East End-based graphic designer, creative director and sketcher Lydia Thornley regaled the Geezers with the many treasures she’d unearthed in her passionate pursuit of pencil history.
Lydia’s ‘2B or not 2B: the secret life of pencils’ took us from the stylus in the ancient world, via the etymology of the word ‘pencil’ in the mediaeval artist’s ‘little tail’ brush of camel hair, to the UK’s home of graphite pencil making in the Lake District. Deposits of pure graphite found in Borrowdale in the mid-1500s were first exploited by farmers to mark their sheep. The substance became so valuable in later centuries it was kept under guard and smuggled overseas to be used in making cannonballs. When revolutionary France was unable to import graphite from Britain, Nicolas-Jacques Conté came up with a mix of graphite and clay. These are the ingredients used to this day, in proportions that change the pencil’s hardness or softness.
The pencil’s protective casing began as string and moved via drilled sticks to the familiar cedar wood. Lydia explained too the evolution and technologies behind a pencil’s hexagonal shape (to prevent rolling), paint colours and labels for brand names and gradations of hardness.
Keswick had Derwent pencils and Tottenham Hale had the Eagle brand, later renamed Berol after its nineteenth century American founder Daniel Berolzheimer. It was the US in the 1930s that saw the birth of the Blackwing, dubbed by Lydia the Harley-Davidson of pencils, which became the favourite of artists like John Steinbeck, Quincy Jones and Leonard Bernstein. When the Blackwing pencil was discontinued in 1998, prices reached $40, with rarer examples at over $100.
Lydia took us through some of the quirkier historical byways of pencil sharpening and erasing, the space race’s face off between the pencil and the antigravitational pen, and the attractiveness of Ikea pencils to maxillofacial surgeons.
The recondite and often humorous imagery of Lydia’s always elegant slides was a perfect complement to a talk that kept the Geezers rapt.