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Quiet Spirit, Skillful
Hand: The Graphic Work of Clare Leighton
May 17 - September 14, 2008
The Mint Museum of
Art has originated a major traveling exhibition of more than 100
rare and unique works by British-born artist and writer Clare Leighton. This collection of Leighton's work, assembled
and donated to the Museum by Charlotte resident Gabby Pratt, is one of the
largest in the country and includes more than 180 of the artist's finely-detailed
engravings, drawings and watercolors, spanning Leighton's career from 1923
to 1965. (right: Clare Leighton, American (born England), 1898 -
1989, Scything, 1935, Wood engraving. Gift of Gabby Pratt)
Quiet Spirit, Skillful Hand: The Graphic Work of Clare
Leighton provides a full survey of Leighton's career,
from her earliest prints in the 1920s that depict the labors of the English
working classes to a selection of her rarely seen watercolors. Unique to
the Pratt collection is a set of 12 Wedgwood plates, titled "New England
Industries," for which Leighton designed the transfer-printed images.
Among the exhibition's highlights will be the prints that resulted from
Leighton's early visits to North America, including The Breadline, New
York and Snow Shovelers, New York, as well as the artist's entire
Canadian Lumber Camp series.
Born to an artistic family, Leighton studied wood engraving
in Great Britain before moving to the U.S. during World War II. Settling
first in Baltimore, she moved to Chapel Hill in 1943 and served as a visiting
art lecturer at Duke University from 1943 to 1945. During her career, Leighton
wrote 15 books and created more than 700 intricate prints. The Pratt collection
includes numerous examples of her critically-acclaimed scenes of agrarian
life in both England and the American South.
During her lengthy career, Leighton illustrated her own
writing as well as classic and contemporary literature, including notable
commissions for books written by Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë and Thornton
Wilder. Quiet Spirit, Skillful Hand will feature numerous wood engravings
that Leighton created specifically as book illustrations, including those
for her own book, Southern Harvest, and those commissioned for the
seven-volume set of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.
To accompany the exhibition of Leighton's work, the Museum
will present Coming Home: Selections from the Schoen Collection.
This outstanding exhibition will feature 22 paintings from the collection
of Jason Schoen of Miami. Schoen's holdings of American Scene painting trace
the social, economic and political changes that occurred across this country
between World Wars I and II -- roughly the same era in which Leighton created
her compelling engravings.
The paintings from the Schoen Collection, by artists such
as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, Joe Jones, Robert Gwathmey, Kenneth
Hayes Miller and Ben Shahn, will provide a broad national context for the
themes and subjects found in Leighton's work. This exhibition promises to
be not only a rare opportunity for visitors to see numerous works from one
of the top collections of American Scene paintings held in private hands,
but also to reflect upon our country's history as seen through the eyes
of some of its most important artists.
Quiet Spirit, Skillful Hand: The Graphic Work of Clare
Leighton and Coming Home: Selections from the
Schoen Collection will be on view at the Mint Museum of Art from May
17 through September 14, 2008. The Leighton exhibition will then travel
to the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, N.C.
Both exhibitions will include beautifully illustrated catalogues
available for purchase in the Mint Museum Shops. The Clare Leighton catalogue
is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts,
which believes that a great nation deserves great art, as well as a grant
from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation.
(above: Clare Leighton, American (born England), 1898 -
1989, The Breadline, New York, 1932, Wood engraving. Gift of Gabby
(above: Clare Leighton, American (born England), 1898 -
1989, Snow Shovelers, New York, 1929, Wood engraving. Gift of Gabby
(above: Clare Leighton, American (born England), 1898 -
1989, Dressing the Bride, 1940, Wood engraving. Gift of Gabby Pratt)
Text panels from the exhibition
- Born in Great Britain in 1898, Clare Leighton was one
of the most important printmakers of the Twentieth century. She was a talented
draftsman with the ability to orchestrate powerful, rhythmic compositions.
Her preferred medium was wood engraving, a physically demanding form of
printmaking that requires a tremendous level of precision and skill. Leighton's
book illustrations set new standards for commercially published literature,
while her written and visual depictions of nature, agriculture and the
seasons were instrumental in reviving popular interest in rural life and
customs. By the time of her death in 1989, Leighton had created over 800
prints and illustrated more than 65 books.
- Quiet Spirit, Skillful Hand provides
a full survey of Leighton's rich career. With the exception of two of the
artist's wood blocks, lent by the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections
Library at Duke University, this exhibition is drawn entirely from a collection
of Leighton's work assembled by Charlotte resident Gabby Pratt, which she
donated to The Mint Museum in 2004. It is particularly appropriate that
Mrs. Pratt -- a longtime North Carolina resident -- chose to collect Leighton's
prints, as Leighton lived in North Carolina in the 1940s and much of her
work draws upon the history and traditions of the South for its subject
- Early Prints
- Leighton grew up in a lively literary and artistic household
in London. She was the only daughter of popular fiction writers Marie Connor
and Robert Leighton. An early love of sketching led her to attend the Brighton
School of Art. She went on to study painting at the Slade School and to
learn wood engraving and book illustration at the Central School of Arts
and Crafts. Leighton's early efforts as a printmaker established her reputation
as one of the most talented contributors to Britain's wood engraving revival.
As H.N. Brailsford, editor of The New Leader, wrote, Leighton's
early prints showed "performance at an age when promise was expected."
- The artist's first known wood engravings, such as The
Malthouse, Barges, and The Calf Auction, depict everyday
life in Bishop's Stortford, a village 30 miles northwest of London known
for its malt industry and weekly livestock market, where the Leighton family
lived during the early 1920s. Leighton's choice of subject matter for these
prints reveals that even at this early point in her career she already
had a strong interest in depicting the lives and activities of working
class people. The stylistic variation between works like The Calf Auction
and Sleepy Fishwife shows that Leighton was willing to experiment
with different ways to define forms and textures and to describe areas
of shade and light.
- Early Commissions
- The critical and popular success of Leighton's first
wood engravings quickly led to numerous commissions. Between 1925 and 1930
she created illustrations for socialist periodicals such as The New
Leader and The Forum, the widely-circulated literary journal
The London Mercury, and even the London General Omnibus Company
(which used her images of London's sights as advertisements for its transportation
services). Leighton's ability to portray rural and working class labor
as honorable, important, and even heroic made her engravings a perfect
fit for these left-wing publications.
- As Leighton's work became increasingly well known she
began to garner commissions for book illustrations as well. The first of
these came in 1925, when she created the painstakingly-detailed print The
Crinoline for Agnes Mackenzie's novel The Half Loaf. By 1930
Leighton had produced engravings for a memorial edition of Thomas Hardy's
The Return of the Native, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights,
and H.M. Tomlinson's The Sea and the Jungle. In each of her illustrations
she strove to be faithful to the details of the narrative and to capture
the mood of the characters and settings as well. When working on the commission
for The Return of the Native, for example, Leighton not only pored
over the text but also took lengthy sketching tours through the Dorset
countryside to immerse herself in Thomas Hardy's Wessex.
- Early Travels: Continental Europe
- Leighton enjoyed traveling from an early age. Some of
her first experiences outside of Great Britain were sketching trips to
France and the Balkans in the 1920s with her Uncle Jack. Although she is
best known for her finely-detailed wood engravings, Leighton's rarely-seen
sketches from these trips, executed in watercolor, pen and ink, and sepia
wash, show that she was also highly proficient in other media as well.
- The sights that Leighton took in while abroad also served
as inspiration for many of her subsequent wood engravings. These include
images of coastal villagers and winemakers in France, gypsies and day laborers
in Eastern Europe, and panoramic landscapes depicting cities such as Cavtat,
Croatia and Genoa, Italy. As Leighton became increasingly comfortable with
the engraving process, her ability to define surfaces and textures, as
well as to capture the individual personalities of her subjects, grew by
leaps and bounds. In Roadmakers, Yugoslavia, for example, Leighton
convincingly suggests everything from water and land to stone, fabric and
leaves. She also uses subtle variations in line and tone to differentiate
between the figures standing in the shade of the trees and the ones who
- Early Travels: North America
- America, with its vast natural resources and youthful
energy, fascinated Leighton. In 1929 she made the first of many periodic
visits to this country before eventually settling here permanently in 1939.
Not surprisingly, Leighton disliked the noise and rush of big cities, and
her rare portrayals of New York, such as Snow Shovellers, New York and
Bread Line, New York underscore her view of the city as the antithesis
of the natural world. In contrast to these urban scenes, Boston Cod
captures one of New England's vital industries, with fishermen
harvesting the Atlantic's bountiful cod fish.
- The six prints that make up the "Canadian Lumber
Camp" series were created after Leighton's week-long visit to a remote
lumber camp in the mountains north of Ottawa early in 1931. The artist
has carefully orchestrated these powerful engravings to portray the cycle
of the timber harvest. Each one features rugged lumberjacks laboring in
the beauty of the frozen wilderness without the use of modern technology.
Even as she was still striving to increase the white effect of snow on
the wood blocks, Leighton wrote to her friend Hilaire Belloc that the prints
were "by far the best things I've done."
- Illustrations for Her Own Books
- In addition to the many commissions that she received
to illustrate the literature of others, Leighton produced 14 of her own
books in which word and image were created at one time and by one mind.
Her volumes on English country life revitalized the genre, while her impressions
of the American South contributed an immigrant's insight to the large body
of writing describing the American scene of the mid-Twentieth century.
- Twelve folio-sized wood engravings accompany the text
in The Farmer's Year: A Calendar of English Husbandry, which Leighton
wrote and illustrated in 1933. This annotated monthly calendar describes,
both verbally and visually, the rites of plowing, sowing, cultivating and
harvesting in the pre-industrialized English countryside. With this book
Leighton made a compelling argument that the English farm worker and the
cycle of the seasons were integral to the eternal workings of the universe.
- During the 1930s, Leighton herself became a laborer of
the earth as she cultivated a garden at the cottage she shared with H.N.
Brailsford. Four Hedges: A Gardener's Chronicle is a monthly account
of their garden and the native flora and fauna of the surrounding countryside.
In her following book, Country Matters, Leighton focused
on the changes that modernization was exacting on the English worker and,
by extension, on society at large. The images that she created for Country
Matters preserved a way of life that she perceived to be rapidly disappearing,
reinforcing her statement in the book's Preface that "with the modern
rush of consciousness about the country we may destroy the thing we love."
- Shortly after Leighton arrived in America in 1939, she
negotiated with The Macmillan Company to create a book about the American
South: a region that had fascinated her since her earliest visits to this
country. Southern Harvest, published in 1942, records her graphic
and written impressions of the rural customs and agricultural rites that
were still functioning in an increasingly industrialized South. As was
her custom, Leighton traversed the region to make on-the-spot observations
for her prints. Her rhythmic, elongated style elegantly describes the movements
of cotton pickers and tobacco loopers as well as scenes of community in
which neighbors congregate to help shuck corn or quilt. Leighton confessed
in the book's introduction that she had created it, in part, to fulfill
her own need to become rooted in the American continent.
- Later Book Illustration Commissions
- Seeking respite from the turmoil of World War Two and
the end of a turbulent personal relationship, Leighton sailed for America
in 1939. Prior to her departure, The Macmillan Company had contracted with
her to illustrate a centennial edition of Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood
Tree. Although she initially intended to return to Dorset to work on
the project, Leighton wrote the publisher from her rented room in Baltimore
that the thought of returning to a war-torn English countryside had made
her decide to use "nostalgia" instead. Leighton ultimately created
more than 60 engravings for the book, making it one of her largest commissions.
While the book's full page illustrations, such as The Apple Tree and
Dressing the Bride, follow the narrative as it chronicles the romantic
ups and downs in the life of the main protagonist, Fancy Day, its smaller
engravings depict the Dorset countryside during different seasons, indicating
the passage of time in the narrative and giving the reader a sense of the
area's rural character.
- One of Leighton's most important commissions in the United
States came during her years as a member of the faculty of Duke University,
when she was asked to illustrate The Frank C. Brown Collection of North
Carolina Folklore. Brown was a longtime English professor at Duke and
a founder of the North Carolina Folklore Society. He left his life's work
-- a vast collection of regional folklore -- unpublished when he died in
1943. Leighton's wood engravings for the series portray the rural folk
of North Carolina as they harvest, gather for social rites, and participate
in recreational activities typical of their region. In her quest for accuracy,
Leighton coordinated her sketching trips throughout the state with the
harvesting of various crops and also lived and worked with the people that
she depicted, from fishermen on the Outer Banks to the cotton pickers and
tobacco growers of the Piedmont to the farmers harvesting small crops of
herbs and corn in the state's Western mountains.
- Print Club Commissions
- In her important book Wood Engravings of the 1930s,
Leighton welcomed the recent re-establishment of subscribing print clubs
in America, which she viewed as a democratization in the appreciation and
collecting of art: "the first move towards that perfect state of existence
where art is no longer an esoteric thing, to be understood by an elect,
rich few, but is a necessity for the masses." At least six American
print clubs, ranging from groups in Kansas City, Missouri to Albany, New
York commissioned wood engravings from Leighton during the 1930s and 1940s.
For many of these prints, the artist reworked familiar subject matter --
net menders, cotton pickers, and washerwomen -- but for others, like one
for Chamber Arts Society of Durham, North Carolina, she turned to subjects
of greater local interest-in this case, her nearby home.
- The Pratt collection contains excellent examples of the
prints that Leighton created for these groups. In three rare instances,
the prints have retained their full presentation folios, which include
valuable comments by the artist about her process and subject matter.
- Decorative Arts Commissions
- In the mid-1940s, while Leighton was living and teaching
in North Carolina, Wedgwood commissioned her to design a set of 12 plates
depicting the industries of New England. Already familiar with the topography
of the area's coastline from summer holiday trips, the artist traveled
throughout the Northeastern states in search of potential subject matter
for the series. She ultimately chose to include both maritime and land-based
scenes, depicting activities ranging from lobstering and codfishing to
marble quarrying and cranberrying. Her compositions cleverly depict the
various raw materials and sequential steps required in such regional building
and harvesting, expanding upon strategies that she had developed for earlier
projects such as The Farmer's Year and the Canadian Lumber Camp
- Leighton also produced three designs for Steuben Glass
in 1958 (the Pratt collection includes a sketch for the Horn of Plenty
vase) and even completed commissions for stained glass windows at three
churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts between 1957 and 1966.
- Leighton's Technique: From Pencil to Proof to Press
- Leighton was a sensitive observer of the natural world
and drew heavily from nature when creating her designs. Her working method
involved making several preliminary sketches and pencil notations onsite.
She would then create detailed studies of individual portions of the scene
before settling on the final composition. Sketches of a slender crab-apple
bough in bloom and of blackbird fledglings, which were used for the engraving
Blackbird on Nest and for other prints of birds in her book Four
Hedges, show exquisite botanical accuracy and an exceptional ability
to express in a few lines the newborn birds' utter vulnerability and dependency
on their parents. Likewise, a comparison between the sketch for a figure
in Dalmatian Spinners and the figure in the final print itself shows
how Leighton would often zero in on the poses and details of her subjects
right from the start.
- After making her initial sketches, Leighton drew or traced
the final design on a wood block, which she first covered with a thin coat
of Chinese white, and then began the engraving process. A charcoal and
gouache drawing, a gouache-heightened proof, and a final version of The
Magic of Handling Earth, for example, show the process that lay behind
the creation of her engravings. Leighton made trial proofs from the very
start of the engraving process to check how the print was developing. She
made revisions to these proofs with white paint until she was satisfied
with the tonal contrasts. The final result was, in the words of master
American printmaker John Taylor Arms, a symphony of design: "everywhere
there is selection, organization, arrangement, and everywhere a nice balancing
of black and white and grey. Area fits into area, value matches value,
lines flow and interweave into a strong, significant pattern."
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