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Historical Materials: Drawing Technique
Graphite (and the Borrowdale Mine)
Graphite—referred to in earlier centuries as lead, black lead, plumbago or wadd, (just a few alternative terms) is a naturally occurring mineral mined from the earth. It is a hexagonal crystalline allotrope of carbon with a layered planar structure and slightly greasy texture. As a drawing medium, natural graphite produces a mark ranging from a soft steely grey to black color with a metallic sheen. (1) The finest (purest) and most famous lode of graphite was discovered sometime before 1565 in the Hamlet of Seawaithe, civil parish of Borrowdale, shire county Cumbria (historic county of Cumberland), northwest England. Named after the civil parish, the Borrowdale mine furnished all of Europe with the finest graphite for almost three centuries.
The circumstances and date of the mine’s discovery are unreliably recorded and may never be precisely known. Legend has that the lode was discovered by shepherds (or a wandering mountaineer) after the uprooting of a large ash (or oak) tree and that the graphite was initially used to mark sheep (or as a writing implement by the monks in a nearby monastery). Graphite’s use as a drawing material can be traced back to the second half of the sixteenth century, but was not commonly used in this capacity until well into the seventeenth century. Early on, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603), graphite was valued for its military importance, specifically as a refractory material for making smoother and rounder cannon balls with greater firing range. Perhaps mostly for this reason, Borrowdale graphite quickly became a precious commodity that was closely guarded at the source and subjected to severe export restrictions. Nevertheless, the graphite was easy to dig out and carry away and the mine was plagued with looting throughout its history. (2)
1. This metallic luster is an important characteristic for identifying graphite, but can vary considerably from one instance to the next. Particularly in more robust applications the metallic luster can be obvious to the naked eye; in paler marks the luster may only be appreciable when viewed with magnification and with a direct light source to bounce off the reflective surfaces of the graphite particles.
2. For a thorough account of the history of the graphite pencil, see The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, by Henry Petroski (New York, 1990).