Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum traces a history of the pencil in Grey Matters: Graphite

By Culture24 Reporter | 28 November 2011
An image of a pencil drawing of a 15th century woman in profile
© Christopher Cook
Exhibition: Grey Matters: Graphite, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, November 29 2011 – March 11 2012

According to that revered institution of scribbling, The Cumberland Pencil Museum, a violent storm in the region’s Borrowdale area in the early 1500s led to trees being uprooted, exposing a "strange black material" underneath.

Shepherds began to use it to mark their sheep, and five centuries later we’re all still busily using it to make those Christmas diary dates easier to scrub out.

A photo of a graphite drawing of a 16th century woman in profile
Mr and Mrs Joseph Woodhead and Mr Henry Comber in Rome (detail), Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres© The Fitzwilliam Museum
In between the Borrowdale discoveries – which turned out to be the most important graphite mine in Europe and the known world, according to sources – graphite was used for cannon balls before it ended up in pencils originally wrapped in string or sheepskin.

Pencils are still manufactured in Keswick, near the original mines and the mighty museum dedicated to their famous export, but the Fitzwilliam is more interested in its creative power, emphasised here through art by the likes of William Blake, Degas, Toulouse Lautrec and Burne-Jones, as well as a display on the range of forms lead can take and contemporary works which include a "performance video" of exploding graphite balloons.

From Impressionism to Renaissance works, this is a show for any purist to savour.

  • Open 10am-5pm (12pm-5pm Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday, closed December 24-26, 31 and January 1). Admission free.
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