Graphite is a metallic grey writing and drawing material most commonly used in pencil form – though graphite powder is also used by artists as a drawing material

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  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Elizabeth Siddall in a Chair' date not known
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    Elizabeth Siddall in a Chair date not known
    Pencil on paper
    support: 260 x 184 mm
    Bequeathed by H.F. Stephens 1932
  • Carl Andre, 'Drawing for `The Perfect Painting'' 1967
    Carl Andre
    Drawing for `The Perfect Painting' 1967
    Pencil on graph paper
    support: 216 x 279 mm
    frame: 390 x 446 x 25 mm
    Presented by David Novros through the American Federation of Arts 1977© Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2002
  • Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, 'Desiderium' 1873
    Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt
    Desiderium 1873
    Pencil on paper
    support: 210 x 133 mm
    Presented by Sir Philip Burne-Jones Bt 1910

Graphite is a crystalline form of carbon and is useful as a writing and drawing tool, as only the slightest pressure is needed to leave a mark. It has a greasy texture and is dull metallic grey in colour. Graphite is a stable and permanent material but can easily be removed using an eraser.

Graphite is soft and brittle so, unless being used as a drawing material in powder form, it requires some form of protective casing. The exact date and origin of the first graphite pencils is unknown but it is thought that the first graphite sticks encased in wood appeared around 1565, shortly after the discovery of natural graphite in Cumberland in Britain. Graphite also occurs naturally in Siberia, Bavariain Germany, and in the United States of America. It can, however be made artificially by heating cokes at high temperatures, known as the Asheson process.

Today graphite is usually referred to as ‘pencil’ or occasionally ‘lead pencil’. This name came about because prior to the discovery of graphite, lead had been used since ancient times as a writing tool. Graphite was thought to be a form of lead until 1779, when K.W. Scheele, a Swedish chemist, discovered that the so-called lead used in pencils, was in fact a mineral form of carbon. It was named ‘graphite’ from the Greek word for writing. The term pencil derives from the Latin word for brush, ‘penicillum’.