The history of graphite is the history of the universe. A direct cousin of diamond (whose properties it exactly contrasts), it is a form of carbon. It was first discovered in Cumbria in the 1500’s – accidentally, the story goes – and its suitability for drawing soon realised, but its soft, brittle nature led to it being bound in wooden sleeves. The pencil as we know it was born. The story continues by way of Friedrich Staedtler, Nicolas Conté and the Industrial Revolution to the Cumberland Pencil Company and even the work of a man reputed to be the model for James Bond’s Q.
That the humble pencil should feature names that remain familiar today simply emphasises how it is embedded in our lives and how such a simple technology has changed little since its original development. This is primarily an art book, but Bee takes time out to mention new technologies and that potential wonder product, graphene.
This is an intriguing and personal account written by an artist who, while primarily interested in graphite as a drawing medium, has also become fascinated by its history, which she relates in a gripping narrative that continually prompts the reader to want to know more. It’s no dry scientific tome. The whole thing is helped along by anecdotes and sensitive drawings (in graphite, of course) that illustrate scenes, personalities and artefacts.
It’s also worth mentioning the production. Self-published books often suffer from the lack of two things: an editor and a designer. The result can be an over-written and visually confusing mess. Bee, however, has considerable experience, having produced a number of previous books as well as instructional material. She also has a design background. All of which adds up to a tightly-written narrative with the illustrations all in the right places and sized to match their importance. To have a handwritten text is brave, but Bee writes beautifully and you’ll soon pick her style up, rather like getting attuned to a regional accent, and devouring the pages as quickly as you can turn them.
You might not think that, as an artist, you need to know all of this, but you’ll be awfully glad you found it out.