Sunday, 31 January 2010

Record the Impulse of the Pencil

The chairback will cast a shadow on the white wall,
you can observe its shape, the square of paper
will receive and record the impulse of the pencil
and keep it too till time rubs it out
the seed will arrange as suits it the shape of the earth
to right or left thrusting, and the old clock
goes fast or slow as it rusts or is oiled.

Conrad Aiken, from Time in the Rock

Friday, 29 January 2010

Looking for Gold, Finding Graphite: Faber, Alibert and the Siberian Mines

The substance from which blacklead pencils are manufactured has successively been known by the names of wad, black-cawke, blacklead, plumbago, and graphite. It occurs in various parts of the world, in France, Bohemia, Austria, North America, Scotland and Ireland. It is found, generally, intermixed with a micacious substance, which renders it unfit for pencils. The purest and most esteemed is found at Borrowdale, in Cumberland.
George Harley, A Guide to Landscape Drawing in Pencil and Chalk, London (George Rowney & Co.) 1848

A few years later this would no longer be true. The graphite deposits at Borrowdale were depleted. But just two years before Harley reported on the Cumberland pencils, a French merchant with the name of Jean-Pierre Alibert who went looking for gold in Eastern Siberia discovered something else instead:
In one of the mountain gorges near Irkutsk he discovered among the sand, samples of pure graphite, showing by their smooth, round form and brilliant polish that they had evidently been brought from a great distance by the stream.
 Alibert saw the potential of the find and set out to open a mine. The desert rocky mountain range of Eastern Siberia was harsh terrain and supplies had to be carried on the backs of reindeer and travel long distances. Alibert started a little farm at the foot of Mount Batougol to raise fresh produce and soon a colony of workmen was established.

 Jean-Pierre Alibert mine in Siberia
from A.W.Faber, The Pencil-Lead mines of Asiatic Siberia, 1865

After some seven years of hard labour, he at last struck on "an unbroken layer of the purest and most superb graphite, from which solid pieces, weighing 80 pounds and more, could be readily taken". The samples he sent to the Committee of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg were hailed as "of excellent quality for drawing-pencils of every kind... superior even to that formely obtained from the now exhausted mine of Borrowdale".

Graphite used by Faber
Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG.

Many awards and medals later and after an agreement with A.W.Faber, Alibert shipped some 100,000 lbs of the precious graphite - "bright like polished steel" - to Faber's Nurenburg factory. The chronicle of the expedition gleefully revels at the stout wooded boxes wherein the precious graphite travelled, carefully packed, on the backs of reindeer crossing the vast Russian steppes, all the way to the little village of Stein in Nurenburg.

In 1862 the Siberian-lead pencils received two medals: one went to Alibert for "excellence of pencils made from natural Siberian graphite" and one to Faber "for black-lead pencils of excellent quality made from the newly discovered Siberian graphite". Alibert and Faber had indeed struck gold.

The Graphite Mine in Siberia. Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG

Quotes from A.W.Faber, The Pencil-Lead Mines of Asiatic Siberia. Jean-Pierre Alibert, A Historical Sketch 1761-1861, 1865. For Images of Siberian-graphite pencils, see the collection in Leadholder.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Writing Implements as Talismans: George Sand and her Cricket

I have written about writing implements as talismans before. Charles Dickens had his china monkey, Thomas Edison his custom-made pencil, Ernest Hemingway a horse chestnut and a rabbit's foot, Rudyard Kipling an array of objects he called his "little fetishes". Flicking through George Sand's autobiography I discover the author's special "writing implement": a cricket.

 Crickets from
R. E. Snodgrass, Insects. Their Way and Means of Living,
New York Smithosian Institution Series, 1930

Writing in her grandmother's former boudoir, a space so small there was no place for a bed, George Sand was surrounded by her books, her herbarium, her butterflies and her pebbles. There was only one door. From the adjoining bedroom she could hear the breaths of her two sleeping children.
My desk was in an armoire that opened like a secretary, and that a cricket I called Cricri, whom my presence had tamed, occupied for a long time as well. He lived there on my sealing wafers, which I took care to choose in white, for fear he might poison himself. He came to nibble on my paper while I was writing, after which he would go sing in a favorite drawer. Sometimes he walked over my handwriting, and I was obliged to drive him off so that he would not take it into his head to taste the fresh ink.
A Datura flower. Photo by Shu Suehiro

 Cricri died a tragic death when the serving woman crushed him between casement window and frame. George Sand "enshrouded" the cricket's "sad remains" in a datura flower and kept them for a long time as a relic. Not only did the cricket accompanied Sand during her writings but its death came to symbolise the end of her "poetic love affair".
I imagined in spite of myself that the cricket's little cry, which is, so to speak, the very voice of the domestic hearth, could have swung my real happiness, that it had at least soothed the last disclosures of a sweet illustion and flown off forever with it. The death of the cricket therefore marked, in a symbolic manner, the end of my sojourn at Nohant. I drew my inspiration from other thoughts; I changed my way of life.
 All quotes from The Autobiography of George Sand. A group translation. Edited by Thelma Jurgrau , State University of New York 1991. On writing implements of Dickens, Kipling, Edison, Hemingway see the Rabbit's Foot.

Datura ~ belongs to the classic "witches' weeds" which contain hallucinogens. It has a long history of use for causing delirious states and death. It was well known as an essential ingredient of love potions and witches' brews. From Preissel, Brugmansia and Datura. Buffalo and NY 2002.

Photo L. Apostolakou

Monday, 25 January 2010

How to Improve your Handwriting: Talk to Monsieur Loubens

"Hail to the Professor of Belles-Lettres", Abbé d' Andrezel, a friend of George Sand's grandmother, would exclaim on seeing the Master of Calligraphy. George Sand was educated in her grandmother's estate in the dreaded Deschartres' room, "a room very neatly kept, to be sure, but in which the odor of lavender soap reigned so completely as to finally make me nauseous". The writing master's name was Monsieur Loubens, "a most prententious teacher, capable of ruining the best handwriting with his method".

George Sand (1804-1876) by  Auguste Charpentier (1838)

In her autobiography George Sand details Monsieur Loubens method of "how to improve your handwriting" which entailed the use of a series of contraptions - better described as instruments of torture - to ensure that the unfortunate pupil maintained a certain posture "as if writing were some kind of choreographed mime". The head should be kept straight, the elbows loose, three fingers stretched out to the pen, little finger extended onto paper to support the weight of the hand.

George Sand's Inkwell. Collection Christian Sand. 
From Belles Lettres. Manuscripts by the Masters of French Literature, NewYork: Abrahms 2001

To ensure that these four rules of handwriting were followed, Monsieur Loubens made the children wear a sort of crown made of whalebone at the back of which a belt was attached to form a strap (to keep head and shoulder in place). A wooden bar was screwed at the table to keep the elbow in place. A lead ring was soldered to a smaller ring where the pen was slipped. Finally a kind of boxwood pediment with notches and little wheels on it was used to keep the hand and little finger in position. M. Loubens provided also the pens, pencils and rulers (only those would do).
At first we found all these invention hilarious, but after five minutes of trying them out, we acknowledged that it was really agony, that our fingers were being paralyzed, our arms stiffened, and the headband caused migraines. Our complaints went unheeded, and we were only rid of M. Loubens after he had succeeded in rendering us entirely illegible.
George Sand handwriting.
From Belles Lettres. Manuscripts by the Masters of French Literature, NewYork: Abrahms 2001

 The Abbé would comment later:

Good God! If we really taught belle-lettres with the aid of collars, straight-jackets, and iron rings - in the Louben's style - how many fewer men of letters we would have, and how many more pedants!
 All quotes from The Autobiography of George Sand. A group translation. Edited by Thelma Jurgrau , State University of New York 1991. Read on George Sand's cricket here.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Coloured Ink: From J. Herbin to Roland Barthes

This is not a good nib; it scratches the paper and struggles around the curves. But the ink is liquid velvet; black but not your usual black: a luscious black, flowing freely on paper: J. Herbin, Perle Noir. The bottle has got an ingenious, integrated pen rest. The label feels like a fine, cream, ribbed, correspondence paper. What else? Ah, there is of course the box. Instructions: Ne jamais mélanger deux encres différentes - and a list: Encres Pour Stylos Plume. A list of 30 names. And I think I feel a Roland-Barthes-moment coming on.

Encres pour stylos plume by J. Herbin

Delicious names. The names evoke a visual sensation - a kind of synaesthesia (famous  synaesthetic Nabokov would have had a field day): Diabolo Menthe, Terre de Feu, Éclat de Saphir, Bleu Azur, Orange Indien, Bouton d'Or, Larmes de Cassis. When on a fine afternoon of March 1978, Roland Barthes went out to buy some coloured Sennelier ink, he did so following his "taste for names (golden yellow, sky blue, brilliant green, purple, sun yellow, cartham pink - a rather intense pink)". He bought sixteen bottles.

Barthes was intensly interested in the materiality of writing; in writing not in the "metaphorical" but the "manual sense of the word... it is 'scription' (the muscular act of writing, of tracing letters) that interests me". He wrote in particular on coloured ink, or "coloured writings",

Colour is an impulse; we are afraid to sign our messages with it; that is why we write black; we only allow ourselves well-ordered, flatly emblematic exceptions: blue for distinction, red for correction. Any change of colour [toute saute de couleur] is partly incongruous: can you imagine yellow, pink, or even grey missives? Books in red-brown, in forest-green, in Indian blue? And yet, who knows if the meaning of the words would not be changed?

I look at the Herbin box and the desire seizes me to buy them all: the Vert Empire, the Rouge Opéra, the Ambre de Birmanie and the Poussière de Lune. Barthes always wanted to perfom "an act of self-destitution" that would leave him only with a minimum of objects: "nothing in double (one pen, one pencil)". But he didn't do it. "I still have the drive to purchase", he admitted. I only have three inks.

All references to Barthes from Roland Barthes, The Neutral, Columbia U. Press 1983; Neil Badmington, "The 'Inkredible' Roland Barthes", Paragraph 31:1 (2008). J. Herbin, Perle Noir, courtesy of Exaclair.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Faber Pencil and Vincent Van Gogh:The Artist and his Letters (or his Pencils)

A brand new exhibition which opens on January 23 in the Royal Academy of Arts in London promises to reveal the "Real Van Gogh" . It focuses on the artist's correspondence which provides an insight into Van Gogh's life and work. The rarely exhibited letters are displayed alongside the relevant drawings or paintings. Van Gogh's correspondence can be explored in detail in an exquisite online resource edited by Leon Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker.

 "I drew, among others, a woman in the barge with crepe around her cap because she was in mourning, and later a mother with a small child - this one had a purple scarf around her head". Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3 October 1883; Sketch on cream, machine-made wove paper; pencil, pen, ink.

All 902 letters to and from Van Gogh can be viewed on vangoghletters, and they are all richly annotated and illustrated with new transciptions and translations. The whole thing is of course searchable by keyword and what did I put there but "pencil" and "Faber pencil". Vincent Van Gogh used carpenters pencils for his drawings about which (pencils) he writes to his brother Theo on May, 1, 1882:

As regards a carpenter's pencil, my reasoning is as follows. The old masters, what would they have drawn with? Certainly not with Faber B, BB, BBB &c. &c., but with a rough piece of graphite. The implement Michelangelo and Durer used was perhaps very similar to a carpenter's pencil. But I wasn't there and don't know. This I do know, that with a carpenter's pencil one can achieve intensities differently than with those fine Fabers.

Van Gogh often used both pen and pencil in his drawings, which he called "pencil and pen croquis". At the end of June 1881, he writes to Theo that "up to now" he had been drawing with pencil only, worked up or heightened with the pen, if necessary with a reed pen, which makes broader lines".

But couple of years later, his opinion about Faber pencils has changed. On 15 June 1883, he writes to his fellow artist Anton von Rappard:

Wanted to tell you about a type of pencil by Faber that I've found. Here you see the thickness of the cross section. They're soft and better quality than the carpenter's pencils, produce a marvellous black and are very agreeable to work with for large studies. I used it to draw a woman sewing on grey papier sans fin and got an effect like lithographic crayon. These pencils are made of soft wood, dyed green on the outside, cost 20 cents apiece.

 "My dear Theo, it's very difficult for me to write, so disturbed is my mind". Letter of Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh from the hospital in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, 22 August 1889. Cream machine-made wove paper; pencil black, or maybe black chalk.

 In 1890 Vincent Van Gogh ended his life. Some ten years earlier a more optimistic Vincent had written to his brother:

It was in this extreme poverty that I felt my energy return and that I said to myself, in any event I'll recover from it, I'll pick up my pencil that I put down in my great discouragement and I'll get back to drawing, and from then on, it seems to me, everything has changed for me, and now I'm on my way and my pencil has become somewhat obedient and seems to become more day by day. It was poverty, too long and too severe, that had discouraged me to the point where I could no longer do anything.

The Real Van Gogh. The Artist and his Letters opens in the Royal Academy of Arts in London on January 23, 2009. The new edition of Van Gogh's correspondence Vincent van Gogh - The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, the result of 15 years of scholarship is available for sale; 6 volumes with 640 of his paintings and drawings, 4,000 supplementary illustrations and 240 actual size letter sketches.

Vincent Van Gogh letter with an imprint of a Faber pencil.
Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG

On Vincent Van Gogh correspondence and artist techniques, see briefly Artist Online, Artist Materials and Techniques:  Drawing Pencils, Pen and Pencil and Van Gogh's Supplies, on Suite101

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Great Escape: Pencils for POWs

Escape maps made out of cloth, silk and tissue had been produced en masse during World War II to assist Prisoners of War in their escape plans. The maps were concealed in game boards, such as Monopoly, shaving brush handles, playing cards and in pencils. And they were mailed to POWs in legitimate aid packages. This was a highly classified operation and Cumberland Pencils, the famous English pencil manufacture, were in it.

Escape-maps website detail how Clayton Hutton of MI 9, the person responsible for the production of British cloth escape maps, found a suitable paper onto which a map could be printed - it had to be very thin, durable, crease-resistant and rustle-free;  it turned out that Japanese mulberry leaf paper was a perfect candidate. Were these mulberry paper tissue maps the ones concealed in the pencils for POWs made in the Cumberland factory in England?

The Great Escape Cumberland pencils contained a tightly rolled tissue map. On the left three of these escape maps are displayed. Pencil Museum, Keswick, England. Photo L. Apostolakou

The pencils made in the English Cumberland pencil manufacture contained a miniscule compass and a map of Germany. The map was tightly rolled into a pre-drilled cavity in the pencil barrel and the compass was fitted on top, secured in place by the metal ferrule. An eraser was then fitted at the end. Each pencil was stamped with a code to show which map was enclosed.

Three maps were in display in the Cumberland Pencil Museum, A2 Map of Germany, BL2 Escape Route West of Cologne, BL3 Area to the East of BL2. The escape routes recommended were west to the Netherlands and Belgium, and south to Switzerland.

The pencils were issued to bomber command aircrew but also sent to POW camps to aid in the prisoners Great Escape. The staff that produced them in Cumberland was specially selected and sworn to secrecy.

More Pencils for POWs

In his list of OSS Weapons and Equipment, Les Hughes refers to a Pencil Dagger, an ingenious British-made pencil often included in Red Cross parcels to prisoner war camps in Germany. Its purpose to assist POWs in their Great Escape. The Pencil Dagger was a plain, unsharpened, 7-inch long wooden pencil with a blue lead. Inside, it contained a blue steel 5 3/4 inch dagger wrapped with thread to prevent slippage. "Assuming captors would not confiscate an unsharpened pencil the captive would later split open the pencil and use the spike to 'dispatch' his enemy".

A mini compass was fitted under the Cumberland pencil's ferrule. Pencil Museum, Keswick, England.  
Photo L. Apostolakou

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Cumberland Pencils, King's Own, before Parliament.

Cumberland Pencils King's Own were accused of being brittle, unsuitable for "ordinary purposes", even frauds! The unfavourable review was presented before the British Parliament, the House of Commons, on 16 February 1943, right in the middle of the war.

William Thorne, MP, asked the President of the Board of Trade to
prevent any more of the Cumberland lead pencils known as the King's Own C.B. because they are so brittle that no one can sharpen them, either with a knife or with a pencil sharpener.

King's Own. Cumberland Pencil Museum.
Photo L. Apostolakou

Hugh Dalton (President of the Board of Trade between 1942 and 1945 and later Chancellor of the Exchequer in Clement Atlee's Labour government 1945-7) corrected Thorne that the pencil in question was the King's Own 3B. He agreed that "this type of pencil is not suitable for ordinary purposes" and said that since 30th June none has been manufactured.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this pencil is an absolute fraud?          
I am told that it is used by artists; but I agree that it is not suitable for general purposes. That is why I have discontinued the production.
If you go into the Library and put one of these pencils into a pencil sharpener, you will find that it is too brittle to sharpen at all.

 King's Own Finest Drawing Pencils from the Cumberland Pencil Museum, Keswick, England
Photos L. Apostolakou

On King's Own mechanical pencil, see Leadholder

Friday, 15 January 2010

The Fly Press. Slitting the Nib.

Coming back to Gillott & Sons Steel Pen Manufactory in Birmingham in the 1870s:

Messrs. Gillott's establishment and the process of pen making is described in grand style in The Trades and Manufactories of Great Britain in 1865: marking, piercing, embossing, raising, grinding, and finally slitting.

Cumberland Pencil Museum. Photo L. Apostolakou
 "We next pass to the slitting-room. Here the nib is made. The machines which perform this operation have to be carefully prepared. Two exceedingly delicate knives are fixed in the press, a pen is placed in the groove, and the handle of the press pulled, and lo! the slitting is effected with the utmost accuracy. This was to us one of the most interesting parts of the work. After the slit has been made you could write with the pen".

And lo! The nib-slitting machine which is called fly press is in front of me. At a corner of the Cumberland Pencil Museum exhibition room stands one of the pieces of industrial archaeology that being long out of use has become more of an installation art than a once marvel of technology. The label says the fly press was made around 1880. I present it here in two parts.

Fly Press Used for Slitting Pen Nibs. Cumberland Pencil Musuem, at Keswick, England.
Photo L. Apostolakou

When the nibs are ready they "are sent in to the world in boxes. These boxes are also made on the establishment, and the work is simple, easy, and pleasant. Every reader is familiar with the many elegant designs which render some of these boxes so attractive."

 Pencil Museum, Keswick. Photo L. Apostolakou

Of course one should not leave Messrs. Gillott & Sons Manufactory without a glance at the workforce. All rooms are airy and clean and the girls working there are neatly and cleanly dressed. None of the stench and dirt of the engineering sector here. The girls have even decorated the windows with small trees and flowering plants making the work rooms into fragrant, beautiful gardens. "The utmost order and decorum reign everywhere".

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Yellow Pencils, Oriental Images: The Koh-I-Noor

From academic treatises and high art, orientalism found its way into Hardtmuth's yellow pencils. By the time Joseph Hardtmuth introduced his famous pencil to the market in 1890, oriental studies and oriental styles were established in Europe and oriental images were ingrained in the mass subconscious. From its name - Koh-I-Noor - down to its colour, the Austrian manufacturer's pencil tapped into popular 19th-century Oriental images. It was advertising at its finest.

To Westerners the Orient was an exotic place, full of mysteries, luxuries, sensuality. In literature, poetry and art, the Orient was romanticised as well as distorted but the imagery that orientalism exported to society involved tactile pleasures and luxury. Antoine Galland's translation of the Arabian Nights in 1709; Coleridge's Kubla Khan poem in 1816, Belzoni's acclaimed Egyptian "discoveries" in 1812, Ingres' famous "Turkish Bath" painting in 1862, are a few examples of the widespread fascination with all things oriental. And then there was the Koh-I-Noor.

 Yellow was an imperial colour in China.  
Cartoon by James Gillray, 1792

The legendary diamond that was presented to Queen Victoria in 1877 carried with it a long history of exotic mysteries. Naming a pencil after it was ostentatious but it worked. The name Koh-I-Noor brought together graphite's association with diamonds (diamonds and graphite are two allotropes of carbon) and the luxury and allure of the Orient - which was incidentally a source of quality graphite as well. And what more appropriate colour for such an exclusive pencil than yellow. The use of oriental images - endowing a humble pencil with a favoured colour of imperial China and a diamond name of legend - was a ticket for advertising success.

Yellow Pencils by Cumberland Pencil Co. Cumberland Pencil Museum.
Photo L. Apostolakou

Petroski writes: "Painting pencils yellow.. became a sing of quality in the last decade of the [19th] century. ... By the middle of the [20th] century ... yellow had become so firmly established as sign of 'pencilness' in the minds of pencil users, though they may not conscioulsy have known of its Asian allusion to quality graphite or of its association with a pencil named after a legendary diamond".

See Henry Petroski, The Pencil, NY 1989; On Orientalism, Edward Said, Orientalism, Vintage 1979; On Belzoni, the circus strongman and his Egyptian "discoveries", see Egyptian Treasures and Belzoni the Strongman; on the translation of the Arabian Nights, see Story of Aladdin and Forgery.

Yellow Pencils in Fan-shaped arrangement. Cumberland Pencil Museum. 
orientalism "a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western Experience. The Orient is... the source of [Europe's] civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience." ~ Edward Said

Monday, 11 January 2010

Derwent Pencils: Charcoal and Drawing

Yes, I know, Derwent pencils are not "writing instruments" and I didn't write. But I just couldn't resist. It was a batch I picked during a visit to the Pencil Museum up in Keswick, Cumbria, home of the world famous Derwent pencils. The batch, some ten pencils of various makes and colours, was one of many tied together with an elastic band and priced at £3.

Derwent Pencils. Derwent Drawing Brown Ochre 5700
Photo L. Apostolakou

I used the medium charcoal pencil and mixed it with the Derwent Drawing Brown Ochre 5700. The charcoal pencil is rich and smooth and offers perfect control. I was very pleased with the shading and quality of the tip. The Derwent Drawing has a pastel-feel, smooth and velvety.

Derwent Pencil. Derwent Charcoal Medium
Photo L. Apostolakou

Guiltily I used the last page of my trusted Cadmium Green Trav.e.logue journal for a quick test. Maybe I'll take up sketching.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Writing Instruments and Roland Barthes

What was Roland Barthes relationship to writing instruments? The French literary critic had a passion for pens and inks. In an interview to Le Monde in September 1973 he revealed:

I would say (...) that I have an almost obsessive relation to writing instruments. I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it. I try out new ones. Besides, I have far too many pens - I don't know what to do with all of them. And yet, as soon as I see them, I start craving them. I cannot keep myself from buying them.

When felt-tipped pens first appeared in stores, I loved them a lot. (...) Since then I've become tired of them, because the point flattens out too quickly. I've also used nibs - not the "Sergeant-Major", which is too dry, but softer nibs, like the "J". In short I've tried everything... except Bics, with which I feel absolutely no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a "Bic style", which is really just for churning out cheap copy, writing that merely transcribes thoughts.
In the end, I always return to fine ink pens. The essential thing is that they can produce that soft, smooth writing I absolutely hold dear.
Roland Barthes quoted in Neil Badmington, "The 'Inkredible' Roland Barthes", Paragraph 31:1 (2008).

J nibs (second and third from the right) by Guillott

Cumberland Pencil Museum. Photo L. Apostolakou

Friday, 8 January 2010

Truman Capote, the Pencil and the Typewriter

"I am a completely horizontal author", Truman Capote admitted. Like Proust, Capote was a bed fiend as if cocooning himself into an horizontal position facilitated the flow of thought. He said he never used a typewriter when he started on a piece of writing: both the first draft of his work and later the complete revision were written in pencil longhand.
Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. No, I don't get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees. Sure, it works fine; I can manage a hundred words in a minute. Well, when the yellow draft is finished, I put the manuscript away for a while, a week, a month, sometimes longer. ... if all goes well, I type the final version on white paper and that's that.

Truman Capote used Blackwing 602 pencils. 
Photo courtesy of

Capote kept notebooks with outlines for stories for sometime but found that this "somehow deadened the idea of [his] imagination. If the notion is good enough, if it truly belongs to you, then you can't forget it - it will haunt you till it's written".

Truman Capote (1924-1984)  

The Art of Fiction no. 17. Truman Capote. Interviewed by Pati Hill. Paris Review, issue 16, Spring-Summer 1957. On Capote's In Cold Blood read The Guardian's "In Cold Blood, Half a Century On", 16 November 2009.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Writing Implements. Rabbit's Foot. And a China Monkey.

implement [late Middle English] article of furniture, equipment, or dress. Partly from the medieval Latin plural implementa and partly from late Latin implementum "filling up, fulfilment"; both from Latin implere "fill up", later "employ". The meaning of tool, instrument, utensil, if first recorded in 1538 in the plural sense of equipment needed to do some kind of work, and in the singular sense of such a tool, in 1628.

Writing implements. Instruments of fulfilment. Equipment needed by those who need to write. Pens? Pencils? Paper? What about these peculiar talismans that stand guard on writers' desks or in writers' pockets? Thomas Edison carried a pencil whose peculiar dimensions (it was custom-made by the Eagle Pencil Co. specially to fit the inventor's pocket) made it into something more than a mere writing instrument. Rudyard Kipling kept an array of objects on his desk (ranging from a canoe-shaped penholder to a leather crocodile paper weight) which he called "little fetishes".

A Victorian Rabbit's Foot. Photo by Sobebunny

Together with his blue-backed notebooks and pencils, Ernest Hemingway carried in his right pocket, as he roamed in the coffee shops of Paris, a horse chestnut and a rabbit's foot "for luck".
The fur had been worn off the rabbit's foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there. (Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast)
Writing didn't come easy for Hemingway. Perhaps he felt he needed the rabbit's foot to speed things up. But Charles Dickens was turning out one novel after another with remarkable speed. Still, the Victorian writer had a need for "writing implements" to assist creative fulfilment. Dickens was particular on the arrangment of objects on his desk and he always kept near him a china monkey.

Charles Dickens' China Monkey at the Dickens Museum
Photo L. Apostolakou

The monkey squats on the writing-desk donning a jaunty hat and Victorian dress complete with bow tie and is holding something that looks like a long smoking pipe. Its constant presence on the Victorian author's desk makes him a writing implement par excellence.

Definition of "implement" from Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Thoreau and the American Pencil

Lakshmi Ananth, my colleague at Suite101, has a long standing appreciation of pencils as writing instruments par excellence. Here is an interesting piece she has written about Henry Thoreau the inventor and the story of the American pencil:

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Very few people are aware that the hermit of Walden made significant contributions to the field of engineering before he turned his attention to civil disobedience.  But it is fitting that the list of inventions of the simple transcendentalist who influenced  the  likes  of Gandhi and Martin Luther King should include the humble pencil.

Before Thoreau, the American pencil was an inferior version of its European cousin – made from the scarce and mediocre graphite available in America, its lead smudging and easily crumbling.  With war came the ban on exports from England and the price of European graphite skyrocketed.  And seemingly nothing could be done to improve the quality of pencils made from locally available graphite.

Henry David Thoreau literally grew up in the pencil manufacturing business.  His father John Thoreau owned a pencil factory with brother-in-law Charles Dunbar who discovered graphite in the New Hampshire region.

Pencils were made by combining graphite with a binder and pouring the mixture into wooden slats with grooves.  Thoreau modified the process by using clay for the binder.  The result was a pencil whose lead did not easily disintegrate and didn’t smear.  John Thoreau pencils became much sought after, a success even with artists and draughtsmen.
Thoreau also revolutionized several details in the manufacturing process, inventing machines to grind the graphite and bore holes in wood.  Although the Germans were already pioneers in pencil making, the American pencil owes its present shape to the ingenuity of Henry David Thoreau.

Consistent with his nature, Thoreau did not benefit from his innovation at all – no patents, no profits and hardly any recognition as a pencil engineer.  And little did he value his own invention.  The pencil did not figure in his list of essentials for a 12-day excursion into the Maine woods although he must have used it extensively to record his journal.  Or was it such an integral part of him that he failed to think of it separately as a requirement, as he did paper or matches? 

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new. – H.D.Thoreau

But the humble pencil, still selling in millions in these days of hand-held computers and pixels, when the word notebook has taken a whole new meaning, is one fashion that seems to have transcended the times.

Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Knopf 1992

More on Thoreau and the American pencil, see  "Machine in the Wetland: Re-imagining Thoreau's Plumbago-Grinder" by Randall Conrad.

Monday, 4 January 2010

How to Make Pen Nibs: The Steel Pens of Joseph Gillott

If some berated the evils of 19th-century manufacturing, others enthused at its marvels, its environment, its neat structures and achievements. The illustrations published at The Graphic following the Prince of Wales visit in Gillott's pen manufacture in Birmingham show a large structure festooned with banners and flags all expectant of the royal visit. An orderly row of ladies are working the machinery facing tall windows flooded with light. The steel pens of Gillott are as elegant, efficient, civilized as his factory.

Gillott Nibs in the Keswick Pencil Museum
Photo L. Apostolakou

The author of The Trades and Manufactories of Great Britain describes the process of how pen nibs are made. The best Swedish iron, brought from Sheffield in sheets, is used. The iron is cut into thin slips, then goes into the cutting-room where girls pass the slips under a cutting-out press (each girl produces around 30,000 pen nibs per day).

What takes place next is
  • side-slitting during which a slit is cut on each side of the pen, and "it is curious to see the quickness with which nimble fingers of the girls accomplish this";
  • piercing the metal to make the central part in which ink flows through the nib;
  • annealing, that is marking the pen nib with the makers' name and firm trademark
  • raising or binding, an operation which gives the nib its form 
  • hardening during which the pen nibs are put in boxes, placed in a hot furnace, then emptied into pots of 5-ft deep oil, then whizzed around in a cylinder;
  • tempering, i.e. heating the nib "destroying the previous brittleness... and turns it out with all the elasticity requisite for the discharge of its future duties to society".
  • cleaning the nibs in a cylinder containing saw-dust
  • grinding
  • slitting the nib
  • colouring in a variety of tints and  varnishing.
The steel pens are then "ready to be put into boxes and sent into the world to discharge their peaceful mission among men".

Pen Nibs by Gillott. Keswick Pencil Museum.
Photo L. Apostolakou