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The Botanical Room part 2 - Pencils

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

Pencils are the beginning, in my opinion, they are the tool that outclasses all other, be it a stick dipped in soot or the lovely hexagonal cedar sticks with a graphite centre; with just one pencil you can design anything, communicate and portray all discoveries. Apparently, hexagonal pencils outsell round ones by 10 to one it's not because they are great for guessing multiple choice questions in your exams (yes I did that, a,b, c and so on scratched in each plane of the pencil, the shame), it is also not because they settle nicely in your grip. It is because geometry dictates that nine hexagonal pencils can be cut from one slat of cedar, and only eight round ones are possible; this makes hexagonal pencils cheaper to produce.

These Berol Venus green crackle pencils, seen here in the botanical room, are for me the most evocative of pencils. My father, the original and best Billy Showell was a graphic artist. His skill with calligraphy was second to none. He was an artist from the off, loving cartoons and dreaming of becoming a cartoonist like Walt Disney. However, at 14, he became an apprentice calligrapher at an artist studio in Jermyn street London Piccadilly. They spotted his talent straight away. He trained through the bulk of the second world war, through blackouts and on occasion working by candlelight. The company recognised his potential so much they continued to pay him a salary throughout his conscription, true to my father's unerring sense of generosity love and honour he sent most of it to his mum (Nanna) and dad. Below is Dad's cartoon birthday card that he gave to his dad, he was about 7 or 8 when he drew these little characters.

Once dad's career took off, he ended up going it alone as Russel Artists and eventually made a partnership with his good friend Alwyn Crawshaw. The two of them ran the Russel Artists studio together. Dad was very successful. He was the sort of chap that lit up a room, and had a great sense of humour and the gift of bringing joy. That along with his fantastic skills was an unbeatable combo. You can probably tell I was a bit in awe of my dad, and that admiration continues even to this day, even though he is no longer here.

Here is my handsome Pa at about 17 years old

But I digress, and happily so, as Bill Showell was awesome. So, back to pencils. The pencils in my botanical room today are the very pencils I used to 'borrow' from my dads home desk. I can see it now, the second to top drawer on right stuffed full of pencils, still in their boxes, all grades and in pristine condition along with the classic Staedtler erasers, too much for any drawing obsessed child to resist. The funny thing is, I never wanted for drawing materials. My siblings and I had plenty of art tools, however, these never seemed as professional as dads. His pencils were probably magic, and if I had his pencils, always sharp and long, then maybe I would be able to draw just like dad.

These pencils belong in my botanical room, as pencils are integral to the history of botanical illustration. The first mass-produced pencils were made in 1662; the pencils used on the Endeavour would surely have been similar to the pencils we use today. Just for a moment, think of all the information the pencil has recorded. With just one pencil, we hold the glorious weight of human recording of history and discovery.

Without wood, the pencil may never have been made this way, though I am sure they would have found some other way of making a pencil. Perhaps chalk would have remained commonplace? Wood is so important and trees are the best.

I use twigs in my paintings to symbolise longevity and invention, and I adore the twist of a branch and all the different qualities it can possess: swippy, bendy, brittle, gnarly, knotty; I love them all. Hurrah for wood and hurrah for pencils!

My little pot of 'pencil shorts', as I call them, sits on top of our piano. I won't go into detail, but it's for sentimental reasons. Pots of pencils are essential. We can rarely find a pencil in our house until we discover a plethora of them at the back of a drawer, all of them blunt, all of them slightly chewed. Maybe the back of the drawer is where they feel safe to nest and breed.

I still have the first box of colour pencils that I received from my dad, a box of Derwent. I had these and what seemed like a huge box of Caran d'ache from Santa ;) I could, therefore, never complain about not having the tools I needed to draw. But we all need excuses not to get on with stuff, don't we?

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