Clare Leighton, illustrator and designer
As a leading illustrator, wood engraver, painter, author of many books, teacher, and designer for posters, ceramics and glass, Clare Leighton (1899-1989) enjoyed a distinguished career on both sides of the Atlantic.
Born in London, both of her parents were writers. She enrolled as a student at Brighton School of Art in the later 1910s, followed by periods at the Slade School of Art, London (1921-23) where she studied under Henry Tonks, and at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where she learnt wood engraving, a field undergoing a twentieth-century revival at the hands of her tutor, Noel Rooke.
Leighton first exhibited at the 1923 Society of Wood Engravers exhibition in London, being elected to the Society in 1928. Having illustrated her first book, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native in 1929, she had become sufficiently well known for Hilaire Belloc to write The Work of Clare Leighton (1930). She visited the United States to promote it and, in the same year, was awarded First Prize and the Logan Medal at the International Engraving Exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago. In 1932, when she published her celebrated volume on Wood-Engraving and Woodcuts, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, devoted an exhibition to her work. At this time her subject matter often involved observations of the countryside and rural life, as in her books such as The Farmer’s Year: a calendar of English husbandry (1933) and Four Hedges: a gardener’s chronicle (1935), as well as evocative posters for London Transport, including Weekend Walksand The Country Now, both of 1938.
Having made several lecture tours to the USA in the 1930s, she emigrated there in 1939, and became an American citizen in 1945. Much of her graphic work focused on traditional farming and other trades in America that were disappearing with ever-increasing mechanisation. She undertook research in the North Carolina mountains where she observed the still surviving cultures of early Irish and Scottish settlers, portrayed in her transfer-printed designs for Wedgwood’s New England Industries series of plates (1950). She also designed for Steuben Glass and worked in stained glass, including 33 windows for St Paul’s Cathedral, Massachusetts.
There have been numerous significant exhibitions prominently featuring her work. It is also represented in leading international museums and galleries, including the Victoria & Albert and British Museum, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Museum of Women’s Art, Washington DC.