From Leighton's introductory essay it is clear that Wedgwood was involved in selecting the basic theme of New England Industries. Once this had been determined, however, it was up to her to choose the individual subjects. New England was well known as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in the United States and in the late 1940s was a manufacturing center, especially for textiles and metalwork. Leighton chose not to take on these industries, instead depicting land based and seafaring labor such as cranberrying and cod fishing. Some of these trades were threatened or obsolete. Leighton had already explored the tension between agrarian labor and industrialization in her 1937 book Country Matters, where one episode poignantly describes the decline in trade for a country blacksmith as motorcars replaced horses. She would show New England through this lens: "I had decided from the very beginning that I wanted to make this an epic of earth and water. I wanted the basic, cradle industries of New England, rather than recent mechanization. This must be the harvests of land and sea."
Leighton designed and engraved the scenes one at a time, rather than completing the preparatory work and executing the woodblocks in two separate stages. Tackling the first plate, Whaling, was a daunting task because certain stylistic and compositional choices would have to remain consistent over the entire series. Fortunately, Leighton had the technical support of Victor G. Skellern (1909-1966), an art director at Wedgwood. Skellern understood that her work would be as elaborate as any of her separate prints on paper and specially designed the coupe shape as an elegant neutral surface for what is basically a print on clay. The interior of the plate gently slopes to a narrow half-inch rim. Leighton worked within a 9 ½-inch circular format to be printed on 10 ½-inch plates. The design factors that unify the series are a very high horizon hugging the upper edge of the circle and the pile of tools at the bottom providing a visual anchor for the complex imagery.
Leighton usually worked from direct experience, but this was obviously not possible for Whaling. "I have always tried to actually see-even if not to do -the thing out of which I make my design. But, as it may easily be understood, in this case I had to manage with what I could discover from museums and books." She re-read Moby Dick (one imagines she knew the 1930 edition with illustrations by Rockwell Kent), but most of her research was done in museums, especially the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She also looked at many whaling prints, but her research proved frustrating and she was mired in questions about whether the ship should be depicted with set sail or not. Her breakthrough came in two phases. First, the memory of Hokusai's famous color woodcut The Great Wave (c. 1829-1832) came to her one night and provided the compositional idea seen in her freely brushed study in blue and white gouache over graphite (Fig. 3). Second, while walking on the dunes in Wellfleet, she discovered an enormous whale vertebra, which she sketched and incorporated into the objects at the base of her design.
Engraving the block took most of the summer and fall of 1949. Wood engraving is a relief process. Everything that receives ink and transfers it to the paper is on the surface of the matrix. Nonprinting areas are cut away to a depth that will not take ink from the roller. Wood engraving differs from woodcut in the type of wood used. The blocks are made of very dense boxwood and are end sawn, the circle of the wood allowing the artist to work without the pronounced directional grain found on the planks used for woodcuts. The wood engraver uses burins and scorpers closer to the tools of the metal engraver than the knives and gouges of the woodcut artist. Wood engraving tools are small and offer the potential for exceptionally fine detail. Nine inches in diameter is quite large for a wood engraving and Leighton's blocks were made up of many small pieces of boxwood. She approached wood engraving by working from dark to light, removing wood to clarify her image. Many of the state proofs in the Yale archive are touched with white gouache, showing how Leighton anticipated her next cuts (see Fig. 16).
"The first block took me a terrible long time to engrave. All one summer and into the autumn I seemed to be working at it. I was held back so much by a sense of timidity, lest I be lacking in complete accuracy. There were portions of the engraving that were sheer delight-the breaking of the wave against the whale's flukes and the wildness of the sea, in particular."
As completed, Whaling is both an anomaly in the series and a fitting introduction to the set. The design focuses on pleasing surface rhythms, as opposed to subsequent images that exploit tension between linear patterns and depth. The figures are small and there is little emphasis on the human participants in the drama. Although it was the only industry that Leighton could not experience firsthand, whaling was for her the archetypal New England industry and absolutely necessary as a starting point. The next image was executed from a very different point of view and would provide the prototype for the rest of the series.
Leighton describes watching the progress of a cranberry bog on Cape Cod from the moment the blossoms appeared in the spring, each one "like a microscopic smokey pink tiger lily," to the post-harvest silence of the deserted bog. She sketched the bog (see Fig. 5) and the barn during the summer and replicated them (reversed by the printing process) as the setting for the September harvest (see Fig. 2, right). The rhythmic movement of the Portuguese and black workers recalled her earlier experiences of agricultural workers in southern Europe. The composition of Cranberrying is reminiscent of her 1939 wood engraving Winnowers, Majorca, which employs a similar arrangement of figures seen from behind against rising curves of the landscape.