Exhibition: Grey Matters: Graphite, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, November 29 2011 – March 11 2012
© Christopher Cook
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.
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.
© The Fitzwilliam Museum
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.