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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 Pratt)


(above: Clare Leighton, American (born England), 1898 - 1989, Snow Shovelers, New York, 1929, Wood engraving. Gift of Gabby Pratt)


(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 matter.
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 are not.
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 series.
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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