Decline And Fall?

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.

8 thoughts on “Decline And Fall?

  1. One could make a strong case for the proposition that this, too, is a golden age for fountain pens. Sales have increased annually for some time. Not only have sales increased, but from the number of sites on the Internet devoted to pens, ink, paper, and related accessories, it is clear that the fountain pen has made a substantial comeback in the age of the computer and smartphone.

    In the past golden age, almost all adults had to own a fountain pen in order to communicate with others or to preserve their thoughts, ideas, and impressions. While we have much more choice about the media we use, a substantial community has found that fountain pens are a special and wonderful way of communicating. The range of pens now available runs from truly excellent, but inexpensive pens such as the various TWSBI models to such hand crafted delights as the Nakaya line of make-i pens and other artisan created pens. I would agree that at the high end, the modern fountain pen can come at a price. But a quick look around the internet also shows that there are many options for the intelligent fountain pen fancier. It is necessary to remember that the five, ten, twenty, or fifty dollars which were required years ago represented a considerable sum, quite comparable to the prices charged now, if we adjust for inflation. I can only say that a Sheaffer PFM when new was hardly a vehicle for a schoolboy or someone with a freshly minted first degree.

    1. You make some good points, Bill, but I’m forced to disagree with you. In terms of numbers, today’s pen industry output is hardly a “substantial comeback”. In terms of centrality to people’s lives the fountain pen has become utterly insignificant, whereas in times gone by it was a practical necessity as well as being a social status indicator which everyone understood. Nowadays owning a fountain pen may be regarded as a mild eccentricity, nothing more. One or two may be mildly impressed if that pen is a Montblanc and that’s about as far as it will go. It’s a strange and interesting phenomenon that we are price-conscious about the essentials of life – like a fountain pen in the thirties – whereas there’s no limit to the proportion of our disposable income that we will lavish on our hobbies, hence the actually huge difference (allowing for inflation) between the price of most fountain pens in their heyday and many pens on sale today. As a luxury, there’s no competition to force down prices and manufacturer’s charges generally bear little relation to the cost of production. Yes, you may quote Lamy and the famously fragile TWSBI; I give you new Conway Stewart, Graf Von Faber-Castell, Omas, the modern Onoto, Dupont and a host more pens created purely for collectors, not writers. Who buys a £100-pen to write with? Not many!

      With a minuscule market and prices that – mostly – are beyond the reach of many buyers, it really is hard to see today as a golden age. Perhaps it’s a golden age for collectors, not just of pens but of any item that can be produced as a limited edition.

      1. Deb,

        Your points are well taken.

        No one can dispute that the world of writing has changed enormously over the last many years. These changes-computers, ball point pens, felt tipped markers, photocopying, and so on, all eroded the status of a fountain pen as a necessity for adult communication. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the evidence also suggests that as we are all now writing more, many people now wish to write using fountain pens. While it is obvious that many of the great players in the manufacturing world have gone under or changed almost beyond recognition, it remains true that many wonderful and affordable pens, such as those of Italix to take but one case in point, have become available. I would also stand by the point that the one hundred dollar pen (for example some of the high end Eversharps) of seventy years ago has become the three hundred dollar pen of our time. High end pens (such as the PFM V) always were expensive and limited in availability.

      2. Hi Bill,
        I don’t know which Eversharp ever cost $100. The PFM cost between $10 – $25 when it was new and it was clearly aimed at the high end of the market The pens – high quality pens – that people generally used cost a great deal less than that. As late as 1957 the Conway Stewart 85L, a pen in that company’s mid-range, cost the princely sum of 20/-, including purchase tax. The absolute top of their range, the No 100, cost £2-6/6. I think it’s quite likely that more people are writing with fountain pens than, say, ten years ago, but we need to keep the figures in proportion. Worldwide, those with an active interest in fountain pens only number in the fairly low thousands whereas at one time it was in the many, many millions.

    1. It is sad that no-one can make a decent flexible nib nowadays. I would grumble a lot less about modern pens if they had good nibs. That said, there are some firm nibs that I appreciate, and not just stubs and obliques either. For instance, I have a very ordinary English Parker Duofold that’s as hard as nails but a pleasure to write with.

  2. A thought or two from Curmudgeonville: Earlier, I was reading an article by Bernard Lyn (Danitrio) in which he says that maki-e is “too difficult to attract young people.” I also came across a line by the American humorist Will Rogers which seems apropos: “Things ain’t what they used to be and probably never was.” We seem to live in an era in which style trumps substance, so that a tool – any writing instrument is, first, that – becomes a “collectible.” Utilitarian objects can, indeed, be attractive – I, for one, am a big fan of those occasions when form meets function. But some of the stuff produced nowadays – Sylvester Stallone as an artist?! – isn’t even fit to sit in chests, much less see the light of day, to say nothing of fulfilling its intended objective well. So much stuff, of which writing instruments are but a small part, leaves factory doors with flaws known and (their repair) budgeted for. There are pleasant exceptions, of course, but far too many try to hide behind past reputations (Conway Stewart, e.g.) or Marketing blitzes (you know, the folks with the “precious resin”). Parker products are almost uniformly mediocre, and the list goes on. I have suggestions, but no answers, I’m afraid. That said, I’ll keep tilting at the windmills ….

    1. Hi Paul,
      Nice to see you here. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply. Life is very busy right now. I agree with what you say, and form meets function so often in these older pens that it helps to keep me fascinated with the subject. Naming a pen after a famous author though it has no other connection with him or her is not very functional, nor i including someone’s DNA in the plastic (what moronic marketroid came up with that disgusting idea?) and Swarovski crystals belong on costume jewelry.

      Sad to hear that Pentrace is to close. I hope there will be a last minute reprieve

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