Shelley’s Inkstand

Percy Shelley's Inkstand

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Location: London Metropolitan Archives (Keats House Collection)

Description: This inkstand is held in the London Metropolitan Archives and is part of the Keats House Collection. There are in all 47 ‘Shelleyan’ objects owned by Keats House. Some are duplicates; for example, there are several engravings of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s grave. There are a few first editions, including Frankenstein (1818) and Prometheus Unbound (1820). There are a number of interesting letters, including a letter from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Thomas Medwin from 22 August 1821. Perhaps the most impressive treasure of all is the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s ‘The Heir of Mondolfo’. Another item, a mirror which supposedly once belonged to Percy Bysshe Shelley, is now missing, ‘stolen from the ground floor hall at Keats House between 3 and 3.15pm on 4 May 1994’. And then there is this inkstand. The label that accompanies it says: ‘Shelley’s Inkstand. Said by Claire Clairmont to be the inkstand used by Shelley when writing “Queen Mab”’. In the catalogue entry, there isn’t much else. It is no longer on display in the museum but has been in storage at the London Metropolitan Archives for several years, possibly several decades. What initially appears quite a simple, uncomplicated object (are inkstands not very common in literary museums?), actually provokes new questions about the Shelley circle and its mythologisation. Moreover, the fact that Shelley’s inkstand is present in the collection of John Keats’s former home might invite us to ask how relics associated with the second-generation Romantics are preserved in specific locations, further uniting them as a distinct group of writers.

Claire died on 19 March, 1879. The second paragraph of her will reads:

I bequeath to [my dear friend Bartholomew Cini] the inkstand with which I always write and which is the same with which Shelley the poet wrote many of his poems begging him to have it preserved in his family as an heirloom in memory of one of the most exalted minds that ever breathed.

Marion Kingston Stocking, editor of the Clairmont Correspondence, suggests that Claire may have come by the inkstand as a gift from Mary Shelley. The notes to the will explain that this object was ‘the inkstand from which Shelley had written Queen Mab and which Claire Clairmont had begged Mary Shelley as her only souvenir of the poet’; evidence for this assertion comes from a letter of 17 December 1887 from Pauline Clairmont, Claire’s niece, to Henry Buxton Forman. This letter is now in the Berg collection, New York. Pauline writes about the inkstand again in another letter to Forman dated 22 January 1886 (also Berg collection), describing it as similar to one the writer and critic William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) had seen in 1873: ‘The little glass bottle is even the same & has the peculiarity that it can only be got into its place from one particular side’. Pauline lived with Claire towards the end of her aunt’s life, and it was the story of Pauline’s interactions with the Shelley enthusiast Edward Augustus Silsbee that inspired The Aspern Papers (1888) by Henry James.

The history of this inkstand is suggestive about the process of mythologizing Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although Claire was someone who knew the poet intimately, and therefore the inkstand might have been in the first instance a personal memento, it purportedly dates from a period in Shelley’s life – 1813, which is when he wrote Queen Mab – a year before he met either Mary or Claire. Thus, despite its involvement in the complicated and often fraught relationship between Mary and Claire, it was always not so much a matter of personal memory as from the outset a ‘Shelley relic’. The successive transactions between Mary and Claire, between Claire and her friend Cini, and between Mrs Forman and Keats House, suggest that it is not only Lady Shelley, the poet’s daughter-in-law, who can be credited for this sort of fetishization of Shelley’s remains.

The provenance and authenticity of this inkstand is still a little shrouded in mystery. But ‘Shelley’s inkstand’ is fascinating because it at once purportedly represents the young poet – before Europe, before writing any of the major works – and yet also invites questions about the mythmaking that his friends, acquaintances and fans engaged in after his death.

Date: unknown, supposedly used c.1813

Subject: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley

Media rights: Permission granted by Keats House Museum. Shelley’s Inkstand. Courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation.

Related objects: The engagement ring given by John Keats to Fanny Brawne; The Shelley Memorial; The Table of Inkwells / La table aux encriers

Publisher: Keats House Museum / London Metropolitan Archives

Catalogue number: K/AR/01/050