Clare Leighton’s

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, January/February 2011 |

In 1948 Josiah Wedgwood and Sons commissioned printmaker and author Clare Leighton to make wood engravings for a set of twelve plates depicting New England industries. Leighton was in many ways a perfect choice with strong appeal to audiences in both England and the United States. She had established her reputation in Britain through her illustrations of classic authors such as Thomas Hardy and Emily Brontë, independent wood engravings published in progressive periodicals, and by writing and illustrating a remarkable series of books about agrarian life in England. Her work was equally well known in America where she was in demand as a lecturer and exhibiting artist. Even before she immigrated to the United States in 1939, she had done several wood engravings with American and Canadian subjects.

After moving to this country Leighton eventually settled in North Carolina, and in 1942 published Southern Harvest, a book of wood engravings and essays about the workers and landscapes she encountered in her explorations of the area around Chapel Hill. Two years after receiving the commission from Wedgwood, she left the south for good and went to New England. She wrote of the commission, "Here, now, was my chance to discover New England. For always, I have found, the one way to learn the life of a land is to work upon it whether with plow or pencil."* The three years required for research and execution of the project taught her to love the region. New England was to become her permanent home.

Admirers of Leighton's work have long appreciated the New England Industries plates. They are in many museum collections and have been included in comprehensive exhibitions of her graphic work. The decorative arts specialist is surprised by the social realism on Wedgwood Queen's ware while the print collector treasures what must be the most highly developed set of prints ever to be created by a major printmaker specifically for transfer decoration on ceramic. It is only recently, with the acquisition by the Yale Center for British Art of an extensive archive of Leighton"s preparatory work for New England Industries, that we can appreciate the scope of the project and follow the design and execution step by step. The archive contains dozens of preparatory drawings of individual motifs and numerous compositional studies for each scene. There are ten or twelve state proofs from each of the blocks, many of them marked by the artist, as well as superb signed and numbered impressions, printed by Leighton, of the final wood engraving (see Figs. 17, 18). The visual material is supplemented by letters to Leighton and a very interesting group of unpublished essays about her research into the subjects of the plates. An introduction and four long essays about the people and situations she encountered while searching for the right settings and tools for these four subjects are written in Leighton's vivid style and suggest she had thoughts of publishing a book based on this project. At some point her plans seem to have changed because the eight remaining subjects are covered in shorter drafts. All this writing was further condensed when it formed the basis for the short descriptive paragraphs about each industry incorporated into the backstamps on the plates.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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