NEW YORK – “Ink was black, in inkwells and bottles, in the past. It would get all over your fingers because it would run and flow relentlessly,” wrote Alain Badiou in Black: The Brilliance of a Non-Color.
Not if you were an Egyptian scribe. These highly trained court members, penning bills and magic spells with pointed river reeds, moistened their mineral-based, powdered pigments in small, hollowed-out stone mortars. Millennia later, Chinese calligraphers moistened ground gum-and-soot inksticks on similar, exquisitely carved soapstone, onyx, porcelain, jade or marble creations.
Jade Dragon ink-stone depicting two sinuous, horned, clawed, horned dragons amid swirling cloud patterns, 18th century. Realized $24,000 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy of Imperial Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers
During the Middle Ages, when writing was deemed a lowly craft, European scribes and scriveners copied texts with quill pens fashioned from goose, eagle, hawk or swan wing-feathers. Because their flexible, sharpened nibs offered unmatched ease and precision, they particularly suited parchment and vellum work. Their brownish iron-gall, black “India ink” and bright naturally dyed inks were stored in inkhorns or practical pots deep enough to accommodate these quills.
As more people became literate, writing became not only socially acceptable but also a source of pride. Though simpler folks might keep their inks in unadorned pots, affluent writers adorned their fine-wood writing desks with finely crafted silver, pewter, jade, bronze, brass, cut crystal or pressed glass models. Some, like an Italian bronze cylindrical well, featuring a body supported by three, massive legs shaped like eagles and an outsized, seated putti finial holding an open book, were extravagant.
Footed silver tray featuring ink and pounce jars with engraved, monogrammed bell stand, 29 x 21cm, mid-18th century. Realized €20,000 ($22,360) + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Cambi Casa D’Aste and LiveAuctioneers
Small wells, which held several ounces of ink, were generally square, rectangular or faceted. Larger ones were domed or shaped like capstans, mechanical devices used aboard ship to move heavyweights. Other sizeable wells featured sloping sides and flat, stable, wide-bottom bases. All, large or small, were lidded to prevent contamination, evaporation and spillage.
The wealthy, instead of inkwells, often acquired lavish desk standishes, known today as inkstands. These shallow rectangular, circular or oval trays, crafted in silver, gilt-bronze, onyx, brass, inlaid wood or porcelain, were the ultimate in writing luxury. In addition to matching wells, many featured grooves to store writing instruments and perforated “sand” shakers or pounce pots. Their fine- ground cuttlefish-bone powder, when sprinkled, not only smoothed rough, “unsized” paper. It also prevented ink from smearing.
Bronze-mounted Chinese porcelain double inkwell on cartouche coromandel lacquered panel with pen rest on raised feet, 14in wide. Realized $3,000 + buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Abell Auction and LiveAuctioneers
Travelers in coach or on horseback, if wont to write en route, tucked tiny, hinged glass inkwells – snug in small, protective cases – into their pockets or luggage. Others toted plain or plush sloped, wooden travel-writing desks. Besides ink bottles, these often contained quills, quill knives, parchment, ponce pots, slate pencils and sealing wax.
Traveling 12-gore Globe ink wells, 4/5cm high. Realized £320 ($538) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
Innovative dip-pens, featuring small capillary-like channels and interchangeable mounted-metal nibs, replaced quills in the early 1800s. Every few words – for want of a reservoir, they had to be re-dipped in wells. Each dip could prove perilous. Nibs, falling off, could sink in the ink.
As European steamship and train travel increased, dressing cases (hand luggage) in addition to toiletries and writing implements, were often fitted with glass or rubbery, non-breakable gutta-percha ink wells. On the other hand, wells resembling the Liberty Bell, the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower, made enviable souvenirs.
Limited edition Baccarat ‘Zola’ lead crystal inkwell, marked and numbered, 6in high. Realized $600 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers
Well-off Victorians often sought gilt-mounted silver, cut-crystal, or ornate porcelains ink wells. Others decked their desks with ceramic tortoise, owl, camel, or elephant-shaped charmers. In time, sensuous Art Nouveau wells gave way to dramatic Art Deco models. Tiffany’s mother-of-pearl, pattern-stamped, patinated bronze, favrile glass and crab-shaped wells were particularly popular.
Tiffany Studios ‘Byzantine’ inkwell featuring glass cabochons, with glass insert for ink, 4³⁄₈in diameter, 1920s. Realized $2,900 + buyer’s premium in 2011. Image courtesy Bruce Kodner Galleries and LiveAuctioneers
The advent of the Waterman fountain pen, which prevented ink-reservoir overflow, eventually spelled the end of decorative ink wells. Though ink no longer runs and flows relentlessly, collectible wells embody art, fashion and a world of literature. Each also evokes those intimate moments when writers put pen to paper.