Under my byline

Inky pursuit

Posted in Art, Books, Living, Profiles by Rrishi on 22 February 2009

Americans M Klein and H W Wynne patented a reservoir pen design in 1867Penguin India chief Mike Bryan links his work in publishing to his passion for antique fountain pens

“I’ll leave you boys to it, then,” says Heather Adams, as her husband enters the living room carrying three or four long, flat, felt-covered boxes. She departs quickly. Was there a hint of relief in her tone?

The boxes contain a small portion of Mike Bryan’s collection of antique fountain pens. He opens them up for inspection on the dining table. Most of them look rather too grand for writing with, sheathed as they are in glowing, intricately worked gold or silver.

“I started off collecting because I went to a flea market and saw two really gorgeous pens,” Bryan says. “One which was a plain green 1950s Parker Duofold, and the other which was just a dazzling blue and gold lapis lazuli-type pen from the 1930s by a small maker in the UK. They were quite cheap,” he adds, “sort of £5 for the two maybe. This was about 25 years ago. Those pens now would be worth £50-100 each. So in 25 years that’s not a bad return on investment.”

His words look lively in print, but his manner is quiet, almost dry. He has the English habit of starting a sentence loud and firm, and then tapering it down to a mumble, followed by an indrawn breath. It’s a pleasantly textured way of speaking that allows the listener to focus on the words. Occasional syllables are highlighted. “I guess they were beautiful and just spectacular and being in publishing one felt that collecting pens was sort of a great connectivity.”

When he bought those two inaugural pens, Bryan had been in Penguin for a couple of years already. Now, 28 years down the line and 52 years old, he is the president and CEO of Penguin India. He and his wife (who handles the business books division) have lived here since late 2007.

“I was always a collector as a kid,” he says.” I collected coins and stamps and tokens, football cards, lots of things. If I have a theme then I feel quite tempted to do it. I suspect that’s why I was attracted to Penguin books, because they’ve always been beautifully designed, going back to the 1930s…” And then the coup de grâce — the English squirm of self-deprecation: “I’m obviously attracted to beautiful things, which, I don’t know if I should say it at all, but it might be considered autistic.” He’s embarrassed to be such a “trainspotter” (anorak, geek).

At first, attending garage sales, flea markets and antique fairs, Bryan built up an “indiscriminate” collection of about 2,000 pens. “After a while you get to know more about it, what the different makes are, when they were made, and now my collecting is very specific.” It consists of “very early writing instruments, fountain pens from about 1880 through to 1920”, in particular pens where the barrel is filled by means of an eyedropper. Also, “I’ve gone for gold and silver overlay.”

Waterman pen factory in New York, ca 1910Eyedroppers are a little messy, perhaps, but this was the design of most commercially manufactured fountain pens since the first, believed to be the Waterman pens from America dating from the 1880s onwards. “The rarest pen that I’ve got is a Waterman Golfer which has a picture of a golfer embossed on the side of it. There’s only five of them known in the world. It’s about 1905, and I bought it for about $200 [on eBay], but it’s probably worth something like $10,000.”

Since he identified his theme, Bryan has winnowed his collection down to about 500 pens. Most of them, including the rare Waterman, are safely stored in a bank vault in England. The pens he shows me now are the ones he has bought (mostly over the Internet) since they moved to India. They seem to be disproportionately of the type called “chatelaines”, or pens in ornate pen-cases designed to dangle at a fashionable woman’s waist.

The pens inside the cases are remarkably plain — black cylinders of an early natural plastic called vulcanite. “It’s a hardened rubber,” Bryan says. “As a schoolkid, I had a summer job working in a factory for vulcanite rubber, mainly for washers. I actually went through the process of making this stuff.”

That love of workmanship is also to be seen in the way Bryan uses his own, workaday fountain pen, a bulky black Parker with an iridium-tipped nib. “There’s nothing nicer than receiving a letter that’s been properly written with a fountain pen on some nice paper and put in a nice envelope,” he says. “That’s something special.” He writes this way to his parents, relatives — and friends.

“Two of my best friends I met through collecting,” he explains. “In fact, we joke to each other that we are indeed pen friends. I have to say I’ve not yet met a pen collector that I didn’t like” — including wealthy Indians who collect limited-edition Mont Blancs.

“There are two pens that I would really love,” Bryan says, suddenly animated. “One is a Swan Convolvulus, which is a very floral design of pen from about 1905. It’s sort of art nouveau, heavy, embossed — a very beautiful pen.” The other “is a bit more spooky. It’s a Waterman Snake, and it has two snakes coiling around the barrel, with emerald eyes, and again it’s just a terrific pen.” He shows me photos of these rare pens in an enormous book. They are breathtaking.

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