Friday, April 20, 2018

Vintage Colored Pencils, Part 11: Rexel Cumberland Derwent

Vintage Rexel Cumberland Derwent pencils

In the first chapter of The Pencil Perfect, author Caroline Weaver talks about the discovery of graphite in the 16th century in England’s Lake District. Though numerous pencil manufacturing companies were in the area at one time, the only one still remaining is Derwent. The company even has a museum for pencil aficionados – The Derwent Pencil Museum in Keswick – which is home to the world’s largest colored pencil (26 feet long)! Derwent obviously has a long, proud history in pencil production.

According to Wikipedia, the company we now know as Derwent began in 1832 under the name Banks, Son & Co. The company was eventually purchased by Acco UK (known then as Rexel) and became a brand of their product range. This company would pass through several hands before becoming the Cumberland Pencil Company in 1916.

A huge, lovely set of vintage Rexel Cumberland Derwent pencils recently came my way  a generous gift from someone who knows that I eat and breathe colored pencils. I contacted Derwent to see if I could learn approximately how old my set is, but I didn’t get a response. But I found at least three versions of branding in the hefty collection.

3 styles of branding

Interestingly, one is Derwent Artist, which is still the name of a Derwent pencil line, but the contemporary Derwent Artist pencils I have tried are much harder than these.

Derwent's contemporary Procolour
Compared to Derwent’s vast range of contemporary colored pencil lines, these Rexel Cumberland pencils have a very different appearance. For example, the contemporary Inktense, ColourSoft and Procolour (at right) lines all have a solid-colored round barrel with only the end caps indicating the core’s color. This design is consistent with all of Derwent’s current collections. On the vintage Rexel Cumberland pencils, however, the full length of the round barrel matches the core’s color, and the end is unfinished. It looks very similar to Prismacolor’s long-standing design.
Unfinished ends on the Cumberland Derwent
Enough about design; we all know that the most important aspect of any pencil is its core. When I initially swatched these, I was astounded by how deliciously soft and creamy they are. They are probably as soft as any colored pencils I own, including Caran d’Ache Luminance and vintage Berol Prismacolors. In fact, I’d say they are most similar to my old Prismacolors in softness, application and even appearance.

My curiosity immediately led me to trying to figure out which contemporary Derwent line was the successor to these very soft Cumberlands. ColourSoft and Derwent’s newest Procolour line were the likeliest candidates. They all have a 4mm core. ColourSofts feel slightly drier than the Cumberlands and also produce more dust. The Cumberlands are close to Procolour in softness – perhaps even slightly softer and with a creamier texture.

(An aside: I’ve long been flabbergasted by the number of colored pencil lines Derwent currently has in production – I counted 10 on Blick’s site. Procolour, ColourSoft and the limited-color-range Drawing line all are close enough in performance that only a geek making side-by-side comparisons on a rainy afternoon would be able to distinguish them. I’m not complaining, mind you – more for geeks like me to ponder – but it’s perplexing, nonetheless. Next time I’m in the UK, I must make a pilgrimage to that Derwent museum and discuss these questions with them myself.)
4/1/18 Cumberland Derwent pencils in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook 
For my apple sketch, I used a smooth Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook. As I expected from initial swatches, the Cumberlands blend beautifully, and it’s easy to build up layers of rich color. They are the kind of pencils I like to use at life drawing, so I grabbed several and took them to Gage a few days ago, where I used them on all the 10-minute and longer poses.

I don’t know how long these Cumberlands have been out of production, but despite the number of similar pencil lines the company now makes, none of them is exactly the same as these. Thanks, Ana – I’m very happy to have and use them.

A spring bouquet!


  1. I'm so glad you liked them. If I'm not mistaken, there are still more in the archives at work. Let me know if you work your way through any color specifically and I can probably replenish it.

    1. Thanks again, Ana! What a hidden treasure!

    2. I still have some of these - mine date from the late 1970's so difficult to get. You're very lucky to have them. I love them better than all my newer brands.

  2. I have a small stash of their sketching pencils with similar Rexel Cumberland branding to the top one, they were purchased in the early 1990s. I also have a couple that say both Rexel and Derwent on them so Derwent must have been the name of a line at some point before it was the company name?

    1. Yes, that was my thought, too -- a transition from brand name to company name.


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