Clare Leighton’s

Tobacco Growing continues this combination of carefully observed setting and stylized groups of laborers. A touched proof (Fig. 6) shows that Leighton was committed in carved wood to the horizontal intervals created by alternating bands of open tobacco plantings and those covered with gauze. These are linked by the gentle angles of the barns. The graphite additions study the gestures of the workers in the foreground. Leighton knew the tobacco culture of the South. She was keen to differentiate the distinctive practices of her adopted home state of Connecticut, actually working in the fields near Hartford as part of her research.

Ice Cutting is the subject of one of Leighton's longer essays. The subject had occurred to her on her first visit to North America when she was gathering material for her early masterpiece, the six wood engravings titled Canadian Lumber Camp of 1931. 

But, even should I fail to find an actual scene of ice cutting, I carried within me a vivid visual memory of what I wanted. It was especially vivid because it had happened on my first visit to this continent. I had fallen in love with America, and everything I saw on that stay remains deeply imprinted upon my mind.

I had gone to the lumber camps in Canada, about one hundred miles north of Ottawa, on the Gatineau River. There I had come upon my first deep, frightening snow.

On the frozen lakes the men were cutting ice. In England, today, among the belongings I have not yet brought over here, somewhere in the pile of drawings lies a design for an engraving of ice cutting, that I have never worked on.

This experience was the germ of the idea for Ice Cutting, resulting in a composition of exceptional clarity. The geometric shapes, "long black canals, opened up in the checker board of ice," are the perfect foil for the soft mounds of snow that echo the circle of the format (See Fig. 2, left).

In a similar way, the workers in Logging seem to direct the logs in order to create the best angles for the composition. Leighton prepared her design in a fascinating series of drawings (Figs. 8-10). In the first two the figures are rendered as stylized arcs creating a swift sense of movement that recalls the linocuts of Sibyl Andrews (1898-1992). It is not until the final drawing that white gouache is used to correct the gesture of the legs to allow new, more naturalistic drawing. Leighton had too much respect for her subjects to reduce them to stylized motifs. She achieved greater empathy by showing the strain of hard work.

Leighton's essay for Gristmilling describes her search for the ideal water driven mill in Rhode Island. She never did find it, but the humorous text reveals her sense of adventure and her ability to make friends with strangers. She describes driving from place to place, knocking on doors, holding a baby while somebody fetches a key, drawing various mills, and searching for "that particular flat, watery quality that I associated with the state of Rhode Island." The final image is an amalgam of several places. The photograph of Leighton at work on a drawing for Gristmilling (Fig. 1) shows a composition closer to the wood engraving than the most advanced study in the archive (Fig. 14). As extensive as the Yale archive is, there are probably more drawings and proofs out there.

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[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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