Friday, 26 October 2012

The Reed Pen of Erasmus

A writing instrument is not only a tool of writing but it is itself written on - writes Sonja Neef in her Imprint and Trace: Handwriting in the Age of Technology.

A writing instrument is a tool, a device manufactured by historical processes of writing cultures, a representative of writing technologies. It is a tool of remembrance, it writes the past along with the future. A writing instrument describes a history written by it as it is a product of the history it describes.

Erasmus is portrayed by Hans Holbein the Elder holding a reed pen: “Erasmus’s calamus is a Janus-headed writing instrument. In a reverse direction it looks back to the ancient culture of writing, in a forwards direction it sets its sights on a future that is in the hands of writers to come.” Bequeathing his pen to Wilhelm Nesen, Erasmus wrote a poem in praise of the calamus (1516):

Little reed pen I am, I wrote so many
large volumes all by myself, though I was
guided by the finger joins of Erasmus.
The Nile produced me, Reuchlin gave me to
Erasmus, and now, honourably discharged,
I belong to Wilhelm. And he preserves me as
sacred to the Muses and dedicated to Apollo,
a dear token of eternal friendship, lest I, who
made so many names known to posterity,
names never to be wiped out in the long
course of time, should perish in obscurity.

“As a tool of remembrance Erasmus’s hand draws its trace of writing in both temporal directions, it blazes its trail for a journey through time and into the great Western archive that as it were writes the past along with the future - or: posterity."

From Sonja Neef, Imprint and Trace Handwriting in the Age of Technology, London (Reaktion Books) 2011: "The Calamus of Erasmus", pp. 81-83.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

John Sheldon Escritoirs

It is fitting that John Sheldon, the Victorian pencil maker, toymaker and silversmith would live and flourish in the English city of Birmingham, the 19th century’s “workshop of the world", city of a thousand trades and centre of the industrial revolution. If other inventions (steam engine comes to mind) that took place in Birmingham were much more impressive and far reaching than Sheldon’s, his also made an impact in the development of the writing technologies of the time. Between 1841 and 1853 Sheldon registered a total of ten designs relating to writing equipment, among which the Unique Pocket Companion and the Pocket Escritoir.

John Sheldon escritoir. Photo provided by B. George
Photo provided by Brian George

Palimpsest became acquainted with the man and his work in the London Writing Equipment Society show 2012. Specimens of Sheldon’s inventions were displayed in a glass cabinet under the supervision of avid Sheldon collector, Brian George. Brian is extremely knowledgeable in all things Sheldon and has even written a book about the “Birmingham master of manufacture and innovation.”

Brian George's John Sheldon collection

Palimpsest was impressed with Sheldon’s escritoirs which took pride of place in George’s excellent collection. Escritoirs are miniature writing desks, described as Cabinets of the Million and Wonder of the Age, and contain all writing essentials a Victorian gentleman or lady would wish to have handy at any given moment during travelling or in the home. Sheldon offered six sizes -from 3’’ x 2½’’ to 6’’ x 4½’’ and a selection of finishes - plain burgundy, dark green morocco leather, japanned. These portable miniature desks contained up to 50 sheets of paper and envelopes, an almanac, blotting card, memo pad, wax lights, inkstand, sealing wax, 12-inch measuring tape, wax tapers, penholder with letter balance, steel pens, India rubber and wafers.

When sold, Brian George explains in his book, the Escritoir came with 9 steel pens, 50 gum medallions or wafers, 3 sticks of sealing wax, 2 wax tapers and 50 Wax Lights or Promethean Lights. The latter were candle-like contraptions which gave an instantaneous burst of flame when the acid contained in a tiny glass seal came into contact with the chemicals in its tightly wound paper covering (a nightmare scenario for today’s Health and Safety police). Escritoirs, thus provided the Victorian gentleman or lady not only with the means of writing but with instruments of illumination as well. They sold for 7s to 10s in 1843, that is, £33 to £47 in 2008 values. They must have been the latest word in portability and a must-have for any cultivated member of the prosperous middle classes of the Victorian times.

Brian and Shirley George and John Sheldon collection at the London WES show 2012.
John Sheldon manufacture and writing instruments.

All information on John Sheldon comes from Brian George’s book, John Sheldon, Toymaker, Pencil Maker & Silversmith. Many thanks to Brian George for photo of Sheldon and Sheldon ads.

Friday, 12 October 2012

London Writing Equipment Society Show 2012

If you ever wanted to hear the praises of Parker 51 sang with aplomb, discuss a Waterman, admire a Snorkel, handle an Onoto, caress a Wahl, test drive an Omas, have your nib ground by the expert, or see a fine collection of John Sheldon’s miniscule escritoirs, and do all this things without leaving the room, then there is no place better than the London Writing Equipment Society’s show.

This is not a show of the leaflet-brandishing fancy-stall parading kind. Pens are serious affairs here and they are treated with the respect they deserve. You can see the pen knowledge dripping like secret nectar from every stall. I say secret. There is an atmosphere of a benevolent secret society here, an antiquarian scent, a reverence. The pens are laid out on velvet lined cases and those browsing look like they are in the know. Some are looking for specific models, looking for elusive nibs - there is a revered man examining a pen’s feed under a strong lamp. The owner of said pen is hanging on his every word. There is a couple listening in awe at an impromptu lecture on the innovative breakthroughs of Parker 51; a vintage pen repairman delivering his verdict on a 1950s fountain pen.

Pen shows have something of a museum - only that the exhibits, though getting rarer, can still be bought at a price. In a dizzying variety of materials, shapes, designs, colours, caps, jewels, clips and nibs, the pens look increasingly like talismans. As such they are sought after, venerated, fed with bottled writing fluid, expected to deliver strikes, to banish the fear of the blank page.

The Onoto stall - WES 2012

Pick a Pen - WES 2012
Conway Stewart specimens - WES 2012
WES 2012 fountain pen stall
Swan, Conklin... WES show 2012
In praise of Parker 51 - WES 2012

Brian George's collection of John Sheldon escritoirs

London Writing Equipment Society Show at Holiday Inn, Russel Sq. 6 October 2012

Friday, 5 October 2012

Post a Stub: On Mirado Black Warriors and Marginalia

One of Erika's Alvin inkwell-shapreners and a newly sharpened Mirado ready for action

Erika Stefanutti from boutique bindery contributes to Palimpsest’s Post-a- Stub series a piece about her favourite Mirado Black Warriors. Erika writes on desk accessories and decorative arts on her blog Parvum Opus and sells her creations on Etsy.

On Marginalia and Mirado Black Warriors

The choice of the humble pencil rather than any of my beautiful and worthy fountain pens seems somehow fitting given the thousands of hours we've spent together conversing with the great (and a few not-so-great) authors. Whenever I sit down to read, one of my dozens of Mirado Black Warriors accompanies me. I have several snug reading spots in my home, and each is equipped with a pencil cup crammed full of my graphite companions, an Alvin inkwell-shaped pencil sharpener, a pile of handmade bookmarks, a small commonplace book for important notes, and a coaster for my tea. With all of my tools at the ready, the conversation between scribbler and author can begin!

Palimpsest’s readers will already be familiar with the Mirado Black Warrior, and I agree with the legions that it is a very fine pencil. Its line is crisp and dark, it sharpens beautifully, and importantly, the eraser does its job efficiently with hardly a trace left behind. Brilliant.

One of my pencil cups, holding dozens of freshly jacketed Mirado Black Warriors

Some years ago, I began jacketing my pencils in the fine papers left over from my bindery commissions, and now any pencil in my collection seems naked without the addition of these beautiful papers. The paper wrapper makes the experience of reading and of scribbling in the margins denser, more tactile, pleasant, noticeable, celebratory.

A thicket of paper-wrapped Mirado Black Warriors

Scribbles new and old: new notes in my Baudrillard, and perhaps the oldest notes in my library, from my ca.1790 edition of the complete works of Rabelais. This five-volume set has an added bonus: two ex Libris plates—a fantastic find!

As to the author-reader conversation, I wish I had the words to convey the romance of it for you, but thankfully for all of us, I need not try.  Thank you (again), Billy Collins!

Marginalia - Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

- Billy Collins