Saturday, 23 January 2010

Coloured Ink: From J. Herbin to Roland Barthes

This is not a good nib; it scratches the paper and struggles around the curves. But the ink is liquid velvet; black but not your usual black: a luscious black, flowing freely on paper: J. Herbin, Perle Noir. The bottle has got an ingenious, integrated pen rest. The label feels like a fine, cream, ribbed, correspondence paper. What else? Ah, there is of course the box. Instructions: Ne jamais mélanger deux encres différentes - and a list: Encres Pour Stylos Plume. A list of 30 names. And I think I feel a Roland-Barthes-moment coming on.

Encres pour stylos plume by J. Herbin

Delicious names. The names evoke a visual sensation - a kind of synaesthesia (famous  synaesthetic Nabokov would have had a field day): Diabolo Menthe, Terre de Feu, Éclat de Saphir, Bleu Azur, Orange Indien, Bouton d'Or, Larmes de Cassis. When on a fine afternoon of March 1978, Roland Barthes went out to buy some coloured Sennelier ink, he did so following his "taste for names (golden yellow, sky blue, brilliant green, purple, sun yellow, cartham pink - a rather intense pink)". He bought sixteen bottles.

Barthes was intensly interested in the materiality of writing; in writing not in the "metaphorical" but the "manual sense of the word... it is 'scription' (the muscular act of writing, of tracing letters) that interests me". He wrote in particular on coloured ink, or "coloured writings",

Colour is an impulse; we are afraid to sign our messages with it; that is why we write black; we only allow ourselves well-ordered, flatly emblematic exceptions: blue for distinction, red for correction. Any change of colour [toute saute de couleur] is partly incongruous: can you imagine yellow, pink, or even grey missives? Books in red-brown, in forest-green, in Indian blue? And yet, who knows if the meaning of the words would not be changed?

I look at the Herbin box and the desire seizes me to buy them all: the Vert Empire, the Rouge Opéra, the Ambre de Birmanie and the Poussière de Lune. Barthes always wanted to perfom "an act of self-destitution" that would leave him only with a minimum of objects: "nothing in double (one pen, one pencil)". But he didn't do it. "I still have the drive to purchase", he admitted. I only have three inks.

All references to Barthes from Roland Barthes, The Neutral, Columbia U. Press 1983; Neil Badmington, "The 'Inkredible' Roland Barthes", Paragraph 31:1 (2008). J. Herbin, Perle Noir, courtesy of Exaclair.


  1. Inkquest.blogspot.com24 January 2010 at 12:22

    I've often wondered if Roland Barthes used Herbin inks. There's something very Barthesian about them, but I have no proof that he ever bought a bottle. It's a real shame that The Neutral only ever names Sennelier non-fountain-pen ink.

  2. I wondered myself. What a delicious list of colours the Herbin has got!

  3. I was so fascinated by the names of those inks. It is really pleasing to hear those names being spoken. And I guess those beautiful names really correspond to the beauty of those inks.