There’s a widely-held view of cultural history that sees development as being early, worthy beginnings leading to a great flowering, followed inexorably by a descent into works that are technically and morally inferior. Applied to Italian painting it gives us the worthy early beginnings of, say, Cimabue and Giotto who rose above their contemporaries and tried to make an art more representational of the world they saw around them. Then there’s the great florescence of the High Renaissance, when the practical difficulties of representing space and the human figure were behind the great masters, the Piero della Francescas, the Botticellis and the Leonardos who turned out a masterpiece a week, it seems, and whose paintings still make us gasp in astonishment today. Then the decline creeps in with Mannerism where artists like Parmigianino, Pontormo and Bronzino are seen as not only representationally less accurate, distorting forms to serve an emotional purpose, but also morally a little suspect, with a whiff of perversity in the air. Then painting sinks into the Baroque, over-worked, over-theatrical and overbearing. Art has lost its high moral purpose and become spectacle.
I don’t want to get into whether this is an accurate description of the progress of an artistic movement. As paradigms go it’s adequate and it’s a view of Western Art that prevailed some years ago and probably still does, to a great extent. But (and you’ve waited long enough if you’ve got this far) does it apply to pens? Could be said that the early, hard rubber eyedropper-fillers were the Giottos of pen history, striving towards a perfection that remained out of their reach? That would make the pens of the Golden Age, when the technical difficulties had been overcome – the colourful Conway Stewarts, the Dorics and Patricians – the High Renaissance. Baroque, of course, would be today’s pens, when purpose so often gives way to form, when limited editions are produced that will never leave their boxes.
Is that right, or might it be done another way? Might it be that the over-engineered pens of the thirties to the fifties, the Vacumatics, the Touchdowns and the Snorkels are the Baroque, and today’s pen industry is something else? Maybe. Maybe today’s industry is the Jack Vettriano of the pen world, cynically turning out expensive and tasteless anachronisms for an undiscerning public.
I don’t know, but I do like the idea of a High Renaissance of pens, pens so good that they still make us gasp in wonderment today.