfall of scarlet pomes lies drifted, and in the sun the bitter little wild crabs reach their one instant of winy, tangy, astringent perfection.

"This is the moment of abundance for all our brother animals. The harvest mouse is now a wealthy little miser; squirrels can afford the bad investments they make. Opossums paw over persimmons and pawpaws, picking only the tastiest, and like a cloud the cowbirds and grackles and bobolinks wing southward over the wild rice fields, so fat and lazy that the fowler makes an easy harvest of them. Everywhere, on frail bird bones, under the hides of chipmunk and skunk and all four-footed things, fat, the animal's own larder and reserve, is stored away against the bitter months, against lean hunger and long sleep."

Autumn, the season for fattening, indeed!
This fellow is (obviously) a frequent visitor to our feeder, well prepared for the winter.

24 October 2012

William Cripps, Silversmith

A William Cripps silver tea caddy, 1750, from the permanent collections at the V & A.
This is January's illustration from our 2013 desk calendar, painted in watercolor. 
Each year, our bindery produces a desk calendar celebrating beautiful antique objets d'art from around the world. January's illustration, which I've painted in watercolor, features a sterling silver tea caddy by the English silversmith William Cripps. Born sometime in the early eighteenth century, he was apprenticed to David Willaume for seven years between 1731 and 1738. Willaume was the son of a master goldsmith, and enjoyed the patronage of the wealthiest clients in England from the latter part of the reign of William III to the end of George I's reign.  With such an illustrious apprenticeship, Cripps became an accomplished master metalsmith himself, working in the Rococo style for his appreciative and widespread clientele. William Cripps died in 1767, leaving behind a treasury of stunningly crafted silver pieces.

A silver epergne by William Cripps, 1754, from the Rienzi collection
True to its Rococo nature, the tea caddy I chose for our 2013 calendar is a tangle of disparate design motifs. At the foot is a fabulously cast dragon or dolphin engulfed in ocean waves. The tea caddy's equator is encircled by deeply chased cartouches featuring bunches of fruit and vines, and the beautifully formed lid, shown below but not included in my painting, is topped by a delicate butterfly.

A closer view of William Cripps' tea caddy from 1750.
For the Parvum Opus calendar, I always choose motifs that I imagine would sit beautifully on an elegant desk, either in reality or, as is the case here, on a dream desk. Painting these exquisite objects allows me the great pleasure of a good long meditation, careful study, and deep admiration for the maker's art. To compliment the masterful Late Baroque silverwork in Cripps' caddy, I've conjured a simple posy of begonias and creeping vines from my garden. I wonder if Mr. Cripps would approve?!

Our 2013 desk calendar in situ. The Stafforshire milk jug was featured in last year's calendar 
and is a favorite piece of mine... More images are available at www.parvumopus.com

A more humble but very charming porringer by William Cripps, 1763.

Above, hallmarks for William Cripps, with his "WC" mark, a date letter for 1761-1762,
and both the Leopard's Head Crowned and Lion Passant marks.



18 October 2012

Anatomy of a Well-Dressed Desk part 3: Inkstands

Man Writing a Letter, Gabriel Matsu, 1662-5, National Gallery of Ireland

In this, the third installment of our well-dressed desk series, I have a collection of stunning inkstands to share with you. In the days before ballpoint pens, a well-appointed desk would have been fitted with a tray or stand to accommodate the tools of correspondence: quill pens, a pot for ink or writing fluid, a pounce shaker for setting the ink (pounce materials included powdered salt, minerals or cuttlebone), a pen wiper to clean the pen nib, and a taper holder for light and melting sealing wax. Later examples may have included compartments for sealing wafers and extra gold or steel nibs for dip pens which replaced quills.

Inkwell and stand, by A. Risler & Carre, French, ca. 1880
Porcelain, silver and glass: the seated figure holds the inkwell in the form of a frog
and in the hood is a receptacle for seals or stamps

None of these tools are necessary today, of course, but they are irresistibly beautiful to look at and to use. Vintage dip pens and beautifully hued inks are easily acquired, simple to work with, and always make notes and letters that bit more charming to their recipients.  

Antique inkstands may be found in a wide range of materials and styles, and provide an aesthetic and functional arrangement for one's writing tools. Matched sets are not necessarily an indication of quality: a group of tools collected with purpose or intention can make a lovely grouping on an elegant desk.
A mismatched but much loved tool collection on one of my desks:
inkwell loaded with my favorite green ink, pen wipe, pen knife for envelopes, 
a fountain pen and a tiny sterling pounce pot for flowers. Stamps are
stashed in the papier mache snuff box just visible on the right.
Some antique inkstand components can be repurposed for contemporary use: we may not need a compartment for sealing wafers, but stamps will fit nicely, and many pounce pots make a perfect receptacle for a small arrangement of flowers.  In selecting the few inkstands to include here, I've decided to choose only the most miraculous pieces... There are an incredible number of charming inkstands to be seen and had, but here are some of the finest of their kind, just for inspiration. Where better to begin than with the great Paul Storr?

The Castlereagh Inkstand, Paul Storr for Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, London, 1817-19,
cast, chased, embossed, engraved and raised gold over a wood support in the stand
From the V&A Collections Catalog:

"The Castlereagh inkstand is a magnificent memorial to diplomacy in the age of Napoleon. Its origins are set out in an inscription on the stand:

'This inkstand is composed of the gold taken from the portrait snuff boxes which were presented by the SOVEREIGNS of Europe whose Arms are engraved hereon to Viscount Castlereagh upon the signature of the several treaties concluded in the Years 1813, 1814, & 1815' ." What an poetic act, for each man to contribute a very personal and important piece of gold, to then melt these pieces together to form one solid mass, and then to use that material to create something so rich in beauty and significance. Brilliant.
A detail of Paul Storr's exquisite workmanship-- note the crispness of the chasing on the inkwell. 
The inscription is partially visible below.
"Castlereagh's tireless efforts as Foreign Secretary to negotiate the alliances and treaties which culminated in the Treaties of Paris in 1814 and 1815, and the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, made him one of the principal architects of the defeat of Napoleon and of the reconstruction of Europe. The arms engraved on top of the platform of the inkstand are those of the four great Continental powers--Austria, Prussia, Russia and restored Bourbon France. On the sides are the arms of the Roman States--Bavaria, Portugal, Saxony, Sardinia, Hanover, Sweden, Württemberg, Naples, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands."

And now, for something completely different from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, an inkstand of exceptional, if over-the-top craftsmanship. This inkstand has everything:

"The form and decoration of this inkstand whimsically imitate Japanese art, and it is a vivid illustration of the work of Parisian goldsmiths at the height of the craze for things Japanese. The inkpots resemble stacked porcelain bowls, whereas the penholder at center mimics a flaring bronze vase. The highly decorative colored enamels reproduce more than thirty Japanese ornamental patterns borrowed from lacquer, ceramics, prints, fans, and textiles."

Paul Legrand for Boucheron Inkstand, Paris, 1876
Silver, enamel, gilt, 9 3/16" x 13 1/4"
From the MFA Collections Catalog:

"Silver, partially gilded, decorated in champlevé, basse-taille, and cloisonné enamels, with cut out base supported on four cast turtles, enameled with geometric patterns, naturalistic scenes, and facsimile prints surrounding a sea with carp. Fitted with a drawer etched and parcel-gilt in three colors. Base supports four shaped letter racks in geometric patterns flanked by two rolling blotters topped with "shi-shi" dogs holding brocade balls. Removable central section has a vase-shaped pen holder decorated with female figures, plants, and field mice in kimonos, flanked by nesting boxes enameled in landscape and geometric motifs. Removable lids topped by a beetle and a wasp in gold and basse-taille enamel." Did they leave anything out? I don't think so, but I admire the Parisian exuberance here!

A third fine inkstand, this one from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, incorporates a combination of Kangxi period porcelain (ca. 1700) and mid 18th century French mounts:
"From the mid-1600s onward, Europeans began to import larger quantities of porcelain from China and Japan. In the 1700s, dealers of luxury goods called marchands-merciers purchased the porcelain at auction or from the East India companies and passed it to metalworkers to decorate. The porcelain was often modified to take gilt bronze mounts, sometimes creating completely new forms."
Inkstand from an unknown maker, Chinese Kangxi porcelain, French mounts.
Hard-paste porcelain, wood painted with vernis Martin, gilt bronze
8" x 14" x 11"

From the Getty Collections Catalog:

"A marchand-mercier commissioned French craftsmen to add a lacquered base and gilt bronze mounts to Chinese porcelain wine cups and figures, creating this inkstand. The two outer cups contain an inkwell and a sand shaker. The central cup once held a sponge for wiping the pen nib. In the 1700s and earlier, writers sprinkled sand on wet ink to speed drying."

A closer view of the central cup which would have held a sponge for cleaning the pen
Lastly, how could I resist this jewel, which will be familiar to devotees of the Antiques Roadshow:

John Eames Inkstand, 1805, London
Possibly a gift to Lord Nelson from his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton

This inkstand, made by a silversmith known to have made silver for Lord Nelson is hallmarked 1805, the year Nelson died. Since he died in October of that year, it remains possible that Lady Hamilton presented him with this gift early in the year. It features nautical motifs which would have made it an appropriate gift for him, including an inkwell in the form of a celestial globe, and a sander in the form of a terrestrial globe, all resting on a tray supported by four dolphins. At the center is a lonely figure leaning on an anchor-shaped taper stick, and at her feet is the inscription:"Horatio from Emma".
A closer view of the central figure and taper stick
Is this Nelson's inkstand? There may be no way to know for sure, but even without the romantic and historically significant provenance, it must still rank among the finest silver inkstands made in that period.