World Calligraphy Day at the Pen Museum, Birmingham

In Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Mrs Danvers dreamt she went to Manderley, but Cult Pens' field agents Louise and Anna dreamt of pens, lots of them, because we went to the Pen Museum!

Located in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter - once home to the city's pen factories (and presumably called the Pen Quarter or something) - the Pen Museum is a must-go venue for anybody who likes pens, or history, or indeed both. This is what a museum should be like: it's full-to-bursting with artefacts (in this case, all things pen-related); there's no room to swing a cat, because it gives over all available space for its exhibits; and it even smells right! (Like ink). It's friendly and welcoming, too: no air-conditioning, no fancy ceilings or comfy couches, it doesn't echo to the sound of expensive footwear, and there's no feeling of 'should I really be in here?' or any installations that make you think 'eh?' It's like stumbling upon some hidden treasure.

The Pen Museum is housed in what used to be William Wiley's pen factory - the origin of the first gold nibs. It takes you on a journey through the history of pen manufacture in Birmingham, starting with the Mitchell family of the mid 19th century, who pioneered mass steel pen production, and the Gillott family (one member of which took the opportunity to sell nibs at his own wedding, and made seven pounds and four shillings. Perhaps it paid for his honeymoon). The journey ends with Brandauer, British Pens (one of whose employees rather famously said 'We refused to believe the Biro would catch on - how wrong we were') and Leonardt (Manuscript), who all still trade today. At its peak, Birmingham supplied a jaw-dropping one billion pens to the rest of the world. What did they do with all of them?

Conditions in Birmingham's pen factories were actually pretty good for the times, certainly compared to the cotton mills, anyway. The lighting was good, because the workers needed to be able to clearly see the nibs they were making, and the shop floors were generally light and airy. However, cuts, burns and lost fingertips were common, as were chest conditions brought on by the fine dust in the air. One of the Pen Museum's curators casually (and somewhat gleefully) recounted the fact that odd human appendages would sometimes be found attached to pieces of machinery - the previous owner (usually a child) having been the victim of a mechanical accident. Workers were fined for quite petty misdemeanours: singing, for example. But at the Gillott's factory, the fines were used to fund the annual work's day out. So that was all right then!

There are - apparently - over 5,000 objects within the Pen Museum's walls, but I don't think they counted all the nibs, because if they did then, well, the number would probably be creeping up towards the million! They're everywhere: unusual ones displayed behind glass; ornate ones arranged into stunning patterns worthy of wall art; unopened ones stored in stacks of boxes on umpteen shelves and ordinary ones scattered throughout the Pen Room… Oh yes, the Pen Room.

Or as Louise put it, the 'Michael Room' because we thought that Michael - aka Fountain Pen Man - would appreciate it. This is truly an Aladdin's Cave of pen paraphernalia, a crypt-like burrow brimming with everything pertaining to pen manufacture. Most of the wall space is taken up with shelves, while the windows form a backdrop to a bank of antique nib-stamping machinery (which still works). The middle of the floor is dominated by huge glass display units filled with a plethora of… stuff!

There are nibs for violin pens, mapping pens, double writing and ticket-writing. There are pen trays and pen clips, witch pens, vaccination pens, reed pens and glass pens. There is Braille equipment. There are porcelain and cast iron inkwells, and a Heath Robinson-type inkwell filler contraption thing, plus a sander or 'pounce pot' for drying ink. There's a quill holder and a quill cutter, slates and slate pencils and a lump of 99% pure carbon Borrowdale wad. There are certificates, medals, photographs, postcards, old sketches and tin advertising signs. Glass ink bottles and pottery ink jars crowd the shelves, with Higgins and Quink jostling for space with Pelikan and Town and Country Planning Colours. Gorgeously old-fashioned nib boxes sit amongst ink rocker blotters and a sports and social club rule book. There's even a Lip Ejector, whatever that is… (sounds like something out of James Bond).

Coincidentally (not really, if truth be told), the day we went to the Pen Museum also happened to be World Calligraphy Day, so the building was buzzing not only with pen enthusiasts and people on holiday in Birmingham but calligraphers and lettering specialists of all types (if you'll pardon the pun), including an Islamic calligrapher who used sharpened pieces of bamboo dipped in Diamine ink to create his artwork. Louise managed to persuade him to write 'Cult Pens' in traditional script for us. She then beetled off to join in with workshops run by calligrapher Joyce Lee (see our Artsynibs blog) and lettering expert Rob Draper. The workshops were packed: there were easily twice as many watching as wanting to take part, and both Joyce and Rob were enthusiastic, informative and plainly very talented. Louise was a bit chuffed when Rob recognised from her work that she wasn't exactly a beginner, and that's when Cult Pens crept into the conversation (good work, Louise - we'll make a marketing person out of you yet!) We were gratified to hear a number of visitors exclaiming, 'Cult Pens! Ooh, I love them!' and 'I ordered from you last week - lovely pens!' We were blushing by now, but still managed to hand out a few business cards.

It's safe to say that Louise and I had a fabulous day. You open the doors of the Pen Museum and history smacks you in the face because it's right there, in its host of old photographs, easily-digested chunks of text liberally sprinkled with snippets of trivia, and a staggering collection of gloriously ornate pen-related Victoriana. It's utterly fascinating and well worth a visit.

27 September 2017


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