I n the second part of Sotheby’s landmark sale of the Najd Collection sits a lone mysterious figure. Ludwig Deutsch’s The Scribe is an enigmatic image of 19th-century Cairo, in which a scribe – or katib, a type of secretary in the Arabic-speaking world – is seen musing on a marble ledge outside a mosque or palace. It’s a work of both immense detail – from the fine stripes of his silk gown and yellow-tassled shawl to the ornate inlay of his Syrian bone-and-ivory desk – that somehow remains inscrutable. The scribe could be pondering work, faith, love or perhaps mortality.
“‘I like that the scribe is depicted as an artisan much like an artist, surrounded by the tools of his trade, it’s a wonderful mise en abyme,” observes Claude Piening, head of 19th Century European Pictures at Sotheby’s London. “Deutsch captures a moment in time with crystal-clear verisimilitude.”
One of the traditional professions in the Middle East, public scribes earned a living by reading as well as writing. They were respected individuals in a society which placed a high value on literacy. For centuries, all around the world, scribes were a treasured fusion of copyist, calligrapher and communicator.
Over the years, Sotheby’s has sold many works relating to these lauded subjects, from the pen cases of Ottoman scribes to bronze plaques of Yemenite scribes. They have featured in 17th-century Mughal paintings and French sculpture from the Belle Époque. and, in 2018, a limestone figure of the Egyptian scribe Nekht-ankh (circa 1800 BC) achieved £1.5 million at Sotheby’s London. The following year, a companion Deutsch study of a scribe from the Najd Collection sold in the same saleroom. “The Scribe by Ludwig Deutsch gets me for how superbly awash it is in the tobacco hued light. It is a masterpiece,” noted the South Asia Daily.
Evidence of the cultural importance of the scribe can be traced through the great museums of the world. In the Louvre, a stele – or stone slab – from the ancient Egyptian city of Abydos is extensively inscribed by the celebrated, but immodest, sculptor and scribe Irtysen. "I know the secret of the divine word,” states his circa 2000 BC inscription. Irtysen boasted that his hieroglyphics could even capture “the arm movements of a hippopotamus hunter". And in the collections of the British Museum and Metropolitan Museum, New York, sit Pharaonic scribal palettes – the Silicon Valley hardware of their day.
For the 19th-century Orientalists – European painters such as John Frederick Lewis and Alexandre Gabriel Decamps, as well as Deutsch – the scribe was a popular figure, perhaps rivalled only by harem odalisques and looming sentinels. The aristocratic Turkish painter Osman Hamdi Bey also completed works on the theme, including the magnificent Public Scribe in the collection of the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul.
By the 20th century the scribe’s purpose had become somewhat redundant due to industrial printing processes. But even today they can still be found plying their trade where illiteracy is prevalent. In these corners of the world the scribe’s ability to deal with correspondence maintains its enduring currency.
From the dipped brushes of ancient Egypt to the rattle of the portable typewriter, a scribe’s tools may have changed but their central purpose remains the maintenance of records and dissemination of information. And, occasionally, these conduits still appear in popular culture. In 1998, the Brazilian director Walter Salles told the story of a modern-day scribe in his Oscar nominated film Central Station. Fernanda Montenegro plays Isadora, a misanthropic middle-aged woman who writes letters for the illiterate of Rio de Janeiro. For Salles and Deutsch and generations of auteurs, the scribe remains the epitome of the timeless storyteller.