Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
The Industrious Artist: Clare Leighton
[ Essay )
Director Simon Martin explores Clare Leighton's evocative woodcut depictions of rural life.
Clare Leighton (1898-1989) was a hugely prolific artist whose art reflected not just her own work ethic, but that of ordinary workers.
During the course of her long life the artist Clare Leighton produced a remarkable body of work – over 840 wood engravings, twelve books that she both wrote and illustrated, as well as paintings, glass and ceramics, and celebrated lecture tours that led her to be described as “one of America’s most dynamic platform personalities.”
Whilst Leighton was able to produce finely detailed botanical engravings, she avoided the cliché of a woman artist depicting flowers and decorative motifs as a leisure activity. Not only hard-working herself, she was drawn to create 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.
No one seems to get a moment’s rest in Leighton’s images, except perhaps in a powerfully bleak engraving called Breadline, New York (1932) 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. The skyscrapers that tower above the unemployed men are a stark contrast to the lyrical forms of the rolling hills and beautifully described trees that feature in Leighton’s more typical depictions of the countryside. There seems to be an implicit virtue and contentment in the rural labour that she depicts, and a fear of the possibility of unemployment.
Leighton’s extraordinary work ethic was rooted in her unconventional upbringing. Both parents were writers, but Leighton’s father who wrote Wild West boys’ stories was also a frustrated painter. 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.
Leighton later wrote a novel about her Bohemian mother called ‘Tempestuous Petticoat: The Story of an Invincible Edwardian’ and she recalled how “normal behaviour in the household was one of unceasing work”.
Her background perhaps explains to some extent the dual career that she was to follow as both writer and artist. She was from a generation of young women whose opportunities and outlook changed following the First World War in which so many of their brothers, husbands and fiancés were killed. Her own 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 Jack, an artist and illustrator, had declared that she would never become a successful artist and it seems that 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, an environment that she found “intoxicatingly new” and subsequently to the Slade School of Art, where she was taught by Sir Henry Tonks from 1920-23, which meant hard graft: “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, engendered her passion for the art of wood engraving, and the sense that her efforts could be immediately rewarded in the printed image. She later wrote of being “spellbound with the feeling of creating light. I was able to imitate the first day of Creation. Each line and every speck made by the tool were to print white.”
Her second attempt at wood engraving was bought from an exhibition by Eric Gill, which was a huge endorsement as he was widely considered the leading exponent of the medium at the time.
Leighton had an enlightened attitude towards teaching and inclusion, having been fascinated as a child by a disabled pavement artist she used to encounter when out on walks with her nanny. She later wrote of how “Nanny’s scoldings were of no avail. All I wanted to do was to sit beside this real artist and learn from him. Perhaps – who knew? – he might lend me one of his crayons.”
As a young woman she got a job through William Rothenstein 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, which no doubt shaped her own approach to mechanical forms.
Whilst teaching 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. A subsequent trip to a lumber camp on the Quebec- Ontario border in the winter of 1930-31 led to the creation of Leighton’s series of engravings of Canadian lumberjacks at work in remote snowy woodland.
During the 1930s Leighton worked on several celebrated books, including ‘The Farmer’s Year’ (1933), which depicted rural activities such as threshing, haymaking, apple-picking, lambing and ploughing associated with the months of the year.
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).
Leighton never seemed to stop, later commenting that “actually the artist is always working. By this I don’t mean sitting at a desk engraving or at an easel painting. Probably the most important part of the work is when one is doing nothing but observing and tucking away into the unconscious those things perceived that seminally wait to be transformed into rhythms and designs.”
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, whaling and lobstering in Connecticut were the focus of a series of twelve designs for Wedgwood plates on the theme of ‘New England Industries.’
After a lifetime of dedicated activity Leighton could rest in the knowledge that she was regarded as one of the most important wood engravers not only in Britain, but also in her adopted country where she had been elected to the National Academy of Design in New York City, and accorded the honour a substantial retrospective at the Boston Public Library.
This article was first published in Pallant House Magazine No 31, October 2013.
Listen to David Leighton, nephew of Clare discuss her work on our SoundCloud page.
Discover more images of rural life, including works created by Leighton in our exhibition Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists.