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.
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."
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 from China and Japan. In the 1700s, dealers of luxury goods called 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 , 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 commissioned French craftsmen to add a 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."
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".
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.