The Black Lead of Borrowdale, 1500–1750:An Object History of a Mutable Material

Donaldson, Christopher (2022) The Black Lead of Borrowdale, 1500–1750:An Object History of a Mutable Material. In: Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries 1000-1700. Medieval Studies Exeter Studies in Medieval Europe . Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 251–266. ISBN 9781800856349

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This chapter extends the focus of this collection by examining the early modern material history of Borrowdale graphite. The ‘black lead’ mines of Borrowdale are located in the centre of the English Lake District, and they are the source of some of the purest graphite on earth. As the Furness Abbey Coucher Book makes clear, the riches of these mines have been exploited since at least 1514. By the 1560s, moreover, graphite mined in Borrowdale was being rendered into a variety of commodities that circulated throughout Europe. Traders were supplying artists in Italy with Borrowdale graphite as early as the 1580s, and, in the process, helped to influence the emergence of a new form of portraiture known as plumbago drawing. But the commercial use of graphite was hardly restricted to pencil making. Following the ban on the exportation of Bavarian graphite in 1613, Borrowdale ‘black lead’ became increasingly essential for sustaining the English armament industry. Thanks to its unique molecular properties, graphite was widely considered the best material for facing moulds for cannon and musket balls as well as for cleaning firearms and lubricating rollers, screws and rigging. Nor was this all. By the turn of the eighteenth century, Borrowdale graphite was also being used medicinally to treat disorders ranging from gallstones to bladder infections. In this chapter, I provide case studies of each of these early modern applications of Borrowdale graphite. Special attention, however, will be given to one of the most curious graphite artefacts yet discovered: a set of medieval ‘lead’ moulds used in the production of counterfeit coins. These moulds date from the reign of Henry VII. They were discovered in the western Lake District in 1865, and they are now part of the collection of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle, UK. Their existence not only affirms how graphite was being used on the black market around the turn of the sixteenth century, but also proves how this highly mobile and mutable substance was essential to the manufacture and circulation of a wide range of objects. In delving into these subjects, this chapter seeks both to illuminate an often-unappreciated aspect of the early modern history of the Lake District and, in doing so, to suggest how object-orientated methodologies can help us to perceive the industrial and environmental history of the region in a different way.

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25 May 2022 09:35
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12 Sep 2023 03:19