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Charles Dickens’ Inkwell

January 9, 2023
by the gentle author

Five Christmases ago, I received the most extraordinary present I ever expect to receive. It is Charles Dickens’ inkwell.

In the week before Christmas, I paid a seasonal visit to photographer & collector Libby Hall in Clapton and, as we sat there beside a table groaning with festive treats, she handed me a parcel with the words, ‘I thought you should have this.’ It is a phrase often used when gifts are presented but it was only when I unwrapped it that I discovered the true meaning of her words. What better gift could there be for a writer than an inkwell that once belonged to Charles Dickens?

It is a small travelling inkwell which screws shut and that a writer might easily carry in a pocket or bag, as Dickens did with this one when he visited America in 1842 and left it behind. Barely larger than a pocket watch, it is a modest utilitarian item comprising a square glass bottle and a hinged brass top with a screw fixture to hold it shut. What distinguishes this specimen are the initials engraved on the lid in tentative gothic capitals, C.D.

Libby told me that it was a gift from her friend Cinda in New York whose father had been given it in 1949/50 by a Dr Rhodebeck. All Cinda can remember is that the Rhodebecks were a long-established family in Manhattan who lived in Park Avenue near 86th St. She understood they had been custodians of the inkwell since the eighteen-forties.

Charles Dickens’ first visit to America, which he described in his American Notes, proved a great source of disappointment to the young writer. Although his books were bestsellers and he received universal adulation, there was no law of copyright and he earned no income whatsoever from his sales there. He arrived with an idealistic view of America, imagining a democratic, progressive society without the handicap of decayed old-world aristocracy. What he discovered was the brutal reality of slavery, inhuman prisons and rampant gangsterism.

It was also the first time that Dickens encountered the full wattage of his own celebrity, forced to flee through the streets of Manhattan with crowds of over-enthusiastic fans in pursuit. Yet he rose to the occasion by acquiring an ostentatious wardrobe of new outfits, even if he was spooked by the fanaticism of those who wanted to steal the fluff from his coat as souvenirs.

This raises the question whether Dickens mislaid the inkwell or whether it was appropriated? A chip on the top left corner of the bottle suggests it might have been dropped and then discarded. The wing-nut which secures the lid is missing too and the brass top has come adrift, perhaps indicating that the inkwell was damaged and was no longer considered of use? At this time in his career, Dickens used black iron gall ink which is a corrosive, explaining why the metal top came off the bottle.

Seeking further information about the inkwell, I took it along to the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty St where curator Louisa Price agreed to take a look and she confirmed that it is an inkwell of the correct period. We searched the Collected Letters and back numbers of the Dickensian to no avail for any mentions of a lost inkwell in America or the Rhodebeck family. Then Louisa brought out a selection of engraved personal items belonging to Dickens from this era for comparison and we could see that he preferred his initials in gothic capitals over the roman or cursive alternatives that would have been available.

The most persuasive evidence was an inkwell from Dickens writing box which once sat upon his desk. Less utilitarian than the travelling version, this example nevertheless had an almost identical bottle in size and design, and although the large brass screw top was more elaborate, including his symbol of the lion recumbent, the gothic capitals were similar to those on the travelling inkwell.

Louisa Price concluded that the inkwell feels right and there is no evidence to suggest it is not authentic, but it would be helpful to uncover evidence linking Charles Dickens and the Rhodebeck family. So this is where I need your help, dear readers. I know that many of you are researchers and some of you are in America. Can anyone tell me more about the Rhodebecks or find any literary connections which might link them to Charles Dickens and establish the provenance of the inkwell?


With thanks to Linda Grandfield & Theresa Musgrove for locating Dr Rhodebeck

Dr. Edmund Jean Rhodebeck, b. 1894 had an office at 1040 Park Ave (near 86th St) and a residential address nearby at 1361 Madison Ave. He was a collector of literary materials, including a copy of The Works of William D’Avenant with Herman Melville marginalia. He also wrote an article about Kateri Takakwitha, a Mohawk woman considered for sainthood, for a 1963 newsletter. His father was Frederick, born in the 1860s and his grandfather was a Peter Rhodebeck, born c. 1830 who worked as a saloon keeper on Broadway c 1880, but in New York directories for 1867 and 1868 is listed as a ‘driver’ at 124 West First Avenue and then West 49th St.

Can anyone tell us more about Dr Rhodebeck and his literary collection?

Dr Edmund Rhodebeck, former owner of the inkwell

Charles Dickens’ inkwell sits upon my desk

Comparative photograph showing an inkwell from Dickens’ writing box in the collection of the Dickens House Museum on the left and the travelling inkwell on the right. Note similarity of the glass bottles and the gothic capitals. (Writing box inkwell reproduced courtesy of Charles Dickens Museum)

Charles Dicken in 1838 (Reproduced courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)

Dickens’ calling card as a young man (Reproduced courtesy of Dan Calinescu)

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Charles Dickens in Spitalfields

Charles Dickens in Norton Folgate

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin Call permalink
    January 9, 2023

    Such an amazing gift!! Imagine the words that poured out of the quill that dipped into it all those years ago.

  2. January 9, 2023

    What a fitting and wonderful present. Good luck with your investigation into the provenance.

  3. January 9, 2023

    A wonderful gift! I would also welcome something like this, possibly from Author A.A.Milne or Illustrator E.H.Shepard. Of course, it will remain a wishful dream…

    Love & Peace

  4. January 9, 2023

    Thank you for this wonderful story, most fascinating.

    You might be interested in the following links, which reflect the power of any items connected to celebrity, however dubious (in the case I mention) its provenance.

    Best wishes

    Sally K

  5. January 9, 2023

    What a stupendous gift!

  6. Ann Vosper permalink
    January 9, 2023

    What an amazing gift and well deserved GA. It must give you pleasure every time you look at it. What tales it could tell!

  7. January 9, 2023

    “I believe we should preserve the evidence of the past, not as a pattern for sentimental imitation but as nourishment for the creative spirit of the present.” — Alexander Girard

    How fortunate that your inkwell (surely “evidence of the past”) has come to you, and is now providing nourishment for your creative spirit every day.

    How fortunate for YOU, and how fortunate for US, your readers.

    Regardless of origin, the artefact has become a storied object. Kismet!

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    January 9, 2023

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, your friend Libby Hall showed excellent judgment in gifting you Charles Dickins’ ink well. Indeed, the gift of a lifetime. Enjoy it in good health.

    That is my favorite image of the writer sketched by his sister Fan during that eventful first American tour in 1842. By most accounts, his second visit was more to his liking – staying in Boston at the Parker House and embraced by the literari of the day. The tour was also quite lucrative for Dickens despite his having to endure the adulation of the masses.

  9. January 9, 2023

    You have a treasure there!!

    I have limited experience, not being an art/artifact historian, but I’ve found that provenance is very difficult to establish when an item is missing it. We have two items inherited from my husband’s family: a portrait of Herman LeRoy, who was the first president of the Bank of New York, secretary to John Adams, and ally of Alexander Hamilton; and an inkwell inscribed ‘TJ’ said to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

    Herman LeRoy was an ancestor of my husband’s, as was TJ. In the case of the portrait, it appears to have been painted by Rembrandt Peale, and the style, period and location are all correct. But I paid an art researcher to see if she could authenticate that, and because the portrait has never been out of the family, there is no provenance. Curse lousy record-keeping!

    The provenance of the inkwell is a little stronger, but it is not unbroken.

    Then there is the case of a travelling medicine chest, reputed to have belonged to Horatio Nelson, that resides in the vestry of his childhood church in Burnham Thorpe, where his father was the rector. I once said I might undertake to try and verify its shaky provenance, but quickly discovered that this was almost a Sisyphean task. We have really nothing more than the word of the person who donated it. I decided to subscribe to the philosophy of its custodian at the time, who said, ‘As long as I am its steward, that *is* Horatio Nelson’s medicine chest.’

    So perhaps what you have there *is* Charles Dickens’s inkwell.

    Happy New Year, and best wishes!

  10. Saba permalink
    January 9, 2023

    GA, I suggest you try the Grolier Club, a literary and graphic art collection in Manhattan, at Also, try the Morgan Museum and Library in Manhattan. The main branch of the New York public library, Schwartzman Building, houses one-never-knows-what archival treasures and a helpful staff at With all those archivists and experts, you should surely find some useful guidance. Good luck, research is so much fun.

  11. Saba permalink
    January 9, 2023

    Here’s one more — the New York Historic Society archives,

  12. Mark Dickens permalink
    January 17, 2023

    I would like to make contact with the author of this article. As a direct descendant of Charles Dickens, I have some information that may be of interest.

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