The first blog was always going to be a challenge and indeed this is the third attempt. I started with the idea of Antique Screens only to find on my first search that someone had beaten me to it.  Then I considered bookmarks and page turners, the later being something I had always believed to be a thing, but according to an article published in Collectors Weekly (Mystery of the Phantom Page Turner), according to Spellerberg “page turners didn’t exist during any historical period at all, making them the unicorns, if you will, of office collectibles, mythical objects that tell us more about how we imagine people to have lived rather than how they actually did”. this sounded a bit controversial, so I have ended up with inkwells.

If you know St Martins Antiques Centre, you may have seen our “library” and this is where I found inspiration.  Hidden in between volumes of books on Georgian Furniture, which still hold receipts with the heading of that erstwhile book seller “Harrods of Knightsbridge” and invoiced in pounds, shillings & pence, I plucked a slim paperback entitled “Collecting Inkwells, With an Emphasis on the Unusual”.

The history of inkwells is complex and inter-twined with the history of writing and the people who did the writing.  In turn, with time, the design of inkwells developed as the knowledge and availability of materials and tools to make them developed and again in turn with time, this design was influenced by artistic and decorative influences of the ages.

In its simplest form an inkwell is just a container that holds ink, it is difficult to say when the inkwells first appeared, however, it is assumed that an early scribe would have had such an item and based on this museums have examples of Greek bronze inkwells from the Hellenistic period dating back to 3000BC & Egyptian glazed pottery inkwells from 500BC.  A good design needs to optimise function and as early as 2000 years ago, designs were developing from just simple containers to have dished anti-spill features.

Literacy increased in organised society, letters and communication which we would recognise today were written by Roman soldiers and in turn with letters being found, so too are bronze finger pens and in turn, bronze, pottery & even enamel inkwells dating back to 100BC.

The spread of Christianity saw the establishment of new monasteries across Europe, where writing was part of monastic practice and inkhorns and small pot inkwells have all been unearthed on monastic sites.  From 900AD to 1400AD, urban growth, transformed Europe and the need to document things such as legal structures, territorial disputes, trade, court and farming processes, all lead to a huge increase in writing and without the invention of printing, copying was a major industry. During this period examples have been found of inkwells in horn & leather with increasing amounts of decoration.  From 1400AD to 1670 AD, the period of renaissance and artistic exploration, inkwells became examples of decorative art as well as functional, bronze inkwells are typical and although glass has become less expensive, horn and pot were still the most common liners.  The English civil war saw the majority of old English silver and brass melted down so sadly, few examples of English inkwells from this period exist.  Through the1700 and1800s inkwells were still made for the wealthy and with emergence of the Grand Tour, another functional development could be seen with designs emerging to allow inkwells to be portable.

Demand grew through 1800s to 1930s the postal service made letter and postcard writing an everyday thing, and obviously education lead to a huge increase in demand for inkwells, as quite simply more people learnt to write.  The development of the steel nib meant writing was affordable.  The middle classes wished for silver inkstands, electroplating was perfected by Messrs Elkington & novelty wooden inkwells were exported from Germany.  Pressed glass manufacture was refined.  The movements of the time also influenced design, such as the arts and crafts and art noveau.

The basic design of the ink container is simple with three components 1) a base: heavy to give stability: 2) a well: easy to dip a pen in and allow for excess ink to be wiped off.  Most wells inserts are commonly made of horn pot or glass sometimes with a spill proof top 3) a lid: to reduce evaporation and keep out dust and dirt.

The artistic design around the basic inkwell is limitless and is often a reflection of its surroundings, just consider, would one expect a painted bronze owl, sitting on a branch beside an inkwell tree stump to be on every child’s desk in a Victorian school, any more than Queen Victoria would have had a plain pewter capstan inkwell on her desk?

Over time, inkwells have been fashioned from every type of material & they often incorporate more than one – iron, bronze, brass, pewter, silver, spelter, stone, wood, pottery, porcelain, and glass. One can only truly grasp the design angle by looking at pictures they are utterly amazing in variety.

Sadly the ballpoint pen put pay to the manufacture of inkwells, although many of us do still have a fountain pen, which these days come with their own inkwell in the form of a plastic cartridge, or maybe a few of you still have a refill and an dusty bottle of “quink” sitting in which we could call modern inkwell as it fulfils those basic design criteria.

Today inkwells are classed as Decorative Arts, and quite rightly so and there is a huge collectors market.  Inkwells are one of those few items that truly don’t just tell a story of recent social history but map a path of human social development over thousands of years.

Below are a few examples of inkwells we have in the centre.

Arts & Crafts, Silver inkwell by Elkington & Co, Birmingham 1926.
1. Arts & Crafts, Silver inkwell by Elkington & Co, Birmingham 1926.

5. Of Local Interest – Daniel Lambert in Brass

2.Continental brass & glass Egyptian revival inkstand

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3.Desures French Faience ceramic inkwell

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4.Austrian cold painted bronze tortoise inkwell.

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