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.
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.
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.
The final print Leighton executed was Farming. For her 1935 book, Four Hedges: A Gardener's Chronicle, she had engraved an image of a man with a scythe accompanied by an ecstatic text about the joys of mowing. That figure is very English and clearly contemporary. For New England Industries her mower is American and set in a generalized past. This monumental figure swings an antiquated grain cradle while his jug of cider and the image of a sickle articulate the foreground (Fig. 12). The barns and rounded hills in the background were carefully studied from life (see Fig. 13), fusing the historical with the contemporary. If Whaling represents the archetypal New England industry, Farming shows the archetypal New England worker.
Underlying all Leighton's art is her identification with the workers she depicted. Their tools are analogous to her tools. Her labor as an artist is related to their labor in the fields or at trades. As a socialist in the tradition of William Morris and Edward Carpenter she believed in the redeeming value of all craft skills, including her own. The selection of subjects for New England Industries should not be viewed as nostalgia for a bygone era, but as a protest against the losses caused by industrialization.
Indeed, I can see how deeply enriched I have become, how much I have learned in these confused days of technology and mechanization and good to remember that man is still uncomplicated and humble before the power of the earth and sea.
Greater than will to power and more enduring than economic strain and stress is the inevitable shape of the plow deterkined [sic] by necessity. These designs, in which I have tried to show the rhythm of labour, are no sentimental escape from reality.
Leighton probably finished engraving the blocks by the end of 1951. Each block was printed with a press on bright white clay-coated paper to create high contrast impressions for Wedgwood to use for the transfers. A photographic process was used to print the images in underglaze charcoal sepia. Leighton retained the woodblocks and hand-printed her own signed and numbered edition of fifty on cream Japanese paper. Wedgwood released the finished plates for sale in the fall of 1952. The archive at the Yale Center for British Art reveals the incredible amount of work Leighton completed over three years. The final product ranks as one of her major works and as a monument in the history of wood engraving.
ANDREW RAFTERY is an engraver, printmaker, and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design.
* All quotations are from Leighton's unpublished typescript in the Collection of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.