Following the arrival of the RCP museum’s newest acquisition, a George III silver inkstand, I found myself in the museum stacks with our senior curator, Emma, excitedly unwrapping a crate of tissue paper with anticipation close to that of Christmas morning.
What were we going to find? What exactly is a George III silver inkstand?
Well, an inkstand is an implement used to hold writing materials, in particular inkwells, nibs for pens, quills and sand for drying the ink. It would often be a decorative centrepiece for a desk, and could be made from fine materials such as glass, porcelain and silver.
So far, so not-out-of-the-ordinary. What, then, makes this particular inkstand special, in comparison to the other silver inkstands already in the RCP’s collection? We received our answer when we turned over the base and read the following inscription on its reverse side:
The Queen wishes Dr Baillie to accept this small present as an acknowledgement for his attendance upon her deceased beloved child Princess Amelia which cannot be obliterated from her mind. Charlotte Windsor the 12th Nov 1810
Suddenly the inkstand is transformed from a simple, decorative piece made to adorn a gentleman’s desk, into a poignant object related to a very personal and painful period in the lives of the ruling monarchs. Princess Amelia was aged 27 when she died of suspected tuberculosis, and Dr Matthew Baillie was her doctor. Queen Charlotte, consort to George III, gave this inkstand to Dr Baillie out of gratitude for his services.
The inkstand therefore tells a powerful story that goes far beyond its initial function. There are many questions surrounding this object which we may never be able to answer. Why was an inkstand considered an appropriate object for this inscription? Why not a book, or a more personal item such as a cigarette case or spirit flask? And why is the inscription on the base, where it cannot be seen?
Whatever the answers and reasons for the existence of this object, its inscription makes it truly remarkable. It is a historically important acquisition for the RCP museum, which perfectly exemplifies how museum objects are so frequently more than simply objects, but manifestations of real, human stories, which must be preserved.
Sarah Backhouse, heritage volunteer