Tag Archives: French

Man writing …

Man writing …


In pen and brown ink, brush and gray and brown wash, over faint sketch in graphite

Honoré de Balzac … a strong cup of black coffee please !

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoré de Balzac was a prolific French novelist and playwright. He wrote eighty-five novels in the space of twenty years and made innumerable corrections and revisions in the proof sheets of each. His magnum opus was a sequence of short stories and novels collectively entitled La Comedie Humaine, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the 1815 fall of Napoleon Bonaparte.


In 1819, having abandoned former plans to take up the law, he announced his intention to live in Paris as a writer. According to English critic George Saintsbury, an authority on the history of French literature, Honoré de Balzac was living at this time in a garret furnished in the most Spartan fashion, with a starvation allowance and an old woman to look after him. 


He made decent money from his literature but was extraordinarily extravagant, a chronic spender who was hounded by creditors all of his adult life.He often used false names and frequently changed his lodgings in an attempt to hide from them. He never succeeded in divesting himself of debt and it was largely for this reason that he wrote so much. 


Balzac’s work habits are legendary. He did not work quickly, but toiled with an incredible focus and dedication. He drove himself relentlessly as a writer. This is his own description, written in March 1833, of a punishing work schedule:

I go to bed at six or seven in the evening, like the chickens; I’m waked  at one o’clock in the morning, and I work until eight; at eight I sleep again for an hour and a half; then I take a little something, a cup of black coffee, and go back into my harness until four. I receive guests, I take a bath, and I go out, and after dinner I go to bed. I’ll have to lead this life for some months, not to let myself be snowed under by my debts.


A recreation of Honore de Balzac’s study in one of his homes in Paris. It is now a museum.

” The days melt in my hands like ice in the sun … I’m not living, I’m wearing myself out in a horrible fashion – but whether I die of work or something else, it’s all the same … I am driven by the terrible demon of work, seeking words out of the silence, ideas out of the night. “

He often dressed in Moroccan slippers and a white monkish robe with a belt of Venetian gold from which hung a pair of scissors and a golden penknife.


He often spent long periods at Château de Saché, near Tours, the home of his friend Jean de Margonne. Many of Balzac's tormented characters were created in the small second-floor bedroom. Today the Château is a museum dedicated to the author's life.

He often spent long periods at Château de Saché, near Tours, the home of his friend Jean de Margonne.
Many of Balzac’s tormented characters were created in the small second-floor bedroom. Today the Château is a museum dedicated to the author’s life.

His consumption of strong black coffee was every bit as remarkable as his gruelling work schedule. It is said that his intake was anything from 50 to 300 cups a day. It is also highly probable that he died of health problems related to caffeine poisoning. He most certainly found it an absolute necessity for his creativity …

 “Coffee falls into the stomach … ideas begin to move, things remembered arrive at full gallop … the shafts of wit start up like sharp-shooters, similes arise, the paper is covered with ink… ”

coffee pot 2


Jean Miélot


Jean Miélot was a 15th century author, translator, manuscript illuminator, scribe and priest. He served as secretary to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1449 until Philip’s death in 1472, and then to his son Charles the Rash. He was mainly employed in the production of deluxe illuminated manuscripts for Philip’s library. He translated many works, both religious and secular, from Latin or Italian into French, as well as writing or compiling books himself and composing verse. Between his own writings and his translations he produced some twenty-two works whilst working for Philip.


Self-portrait of Jean in his private workroom.

This wonderful self portrait shows him at work. He is seated by a window at a sloping desk equipped with ink horns, holding a quill pen in one hand and a small knife in the other. The quill was often made from a hardened, dried-out goose feather cut and shaped to form a nib. He used the knife for recutting the quill and also for making minor erasures on the manuscript and holding the parchment flat while writing. The parchment or vellum is made from the skin of sheep, goats or calves. His sloped desk facilitates the flow of ink and his chair has no arms, allowing him to move physically across the page. He even used a small magnifying glass for detailed work.


Another self-portrait probably seated in the ductal library.

He had various formulations for ink, most commonly brown iron gall ink and black carbon ink. He would have also mixed his own special coloured and metallic inks for special work as well as gold leaf for gliding.


American modern-day scribe Alice Koeth seated at a specially commissioned reproduction of Jean Mielot’s writing desk and chair, expertly made by Japanese craftsmen using the picture behind her. It is a faithful copy, even down to the horn inkwells, the holes to place the quills, the lead weight to hold down the paper and the magnifying glass. (Photo: Emiko Kinebuchi)