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

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