Borrowdale’s Seathwaite Mine is a graphite mine in England’s Lake District. Its commercial run ended in the mid 19th century, after some 300 years, but it continues to be of interest to geologists because of the extraordinary purity of its graphite. From the 13th century to the 16th, the mine belonged to Furness Abbey and an account book lists graphite as sheep oodde, a substance to mark sheep. A peculiarity of the Borrowdale mine graphite is that it sometimes takes the form of egg shaped lumps–perfect for drawing bold marks on the coats of sheep. Graphite is a bit oily and impervious to rain or water.
By the 16th century the mine had passed to the crown and was leased out. Since the graphite was so pure, sticks could be sawn and used as is or used in a holder and this excellent drawing material found favor throughout Europe. It wasn’t known as graphite, but as plumbago, referring to lead. Of all drawing media, graphite’s line most closely resembles that produced with leadpoints. It was not until the 18th century that it was proved that graphite was not a type of lead, but carbon (diamonds are also a carbon form and both have the hottest melting points). The Bankes family, builders and owners of Kingston Lacy, now a National Trust property, owe some of their wealth to the Seathwaite Mine. It is amusing to think that their Sebastiano del Piombo was financed by graphite money. Graphite was also used as a lubricant in molds for armaments, producing greater financial rewards than art supplies.
Early on, artists used graphite principally for underdrawing, to faintly mark out forms and space before putting down marks in the central medium. Ferrante Imperato, a Neapolitan scholar of natural history wrote of graphite in his 28 book work Dell’Historia Naturale:
Il grafio piombino si preferisce a tutte le materie que preparino il disegno, alla penna e l’inchiostro, percioche facilmente, usandovi industria, si cancella; e non volendo cancellarlo si conserva. Non da impedimento al maneggio della penna, il che fa il piombo per un modo, et il carbone per un’altro; si tirano con questo sottolissimi lineamenti, ne si puo stimar materia per inventioni da far in carta, que se la possa aggualiare; è untuoso al tutto, et al fuoco sommamente indurisce.
Graphite is to be preferred above all other materials for the underdrawing in pen and ink drawings because it can, with a little industry, be erased and, if you don’t want to erase it, it lasts. It doesn’t interfere with the handling of the pen, the way lead does on the one hand or the way charcoal does on the other. With graphite one can draw the finest of lines and one can’t imagine a finer material for creations on paper. It is also oily and when placed in the fire, it becomes extremely hard.
– Ferrante Imperato, Dell’Historia Naturale, Naples, 1599. Book IV, chapter 43, p. 122.
Drawings referred to as plumbagos are portraits, usually small in scale, and done in graphite on a vellum support. The type originated with printmakers in late 16th century Holland, who made drawings in graphite in preparation of engraved portraits. Plumbagos became popular in England after 1660, when the monarchy was restored and exiled artists returned from Holland. After a time, plumbagos were thought of as finished works of art in themselves, and no prints were made from the drawings. The Victoria & Albert have a nice group of these portraits, visible at this link.
Graphite, albeit of a poorer quality than the Borrowdale graphite, was present throughout Europe. Refinements were necessary to make the continental graphite usable. In 1662 pencils were produced in Nuremberg, the pencils combined graphite, sulphur, and antimony. The sulphur would have created an unpleasant smell. The big breakthrough in pencil making occurred in 1795 when Frenchman Nicolas-Jacques Conté (1755 – 1805) received a patent for his pencil. The pencil was made by baking ground graphite with clay and this continues to be the way pencils are produced today. The more clay in the mixture, the softer the pencil. He was also the inventor of the conté crayon, a waxy pencil. Conté’s pencil improvement was prompted by the war between France and England, when the French were no longer able to import the Borrowdale graphite. Because of Conté’s invention, the early 19th century saw a huge increase in pencil production. As an example, the naturalist Henry David Thoreau’s father was one of 8 pencil makers in Concord, Mass. By the time the Borrowdale mine ceased producing, the new manner of making pencils meant that Borrowdale’s closing wasn’t felt.
Ingres’ portraits of the early 19th century are considered some of the most brilliant drawings in graphite. Graphite lends itself to works of great detail and precision. This drawing of Corot’s, shown above, is not at all precise. It shows, however, the possibilities of the shimmery silver of graphite.