Here’s Santa Claus – but not, as in conventional representations, hauling a sack of toys. Instead, in this woodcut that is typical of the work of its creator Clare Leighton, Santa shoulders a tree, recently harvested from the forest.
Many of Clare Leighton’s works contain images of physical labour: farmers toiling in the fields, fishermen pulling in their catch, dockhands off-loading goods, and women washing clothes or mending nets. She is an artist whose work I have admired since seeing some of her woodcuts displayed in an exhibition in Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery. She was an artist, writer and wood engraver, best known for the illustrated books she produced in the 1930s that recorded English rural life (The Farmer’s Year, 1933, Four Hedges, 1935), and her recording of life in America to where she emigrated in 1939. Southern Harvest, 1942 and New England Industries, 1952, are considered amongst the most celebrated and poignant records of American rural life in the middle of the last century.
Leighton had an unconventional childhood. Both her parents were writers – her father wrote cowboy stories whilst her mother wrote yarns for the daily newspaper in order to keep the upper-class household going. Her brother Roland, killed in 1915, was later immortalised by his fiancé Vera Brittain in her memoir Testament of Youth.
‘Sowing’ from ‘The Farmer’s Year’
Leighton attended Brighton Art School before studying at the Slade School of Art, where she spent ‘months on end sitting before a model and drawing and drawing and drawing.’ Faced with the reality of needing to earn her living she left the Slade and began illustrating her father’s Wild West stories, enrolling for evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in order to learn about black and white reproduction.
In the late 1920s Leighton took a job teaching children from one of the poorest slum districts of London, taking them to the National Gallery and encouraging them to see beauty in the shapes and forms of chimney pots around them. During this time she continued to engrave ‘countless wood blocks, aware of neither fatigue or impatience’.
As Leighton built up a reputation as a book illustrator her teaching career gave way to lecturing, and in 1928 she embarked on a lecture tour of the United States. There she produced a series of engravings of Canadian lumberjacks at work in remote snowy woodland, created during a subsequent trip to a lumber camp on the Quebec-Ontario border in the winter of 1930-31.
The cover of the recent republication of ‘The Farmers’ Year’
‘Threshing – March’ from ‘The Farmer’s Year
During the 1930s Leighton worked on several celebrated books, such as The Farmer’s Year (1933, recently republished by Toller Books), which depicted rural activities such as threshing, haymaking, apple-picking, lambing, ploughing and sowing that were associated with the months of the year, examples of which are included in the show. Other books that she authored and illustrated included Four Hedges: A Gardener’s Chronicle (1935) which was inspired by her garden, and the very influential manual Wood-engraving and Woodcuts (1932).
‘Cotton Picking’ from ‘Southern Harvest’
In 1939 Leighton settled in the Unitesd States. The landscape and rural activities of the American South, such as cotton picking and corn shucking, inspired her 1942 book Southern Harvest, whilst activities such as cranberrying, codfishing, whaling and lobstering in Connecticut were the focus of a series of twelve designs for Wedgwood plates on the theme of New England Industries.
Other notable works include a powerful and bleak engraving called Breadline, New York produced at the height of the Great Depression in which men warm themselves before a fire at the end of a seemingly endless queue that stretches through the city.
I was reminded of the strength and beauty of Clare Leighton’s work by a recent post on Caught by the River (which was also the source of the Santa Claus woodcut). The post gave news of a forthcoming exhibition of Clare Leighton’s work at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex. Pallant House put on some magnificent exhibitions – but they are about as far from Liverpool as it’s possible to be. However, I did see their magnificent Edward Burra exhibition when it went on tour.
And so – Happy Christmas. And may Santa, shouldering his load, bring you good things.