Many of Leighton's works contain images of physical labour: farmers toiling in the fields, fishermen pulling in their catch, dockhands off-loading goods, and women washing clothes or mending nets. This exhibition takes the artist's depiction of labour as its focus and features key examples from throughout her career.

Leighton herself had an extraordinary work ethic which was rooted in her unconventional childhood upbringing. Both parents were writers, but Leighton's father who wrote Wild West boys' stories was also a frustrated painter, and her mother would scold him ruthlessly for ‘neglecting his money-earning writing' whilst she wrote pot-boilers for the dailies in order to keep the upper-class household going. Her brother Roland, killed in 1915, was to be immortalised by his fiancé Vera Brittain in her memoir ‘Testament of Youth'.

Leighton's mother and uncle, an artist and illustrator, had declared that she would never become a successful artist but the young Clare was determined to prove them wrong. After the family moved to Sussex she persuaded her parents to let her go to Brighton Art School and subsequently to the Slade School of Art, where she was taught by Sir Henry Tonks from 1920-23, spending ‘months on end sitting before a model and drawing and drawing and drawing.'

Faced with the reality of needing to earn her living she left the Slade and began illustrating her father's Wild West stories, enrolling for evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in order to learn about black and white reproduction. Her tutor Noel Rooke inspired her passion for wood engraving and her natural aptitude was rewarded by the purchase of an early effort by the consummate engraver Eric Gill.

In the late 1920s Leighton took a job teaching children from one of the poorest slum districts of London, taking them to the National Gallery and encouraging them to see beauty in the shapes and forms of chimney pots around them. During this time she continued to engrave ‘countless wood blocks, aware of neither fatigue or impatience. It did not seem to matter that three days a week I had to take trains to separate schools in the country. There were weekends and evenings in which to get excited over new designs.'

As Leighton built up a reputation as a book illustrator her teaching career gave way to lecturing, and in 1928 she embarked on a lecture tour of the United States through her then partner the journalist Noel Brailsford. The exhibition includes an example from Leighton's series of engravings of Canadian lumberjacks at work in remote snowy woodland, created during a subsequent trip to a lumber camp on the Quebec-Ontario border in the winter of 1930-31.

During the 1930s Leighton worked on several celebrated books, such as ‘The Farmer's Year' (1933), which depicted rural activities such as threshing, haymaking, apple-picking, lambing, ploughing and sowing that were associated with the months of the year, examples of which are included in the show. Other books that she authored and illustrated included ‘Four Hedges: A Gardener's Chronicle' (1935) which was inspired by her garden, and the very influential manual Wood-engraving and Woodcuts' (1932). Cont.

In 1939, with the break-up of her relationship with Brailsford and the approach of World War II, Leighton permanently moved to the USA. The landscape and rural activities of the American South, such as cotton picking and corn shucking, inspired her 1942 book ‘Southern Harvest', whilst activities such as cranberrying, codfishing, whaling and lobstering in Connecticut were the focus of a series of twelve designs for Wedgwood plates on the theme of ‘New England Industries', an example of which is also included the show.

Other notable works represented include a powerfully bleak engraving called ‘Breadline, New York' produced at the height of the Great Depression in which men warm themselves before a fire at the end of a seemingly endless queue that stretches through the city.


2013 marks the eightieth anniversary of the first publication of Clare Leighton's book The Farmer's Year: A Calendar of English Husbandry which has been reprinted by Little Toller books.

David Leighton, nephew of Clare Leighton, will give a talk on Clare Leighton: The Growth and Shaping of an Artist-Writer on Thursday 16th January, 6pm. Tickets are 8.50 (Friends £7, Students £7.50).

The exhibition is supported by Toovey's Auctioneers.