E Wolff & Son – The Leighton Pencil / Pure Cumberland Lead Pencil

When it comes to collecting old Wolff pencils, the examples I always look out for are those that where manufactured when Wolff was operating as a partnership, i.e. predating the formation of the Limited Company.

These are usually identified through the use of the words ‘manufacturers’ or ‘makers’ printed somewhere on the pencil barrel or the box.  This is not always the case however and you will, on occasion, find certain models keeping this styling of the brand name, but actually being produced by the formation of the Royal Sovereign Pencil Co Ltd.  An example of this is some of the ‘Solid Ink’ pencils.

The pencils we are going to look at today however fall firmly into the ‘old Wolff pencils’ bracket. You may have noticed that I have entitled this post ‘The Leighton Pencil / Pure Cumberland Lead Pencil’.  There is a good reason for this!  As far as my research has shown, these pencils were essentially exactly the same.  The Leighton Pencil appears to be nothing more than a rebrand of the Pure Cumberland Lead Pencil and so we will cover info on both at the same time.

When we look at this advert from the West London Times, 12 October 1867, we can see that they refer to the ‘Pure Cumberland Lead’ model.

What I think happened is that Leighton used this pencil, Wolff got wind of it, and they reached some sort of agreement where they rebranded it.  Once the Leighton Pencil appears, the Pure Cumberland Lead Pencil disappears.  The Leighton Pencil has all of the same features as the Pure Cumberland Lead Pencil, and in fact retains the same branding on the pencil barrel.

An interesting quirk with Wolff was that unlike a lot of makers, they reserved the natural finish for their higher end pencils.  The idea being that the pencils were of such good quality that a paint job would only serve to detract from this.   Modern makers take note!

Note the lovely wooden end cap finish, something of real quality.

You can read a post on a similarly aged yet cheaper model here (and note the polished finish).  The below advert from the Windsor and Eton Express, 21 March 1868 shows that the Compressed Lead pencils were half the price of the Pure Cumberland Lead models.

The quote from Wolff below not only mentions this fact also but notes that the natural Leighton Pencil has a ‘Pompeian colour cedar hue’.

The box design is, quite simply, amazing. But it also gives us some nice clues as to its production date.

Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton, PRA, was known as Sir Frederic Leighton between 1878 and 1896.  He was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1878 as well, so we know that the earliest this box could have been from is 1878.

In 1886 Leighton was made a baronet in the Baronetage of the United Kingdom; therefore, after this point it would have been correct for the box to refer to him within his quote as ‘Sir Frederick Leighton Bt P.R.A’.  Incidentally, in 1896, Leighton was given the peerage of Baron in 1896 (then subsequently died), hence why he is referred to as “Lord Leighton’.

Taking all that into account, I believe that this particular box can be dated between 1878 and 1886.

That’s not to say the Leighton Pencils were not still being made after this date, they were, and some of sources I have come across for these pencils are found in later catalogues or newspapers.  This box however appears to be an older example.  It’s also the only example I’ve ever come across.

Interestingly, this wasn’t just a bit of early ‘influencer advertising’ going on; Leighton actually was using these pencils for his work.  I spoke with the Leighton House Museum in London and they actually have records of Leighton’s accounts with C Roberson & Co and he was placing orders, and paying for, Leighton pencils from them right up until his death.

The records are handwritten, however, the curators were kind enough to send me some typed examples of Leighton’s orders to C Roberson & Co:

The Roberson catalogue from 1926 still makes reference to the Leighton Pencils, although by this stage the Royal Sovereign Pencil Co Ltd was in existence and so they would be branded accordingly.  I wonder if perhaps Robersons just had a lot of stock and were still selling them as I have not come across any other advertisements for them.

Another interesting note from the advert below is the shortened versions with point protector.  Again, I have not seen examples of these anywhere.

The ‘Business World’ publication of 1914 ran an article on the Limited Company and included one of the few references to the Leighton Pencil.

Obviously this was long since Leighton’s death but it does appear that they were still manufacturing them.  I haven’t come across a version with the Ltd company stamping, but if ever do I shall update this post accordingly.  If I had to take a guess, I’d assume that the later Leighton Pencils probably had round cores.

My examples as you would expect for a pencil of this age all have the square core with the ‘trough and lid’ fabrication.

You will have noticed that my box of pencils actually came filled half with Wolff and half with B. S. Cohen pencils.  I don’t believe for a second that the Cohen pencils were part of the original contents, but rather they just ended up in there at some point.  If interested in these, you can read about them in a previous post – B.S. Cohen’s Compressed Cumberland Lead Pencils.

3 thoughts on “E Wolff & Son – The Leighton Pencil / Pure Cumberland Lead Pencil

Add yours

  1. I have a pencil that looks almost exactly like these, same “E. Wolff & son Makers London” label, except it doesn’t have a solid wood end and it says “”carbon drawing pencil” instead of “pure Cumberland lead”. I can’t find any information about it anywhere! Do you have any ideas? Thank you!


    1. Hi Melissa
      I know exactly the pencils you mean. If you want to get in touch via the contact page and then send me a picture i can compare it to my timeline of carbon pencils and help you date it!


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