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Pen Box (Qalamdan)

1810-60 (made)
Place of origin

The primary function of a pen box (qalamdan) was as a writing implement - made of papier mache, wood or other materials, including precious metals – intended to hold a number of tools associated with the art and act of writing, including reed pens, an inkwell, liqah (a cotton wool substance used to absorb excess ink), a penknife, a qat’zan (a flat resting board made of horn), a whetstone, a small spoon, and a pair of scissors. These accessories were considered essential elements for a scribe. The box that kept these elements was deemed, by association, as important as the person who handled its contents, with the quality of the box’s decoration directly reflecting the status of the scribe or patron.

Pen boxes were carried by penmen of all ranks, often tucked into the shawls tied around their waists, symbolising a badge of their trade. So esteemed was the pen box that even Shahs commissioned them; these rare examples are confirmed by their inscriptions. The earliest specimens of this type date from the reign of Shah Sulayman Safavi (1664-95), but later Qajar examples commissioned by members of high bureaucracy also exist throughout the nineteenth century.

Although this particular pen box does not bear the inscription of the artist Ya Shah-I Najaf (‘O King of Najaf!’), the detail of decoration and its style strongly resembles that of the known Qajar artist, or perhaps another from his circle. Aqa Najaf, as he is also known, was responsible for lacquer pieces produced sometime between the 1810s and the 1860s, with a style that formed a bridge between the works of the later 18th century and the long reign of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (1848-1896), during which the sons of Najaf Ali continued to play a leading role in lacquer production.

Object details

Category
Object type
Parts
This object consists of 2 parts.

  • Pen Case
  • Pen Case Part
Materials and techniques
Lacquered papier-mache
Brief description
Oblong shaped pen box with rounded edges depicting the Holy Family, Iran, Qajar period, painted by Nadjaf, 1810-60
Physical description
Oblong shaped pen box made of lacquered papier-mache and painted with a vertically disposed composition on the top of the cover with the Holy Family; an angel and a blossoming tree appear behind them. On the sides are pastoral scenes divided by oval portrait busts of young women. The base is dark red, decorated in gold with birds amongst a fruiting vine.
Dimensions
  • Length: 22.5 cm
  • Width: 3.5 cm
Gallery label
Penboxes like those shown here usually contained a variety of objects: several reed pens, an inkwell, sometimes a penknife, a whetstone and scissors for trimming the edges of the paper. The penbox was carried by its owner tucked into a shawl worn around the waist. PENBOX - THE HOLY FAMILY Iran, 19th century Papier mache 766-1876(5 June 2000)
Summary
The primary function of a pen box (qalamdan) was as a writing implement - made of papier mache, wood or other materials, including precious metals – intended to hold a number of tools associated with the art and act of writing, including reed pens, an inkwell, liqah (a cotton wool substance used to absorb excess ink), a penknife, a qat’zan (a flat resting board made of horn), a whetstone, a small spoon, and a pair of scissors. These accessories were considered essential elements for a scribe. The box that kept these elements was deemed, by association, as important as the person who handled its contents, with the quality of the box’s decoration directly reflecting the status of the scribe or patron.

Pen boxes were carried by penmen of all ranks, often tucked into the shawls tied around their waists, symbolising a badge of their trade. So esteemed was the pen box that even Shahs commissioned them; these rare examples are confirmed by their inscriptions. The earliest specimens of this type date from the reign of Shah Sulayman Safavi (1664-95), but later Qajar examples commissioned by members of high bureaucracy also exist throughout the nineteenth century.

Although this particular pen box does not bear the inscription of the artist Ya Shah-I Najaf (‘O King of Najaf!’), the detail of decoration and its style strongly resembles that of the known Qajar artist, or perhaps another from his circle. Aqa Najaf, as he is also known, was responsible for lacquer pieces produced sometime between the 1810s and the 1860s, with a style that formed a bridge between the works of the later 18th century and the long reign of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (1848-1896), during which the sons of Najaf Ali continued to play a leading role in lacquer production.
Bibliographic reference
Nasser Khalili, B.W. Robinson, and Tim Stanley, Lacquer of the Islamic Lands (London: The Nour Foundation, 1997)
Collection
Accession number
766:1-1876

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Record createdFebruary 1, 2001
Record URL
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