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.