Feather quills found from Soane's time

Words by Helen Dorey


Some discoveries made during the restoration of the Office really bought into focus the working life of the pupils who worked here, six days a week, twelve hours a day.

The desk drawers in the Drawing Office had to be cleared in advance of the project. Used for many years as an extension of the Museum’s building archive, the drawers were full of items of interest and value to the Soane’s conservation, squirreled away by staff past and present.  

From the very back of a drawer on the north side emerged three quill pens, tattered and ink stained – survivors of the countless thousands that must have been used in the Soane office. 

A feather quill, found in the Drawing Office. Photo: Justin Piperger.

Nothing is known about how the Soane Office obtained quills. To turn a feather into a quill it must be washed and dried and then trimmed, as these have been, of much of the feather itself.  The tip then must be shaped and cut to form a nib. One of Soane’s surviving drawing instruments is a quill-cutter so this must have been a routine part of office life.

A feather quill with a broken point, stained with ink. Photo: Justin Piperger

During the early 19th century, the quill gradually fell out of use in favour of pens with metal nibs – of which there are also a number in the Soane collection. Using a quill for drawing you can create super-fine lines, adding pressure to produce wider strokes. The ability to produce both thin and thick lines set the quill apart from a modern drawing pen.

These quills are a tangible and evocative link to the many Soane pupils who passed through the office and their survival a miracle of serendipity.