Graphite on Paper, map, pathologic specimen

Selection of 41 drawings realised on an expedition from London to the French Alps to retrace the history of I.55, specimen from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology Collection

Calcification, Specimen from St Bartholomew’s Hospital Pathology Collection

View of the installation: Ceeac, Strasbourg, 2015

From the Series I_Carboniferous site, Graphite on Arches paper, 7x15cm

From the Series II_The Graphite Vein, Graphite on Arches paper, 7x15cm

From the Series III_Graphite Mine, Graphite on Arches paper, 7x15cm

From the Series IV_Plombagine, Graphite on Arches paper, 7x15cm

From the Series V_Conté Factory, Graphite on Arches paper, 7x15cm

From the Series VI_Sennelier, Graphite on Arches paper, 7x15cm

HDv, Col, 7'50''

A century ago, a young girl swallows a pencil. The swallowed specimen now resides in a jar on a shelf of the pathological collection at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. The discovery of this specimen raises questions about the motivations and the circumstances in which this scene occurred, not to mention the specific use of this pencil lead nor its strange fate. Somewhere between fiction and reality, this series of drawings was developed as a narrative piece. They were created during a journey to set the graphite specimen in its historical and paleogeological context.

After 1000 kilometres of train journeys, five days of walking, the ascent of two passes and excursions into industrial wastelands, I unravelled the journey of this fragment of graphite and was able to map the major places in its transformation. Under the guidance of geologist Raymond Lestournelle and geophysicist Luc Tondeur, I travelled back to the earliest time of the graphite’s formation in a carboniferous forest, some 320 million years ago. We walked on the coal-bearing site, where over millions of years, organic residues of this forest transformed into carbon.

After walking for 12 hours, we located a crystallised form of carbon: veins of graphite, the result of contact metamorphosis. At an altitude of 2800 meters, on the Chardonnet’s rock face which is lashed by frozen winds, we followed the dark and oily graphite veins to reach the entrance of a mine. Under the light of our speleological torches, the vast caverns of the mine emerged as if abandoned just the day before. Subsequently water rivulets, used to carry the extracted material, lead us back to the valley where we found remnants of a factory used to process graphite into powder. Vestiges of the Plombagine factory still exist below Briançon railway station. From there, the journey continued to the Conté factories, major graphite pencil producers in the early XXth century.

At the time of the young girl’s accident, Sennelier was the main seller of Conté pencils in France. This Parisian shop also kept detailed lists of their clients. Documents stored in Forney’s Archives in Paris enabled me to track down a certain Edgar Amphlett. In the summer 1914, this journalist was appointed war correspondent for the Times Newspaper in France. A few months later, his daughter swallowed a pencil.