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.  


  1. My goodness, Erika, how will you ever top this posting! I would be hard pressed to pick my favorite of these inkstands, including your own, but I especially like the relative simplicity of Lord Nelson's. I'm sorry to have missed that episode of Antiques Road Show.

    1. Hello Mark,
      Thank you for your very kind words-- I'm so glad you enjoyed seeing these extraordinary objects! That last piece is wonderful, isn't it? I don't know if you have the "Ovation" channel on your local cable, but they show the BBC Antiques Roadshow for several hours every afternoon(The episode is Series 33, Episode 10: Tatton Park part 2)-- quite a distraction when we have it on in the bindery! I wonder if they'll have an update someday if they are able to authenticate that inkstand-- I hope so!
      Warm regards,

  2. Dear Erika - what a glorious collection of desk tools, and what a sad reminder of a lost age when writing with ink was the norm, even in recent years.
    I love your own collection and also the attractive art nouveau spines of your books.
    I am so pleased that you have shown a piece of one of the most influential British silversmiths ever - Paul Storr.
    I am very attracted to the Boucheron inkstand. I would like to see it in real life, and have the opportunity to look at it carefully - there seems to be so much interesting detail in the enamel work.

    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your lovely message-- like you, I lament the passing of the letter-writing days. I wonder if, perhaps, we'll get back to it when the magic of email wears off???? I still make an effort to write with ink-- it makes even the most ordinary note-writing feel more like drawing--much nicer. I'm so glad you enjoyed the inkstands I selected: the great Paul Storr is a hero of mine, and that Boucheron piece, well, how could I resist?! So wonderful in its way...

      I thought you might enjoy knowing that the books in my desk photo are a 1909 edition: "Journeys Through Bookland", Charles Sylvester, Ed. The title page reads:" For parents, teachers, and all who have children under their charge; for adults who wish to renew their acquaintance with the friends of their youth, or to open for the first time the world's great treasure houses of literature; for youthful readers who must study the classics." Wonderful!
      Best regards,

  3. Dear Erika,
    I did enjoy reading this post. It caused a big discussion in our house about Paul Storr and the beauty of his work.
    The Castleraegh Inkstand is beautiful as is the Kangxi/French one but I am attracted to your own set. I like the idea of an assortment of styles and shapes finding a home on a wonderful desk!

    1. Dear Kirk,
      Thank you for your kind words-- I am so happy to have served to ignite a discussion about the brilliant Paul Storr! I hope you were able to come to some worthy conclusion about his masterworks! I'm so flattered that you enjoyed my own little collection-- although less fine, it is well used and much loved. I find myself unable to resist the aquisition of antique desk objects, and so have decided that the only solution will be to end up with a desk in every room. Unquestionable logic, I think!
      Best regards,

  4. Thanks for sharing these wonderful inkstands. They are really works of art and status objects in stark contrast with the humble quill and ink pot of the scribe.

  5. Dear Lito,
    Thank you for your kind words-- these really are spectacular, aren't they? But as wonderful as they are as objects, the humble ink pot and quill still brilliantly resonate with creativity, history and humanity. They are equally deserving of our admiration, I'd say!Warm regards,

  6. Dear Erika,
    I've just come back to this post to tell you something interesting. I am at present reading my newly acquired copy of 'In Search of Rex Whistler, His Life and His Works' and I read that Paul Storr was his mother's great-grandfather.

  7. Dear Kirk,
    This must really be a Rex Whistler moment! I've been reading about him so often lately, and I'm fascinated to hear that he's the great, great great grandson (have I got that right???) of Paul Storr. What a family tree that is, and what an amazing coincidence that both should be on our minds at the moment! Now, as I revisit my old Beverley Nichols books and their fantastic Whistler illustrations, I'll be on the lookout for some relationship between them and Paul Storr's beautiful working drawings... What a small world.

    Thank you for this most interesting piece of news!
    Warm regards,