I recently had an email from my friend, Kass Speerly of The Ink Sampler, asking me about J. Herbin’s ink – l’Encre des Vaisseaux – The Ink of Ships. “I’ve seen the logo for the bottles of this ink before,” she wrote, “but never the ink. I assume it is no longer produced, but I am interested in some information about it, such as what the color was, what it’s primary use was intended for, when it was produced and when it went out of production. Also, curiously, could it ever be produced again.”
Those are all good questions for which I don’t have a ready answer. But I will try to find out over the course of this year. Some information may be gleaned from the collective memory of the J. Herbin staff in France. I also plan to add a Wiki on historical J. Herbin inks to jherbin.com, so people anywhere in the world can contribute what they know or have discovered so we all can benefit.
The one piece of information I have about The Ink of Ships is that it was created in M. Herbin’s workshop prior to 1700. The rest is my conjecture…
M. Herbin was a sailor, so he was probably familiar with the ink used aboard ships. The weather, the wet conditions on a sailing ship required an ink that was waterproof. Iron gall ink was the standard writing and drawing ink in Europe from about the 12th century to the 19th century. It remained in use well into the 20th century. Good quality iron gall ink didn’t fade in the light. It was indelible. This ink could be used with a quill, reed pen or brush.
Iron gall ink, also known as iron gall nut ink or oak gall ink is a light brown or sepia color when it first goes down on paper, but as it dries it turns purplish-black or a velvety blue-black. Because every individual made their own ink with their own recipe, the chemical structure of these inks can vary, but the basic components are iron and tannin, a substance found in plant galls.
I think M. Herbin made his own recipe of an iron gall ink. The recipe may have been formulated for the ship’s master on his trips back and forth to India; or when he settled down in Paris to first start producing his sealing wax. Perhaps another sailor made his way to M. Herbin’s workshop, and convinced him to produce a ship’s ink.
What do you imagine?
Here are some excellent resources on iron gall ink I came upon in my research:
The ink corrosion website. Lots of information on iron gall inks.
The website of Evan Lindquist, Artist & Printmaker, notes on old writing and drawing inks, ink recipes, and old ink notes.
Manuscript inks, the website of Jack C. Thompson. Information on iron gall inks, paper and parchment.
The article “Monastic ink: linking chemistry and history” by Gianluca Farusi and his students appeared on the Science in School website.