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A Gift From Libby Hall

July 14, 2023
by the gentle author

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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 Granfield & 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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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 14, 2023

    Wow! What a fantastically appropriate thing for you to possess, and what an amazing gift from Libby…

  2. Cherub permalink
    July 14, 2023

    What a marvellous treasure to have, and what an honour to have been gifted it.

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