If the pen is mightier than the sword, then for more than 50 years Philip Poole was chief armourer to London’s inky-fingered warriors. Cartoonists, draughtsmen and those who just liked to write with a proper metal nib would come to Poole’s shop near Covent Garden to be fitted. He was penmanship’s version of Ollivander, the wandmaker of the Harry Potter world, eager to match the right tool with the right person, and his customers often wrote in gratitude to demonstrate how well their new weapon was working.
“Thanks for helping me fix my bite,” wrote Peter Schrank, the Swiss political cartoonist, next to a portrait depicting himself as a vampire with two nibs as fangs. It sits at the heart of a collection of letters and drawings by Poole’s customers that were discovered after his death in 1999 at the age of 89.
More Collector than Seller
Poole’s shop, His Nibs at 182 Drury Lane, was something of an Aladdin’s cave with dozens of dark wood drawers growing up the walls behind him. He was said to own the biggest collection of pen nibs in the world, many of them long out of production. Having worked out a customer’s needs, Poole would shin up a rickety ladder in search of the right nib. “It seemed like a slice of the life of Old London,” Lucinda Rogers, the illustrator, recalls. “The dark old shop full of display cases and boxes, and Mr Poole wearing his white overall coat.”
“A visit to Philip Poole was like being measured for a suit in Savile Row, the perfect nib for exactly your size and style,” Chris Duggan, the Times business cartoonist, says. He says that Poole provided “a continuing miracle for those hoping to find a line with some life, which can only really be coaxed from steel nibs”.
Duggan was particularly fond of an Alfred Somerville Fountain Spear, a pen that gave a substantially thick line “with the added prospect of it pinging an impressive amount of ink around the room”, but which were hard to find after the closure of its factory in Birmingham. Poole tracked down a consignment for him in Switzerland. Duggan drew Poole a “get well soon” card featuring a smiling pen in a wooden holder.
“A visit to Philip Poole was like being measured for a suit in Savile Row.”
The collection, donated to the Cartoon Museum in Fitzrovia, central London, by Poole’s son, contains letters and drawings from around the world, including by artists in Turkey, Argentina, Serbia and New York, as well as some of the tools from Poole’s extensive set that were left to the Museum of Writing at the University of London. There is a drawing of Fred Basset by Alex Graham, who had been sent a supply of Gillott 303s and wrote, “They work beautifully”, and a cartoon of the American Dennis the Menace by Hank Ketcham, who praises “a perfect pen pal”.
Arnold Roth, another American artist, sent Poole a cartoon of a desperate man crawling into a shop screaming: “Points! Points! For pity’s sake, points!” Poole had sent him a consignment. “As you can see, it has not improved my handwriting … nor my drawing,” Roth wrote with self-deprecation, “but they have made me much happier than a Johnnie Walker Black Label.” A more classical sketch of a bird, drawn by Bob McGovern, accompanies a note that says: “With the nibs from your collection an artist could fly higher than an eagle.”
To the Letter
Poole had started in the stationery business with a box of elastic bands, which he split up and sold on at a profit, but he soon fell in love with the pen. “Dip pens may seem old-fashioned, but some people prefer the flexibility of a nib,” he said.
One of his earliest customers was Heath Robinson, that designer of elaborate machines, who preferred a Gillott’s Crow Quill No 659. Poole also suggested that our own Peter Brookes try what became his favourite Gillott pen, a 404. “Without him we wouldn’t have been introduced,” Brookes says, recalling Poole as “odd, enthusiastic, though pretty silent”.
“It seemed like a slice of the life of Old London. The dark old shop … and Mr Poole wearing his white overall coat.”
Ralph Steadman, the Welsh illustrator best known for his scratchy, blotchy cartoons that accompanied essays by the journalist Hunter S Thompson, was a frequent customer. They first met when Steadman was after his favourite Mitchell 0565 nibs. He bought 40 gross from Poole, but soon ran low. “He treats them lovely nibs like bloody chisels,” Poole complained. “I tend to be pretty brutal where nibs are concerned,” Steadman admits.
Poole lived close to the shop, in a Bloomsbury flat where he stored much of his material and equipment, but when he was unable to afford the renewal of his lease on Drury Lane in the early 1990s he was given a new berth at the back of L Cornelissen & Son by the British Museum for £5 a week in recognition of his importance. “There was not as much room, but he could have at least 30 of his drawers,” Nicholas Walt, the owner, says. Poole, by then in his eighties, would arrive at about 11am, 90 minutes after the shop had opened, and have a steady flow of customers. “He was a collector more than a seller,” Walt says.
“This collection is a real hidden gem,” Joe Sullivan, the Cartoon Museum’s director, says. “In 2020 Philip’s business represents an artisanal integrity and personal connection which is so often lacking in the modern world. These letters remind us how important it is to slow down and engage with the people and objects around us.”