Art News & Views


The inkwell will sound strange to a child of 21st century. S/he is conversant with the words like E-mail or SMS, but inkwell or inkpot will hardly send any signal to his memory. The inkwell has become as obsolete as the horse-drawn tram cars of Kolkata. No trace of inkwells will be found now in houses, banks, post-offices or other important places of financial transaction. It has become a part of the past when thousands of letters were being written with quills or steel nib pens, when Cowper, Horace Walpole, Byron, Lamb, Keats, Carlyle, Rilke & Rabindranath wrote their immortal letters and when soldiers will would dip their pens into the travelers inkwells to write to their beloved ones from the battlefield. It is thrilling to visualize Shakespeare writing his tragedies and comedies with quill pens dipped in ink.

Inkwells are separate containers that hold ink. An inkstand, on the other hand, holds one or more inkwells and sometimes other accessories. In the 18th and 19th centuries in England an inkstand was referred to as a "standish." Gradually many equipments were added to the inkstand. Some of those are a pounce pot or sander, a groove for a seal, a box for extra nibs, a brush to clean ink from clogged nibs, a candle holder, a stamp box, a match container, even a call bell to ring for a subordinate staff to post the letter. Also there are other holes in the top of inkstands to hold quills in an upright position to protect their sharp points. Pen racks were added to the inkstand when steel nibs came into use.

To trace the history of the early inkwells we have to go back to ancient Egypt when the art of the scribe was born. Scribes were appointed by aristocratic families and also by town administration. They used small ink palettes produced in pieces of stone with round hollows for each colour of ink. With the passage of time writing progressed and larger clay and stone containers used with wax stoppers to store the ink. Later Egyptians began producing glass inkwells. The art of writing spread around the world, and animal horns began to be used as the material for making ink containers. All these inkwells were strictly utilitarian and there was little ornamentation. The ornamental inkwells came into being in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Gold, silver and other precious metal began to be used to make these ornamental ink containers.

Western Europa in the Baroque period saw excessive use of ornamental style in the making of inkwells. Portable inkwell was devised about the time of the Civil war for the convenience of the soldiers who could carry it into the battlefield to write to their sweethearts. Excessive ornamentation surfaced again during Queen Victoria's reign. Painted porcelain inkwells filled with scented and highly coloured ink decorated the drawing rooms. Stylized and fanciful figures of maidens with flowing hair, butterflies, oak leaves, iris blooms and tree stumps were found on inkstands and inkwells at the beginning of the Art Nouveau era in the late nineteenth century. Seaside resorts presented souvenir inkwells which were carved from a single conch shell or a mother-of-pearl conch fashioned into the shape of a fish. Wood crafted bears, gnomes and trees were found in the inkwells at the end of the nineteenth century. With the beginning of the Art Deco style in the 1920s and the production of practical fountain pens the inkwell began to lose its utility value as an item of necessity. Fine craftsmanship in making inkwells declined drastically.

Inkwells have been crafted in a large variety of materials, in stone, horn, pottery, porcelain, wood, silver, iron, brass, bronze, gilt, tin, pewter, aluminium, chromed steel, glass, cut glass, shell and mother-of-pearl. Some of the famous manufacturers of inkwells were the Silliman Company of USA, Longway of France, Coalport of England, Murano of Italy, Bradley and Hubbard of USA, Meriden Britannia of USA, S. Benedict Mfg. Co. of New York, Jennings Bros of USA etc.

Inkwells have become highly extolled collectibles to a larger number of collectors throughout the world. There is the society of inkwell collectors, formed in 1981, which publishes a quarterly newsletter, 'The Stained Finger' and it brings out excellent articles, invites collectors to share knowledge through a question & answer section.

Inkwells have been lost into obsolescence indeed, but they are important footmarks of our history of civilization. Standing in front of a rich collection of inkwells, you may feel the fleeting ripples & waves originating thousands of years back in the womb of time are flowing over your face front-ward, never to come back.

  Anindya Bandyopadhyay 



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art etc. news & views is a monthly magazine published from India in order to promote art and culture. It intends to raise awareness about art all around India and the world. The magazine covers art exhibitions, auction highlights, market trends, art happenings besides Antique, Collectibles, Fashion, Jewellery, Vintage, Furniture, Film, Music and Culture.