Friday, 16 March 2012

The Write Stuff

     Once again, a day of bits. I put a coat of satin finish on the piano stool, and when it was dry I fitted the hinges. I sanded off the stray flecks of glue from the veneer on the fire surround and finished putting the last pieces on the back of the surround, then gave the lot another couple of coats of French polish. I had an hour working on the leather of the chair. I polished some brass work, re-potted another plant - a Swiss Cheese plant, £2.25 from Gordon Rigg's nursery, and put turn-clips and brass knobs on the doors of the two hidden cupboards. None of this makes for interesting photographs, so instead, I took some pictures of the accessories for the top of the bureau. I've had all but one of these bits for years, picked up along the way, in flea-markets, shops and from eBay. I can't remember the prices, as I've had them so long.

This first is a desk set, incorporating a letter rack, inkwells and pen-rest. I know this was an eBay win, but so long ago I can't give details. It's brass, quite heavy, and probably, from the feel of it, a modernish piece, made to look like an older one. But it's nice, and fools the eye. A genuine one would more likely have glass ink-pots, whereas this one has turned-brass inserts.

I know this letter rack and stamp box are modern, because I bought them from the Times Past shop, if I remember properly, in Southport. They too are brass, made to look vintage, with matching dandelion patterns. Again, nice, if you like that sort of thing. Which I do.

The brass sifter I bought recently, in a charity shop in Clitheroe, for £2.25. In the past, when people wrote with pen and ink, they had three options to dry the ink - leave it to dry naturally, blot it with blotting paper, or dust it with fine sand. A sifter like this would hold fine silver sand, which would be sprinkled on the ink to dry it. Messy.

The pen/pencil holder is a piece of trench art, which came from my maternal grandfather's house. As I seem to recall, when I was a boy, every house you went into had pieces like these in them, made from brass shell or bullet casings from World War One, the War to end Wars that didn't quite live up to the boast. World War One cast a long shadow that hung over places like Lancashire, whose Pals regiments died on the fields of France and Flanders, and the men who came home never spoke about what they had seen. A century later it still can be felt - just go to Accrington in early November and count the poppies.

The pen was picked up somewhere, but I have had, and used, it for about twenty years. The handle is a letter knife, and I'm sure it's ivory. In the days before plastics, I'm sad to say, elephant ivory was used for just about everything you can think of. It was regarded as an inexhaustible resource, much the same as whale products ( one of the best books is, of course, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, which gives so much information about whaling and the uses of the whales it makes your head spin. I remember seeing the 1956 film - a very good year... - starring Gregory Peck when I was little, and I was captivated. Then I read the book. Some find it hard to get into, but I promise it's worth the effort. I must have read it a dozen times).

There is a nasty trade in ivory still going on, and a particularly shabby trick is that items are now advertised as 'ox bone', a tacit euphemism for ivory. Some items are ox bone, of course, but it's not all that hard to learn the difference between the two. Ivory is, in effect, tooth, whilst bone is bone, which has its own blood supply in the living beast. Bone items have dark lines and markings, ivory is much more uniform. The bad men have also developed something called Hong Kong ivory, which is resin mixed with ground ox bone dust, and cast in moulds. There are also straight forward resin casts, made to look like ivory with various 'aging' techniques.  The quickest and easiest method of identifying a resin casting is to take a needle, hold it in pliers and heat it to red-heat in a flame and apply it to an inconspicuous part of the piece (the base, perhaps, or under a fold). Ivory will resist the needle and give of a smell of burning bone - if you've ever had a filling at the dentist, you know this smell already - whereas the needle will go into resin quite easily, give off the distinctive smell of burning plastic, and the edges of the hole will have little bubbles around it. 

1 comment:

  1. I love Gregory Peck, although To Kill A Mocking Bird is my fav film with him in it :) xcx