Yesterday we went to the Pencil Museum in Keswick. (I know how to have a good time).
The museum is a former canteen, standing in the grounds of the now empty, old Cumberland Pencils factory. It would make a brilliant set for a re-make of ‘I’m Alright Jack’ or ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’.
Production has moved to Workington now, so the pencils are still from Cumbria. The story is that it all started in 16thC Borrowdale during a violent storm where an old tree was uprooted; amongst its roots were shards of graphite.
I’ve always wanted to see Derwentwater – remembering the pictures on the pencil tins we had at school in the 1960s and 70s. Some weird nostalgia gets hold of me when I think of those pencil tins with the ‘Lakeland’ logo and picture of Derwentwater on the front. Am sure I never had those pencils at home, where I probably had the ‘Happy Shopper’ equivalent. But at school, getting those tins out of the cupboard was always a happy sort of thing. Maybe less to do, at the time, with the colours and more to do with the fact ‘colouring in’ was easier than actual work.
I also have fond memories of the endless paint boxes I had at home; thinking about it, my interest in colour (and old, pretty tins which I have accumulated for a lifetime) probably started there. Many textile artists like to play with colour, and it is easier to experiment with watercolours or coloured pencils, than it is to mess with fabric or yarn.
People had been telling me forever “You have to go to the Pencil Museum. You’d love it!” Not sure how to take that really but anyway, we were up in Cumbria for something in the morning and thought we’d spend the rest of the day at Keswick, as we’d spent out on petrol to get up there, anyway. When we got in there, there were so many lovely things – I thought those of you who love pigments, dyes and colour in all its forms, might enjoy this.
The museum is small but very interesting. And that pencilly smell hit us as we went through the door – the same smell you got as a kid at primary school when you were the honoured one who was allowed to open The New Pencil Tin.
The first Keswick pencil factory was opened in 1832. The Museum has a couple of pencils dating to the early 1830s which must have used natural (mainly mineral?) pigments. The familiar ‘Lakeland’ pencils weren’t developed until nearly 100 years later. Pencils were originally graphite (which occurs naturally in Borrowdale). Coloured pencils were a later development, when pigments (first natural, later synthetic) were combined with binding agents and wax or oil. Derwent pencils are wax based.
Artists’ coloured pencils have higher concentrations of pigment, and are now extensively tested for light-fastness – how fast pigments lose their “colour integrity” – and are graded accordingly. The concept of fugitive colour is nothing new to dyers. Trial, error and experience have told many of us that x natural dye is more fugitive than y.
There was an interesting video about a James Bond style top secret wartime mission to create a pencil containing a hidden compass and map for RAF servicemen and how the company have made a modern repro – not an easy task as it turned out, as the ‘secret pencils’ were made at night, and no records kept of precisely how it was done.
I might have accidentally bought a couple of things in the Museum shop where the majority of items seemed to be very well discounted and as a result, I will be back!
Colours in nature are sometimes the best inspiration for textile and other art work and your tourist-y photos can also become great references and sources of inspiration.
We finished the day at nearby Castlerigg stone circle. We visit this after every Woolfest. I have never seen the Lakes this time of year with the heather on the hillsides. It is so beautiful, I’ll return soon.
All Images: CREDIT: Nat Hunt