Permanent Collection: Writing Equipment

  • The writing box has a remarkable sense of architectural proportion, featuring an onion dome and spire like finial
  • Engraving of mausoleum with onion domes
  • Indian pangolins
  • The writing box fully dis-assembled
  • Ingress to the pen cases

Brass Mughal Writing Box, India, Late C19th

Height: 18.5cms, Length: 33cms

This brass Mughal writing box is an excellent example of its kind, featuring as it does a pen box (kalamdan) with two tubular pen cases, an ink well (roshandani) and a further affixed compartment, possibly for the storage of sand for ink drying.

Writing boxes were used throughout the Islamic world, their form varying considerably between Persia where, by the period of our piece, they were frequently made of lacquered or painted wood or papier mache as well as metal, the Ottoman lands where silver was a more common medium and Mughal and British India.  In the early Mughal period, remarkably ornate, jewel encrusted, gold writing boxes were a feature of courtly life.  For an example of such a piece of similar form to ours dated to the C16th, see Maharaja, p.142.  Whilst this form of pen box was relatively early, as with our example, brass later became the more popular medium, though bronze and silver are also known. Such writing boxes were used by scribes, merchants and similar professions, were sometimes given as gifts within aristocratic and well-to-do families at the time of the recipients’ first writing lessons and were also known to have been used by some European employees of the East India Company.  Characteristic of many Mughal examples is a remarkable sense of architectural proportion.

The box in hand features a typically ‘onion’ domed ink well, reminiscent of the onion domes of Central Asian and Mughal architecture.  The lid is topped with a substantial lotus bud finial, underpinned by two rings of lotus petals, the first modelled around the vertical of the finial and the second chased into the upper part of the lid.  The lotus representation is again repeated beneath the dome, before the lid ends in a band of decorative creatures resembling ground foraging Indian pangolins, interspersed with flower motifs.  The body of the ink well is plainly cast but for a further band of pangolins around its base.  The removal of the lid reveals a second small, round, hinged lid, itself surrounded by further lotus petals, which provides access to the ink inside.  The underside of this lid and its surrounding aperture still carry hints of lamp-black ink coloration from previous use.  The sand box is soldered directly onto the ink well, and nestles closely against the two pen cases.  Some writing cases omit this feature.

The ink well is affixed towards one end of the pen cases.  These are held securely shut by a well cast brass pin, which when lifted facilitates the removal of a double stopper, revealing ingress to the pen cases.  Each would have held a traditional reed pen.  The two pen cases are joined by a stamped, open-work panel and finished at each end with a double lotus bud terminal, conjoined in each case by a further modest floral panel.

The pin, the double stopper and the finial of the lid all carry holes which would have been used to link these separable pieces to a similar bracket on the side of the ink well, using now lost chains.

A very similar example, both in terms of construction and decoration though shorter and omitting the sand holder, resides in the British Museum, and is illustrated on p.75 of Porter and Barakat.  The piece is of sufficient similarity to suggest a common origin.  Another writing box of broadly similar style is on display in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

References and sources:
Maharaja - The Splendour of India's Royal Courts,
ed. by Jackson, A., Jaffer, A. (London: V&A Publishing, 2009).
Porter, V., Barakat, H., Mightier than the Sword - Arabic Script: Beauty and Meaning, (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia, 2004).

Provenance:  The UK art market
Catalogue number: GNC1