Home » Sanctuary Spotlight: Clare Leighton’s Woodblocks

Sanctuary Spotlight: Clare Leighton’s Woodblocks

By Tania Compton, Garden Museum Trustee

That familiar exhibition pulse-quickening sensation occurred in the opening of Sanctuary, Artist Gardeners 1919-1939, the Garden Museum’s current selling exhibition presented in partnership with Liss Llewellyn. So many revelations. So many artists new to so many of us. My solar plexus joy was beholding the talismanic work of the wood engraver Clare Leighton (1898-1989).

Clare Leighton (1898-1989), Trillium, original woodblock. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.

In a talk she gave in 1946 or 1947, ‘The Growth and Shaping of an Artist Writer’ Leighton made an impassioned plea to post war artists’ that rings uncannily true for these COVID confined times – informed by her passionate horror of war ‘ever since burying the stained and tattered uniform of her brother Roland who died of wounds on the western front in 1915’, according to her nephew David Leighton.

“The artist is the seismograph, the sensitised plate; the receiving station for life. The artist’s sensitivity enables him to see and sense things, if not before they happen, at least before they are recognised by the world at large…. The artist’s task is to re- awaken awareness, to re-sensitise it. War produces an emotional deadness: once, a distant massacre or a faraway earthquake moved us to righteous indignation. Now, here in America, the whole of Europe might starve and we would hardly be aware of it. There is a cataract over the eyes of the spirit. The artist must be the quickener of the world;

As the twig is bent, the tree will grow. It is a tender, young civilisation scarcely born, and it can be shaped in materialism or into the things of the mind and spirit. We artists have a strange sense of hurry – hurry before it is too late; hurry before the world has taken hold of its new values based on “things”. I have noticed this in many of my fellows. Nylon stockings are not worth our men having died; nor are motor cars. Nor refrigerators, nor limitless gasoline nor vacations in Florida. We owe a debt to our dead. This can only be paid in the slightest degree by creating a new world. This means a really new world, not one with its old values.”

Clare Leighton (1898-1989), The Magic of Handling Earth, c.1941. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.

The intelligence and quickness of Leighton’s spirit is gauged into her woodblocks which retain a captivating energy. In ‘The Magic of Handling Earth’, another allegorical work for our times, the pollen laden stamens of an aquilegia hang with delicacy and a hint of woodland breeze, she conjures the tenderness and strength of unfurling swirls of a fern from a slab of boxwood.

According to Paul Liss ‘Leighton would typically take several days to produce a wood engraving, painstakingly carving the image with special tools strong enough to incise into the end grain of the block sufficiently hard to allow for a number of prints to be made before any loss of sharpness’. Up to 50 could be printed and then the characteristic stamp of a cancelled block would signal its retirement. Leighton’s blocks, not the prints, are in the exhibition.

Clare Leighton (1898-1989),Tulip Popular Bud, 1942, original woodblock (cancelled). Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.

In a serendipitous twist that underpins so much of the magic conjured at the Garden Museum the Liriodendron tulipifera depicted in ‘Tulip Poplar Bud’ puts in mind John Tradescant the Younger who introduced the tulip tree into European cultivation in 1637 and whose tomb presides over the museum’s courtyard garden. Leighton’s exquisitely cross hatched 2 1/4 x 1 ¾ inch jewel engraving is almost the size of the anonymously painted miniature locket of Tradescant the Younger in the museum’s collection. Leighton has portrayed waxy recurved pairs of winged stipules that encase the bud.

I am looking at these now on my desk having gone into the garden to search for them. Branches of both Liriodendron chinense and the American L. tulipifera that paleobotany has proved to have existed for over 100 million years. Then, as now, the leaves emerge minuscule from the bud, foetally folded to straighten into the strong stemmed distinctive four lobed shape we see in Leighton’s engraving. The idiosyncratic shallow angled cut at the apex of an almost square topped leaf. No two the same. Ever. Since dinosaurs roamed the earth.

‘Tulip Poplar Bud’ was one of the 50 blocks Leighton engraved to illustrate Southern Harvest (New York, The Macmillan & Co.) published soon after she emigrated to America, four of which are in the exhibition. In ‘Cotton Picker’, the frontispiece image, the bending figure and enveloping cotton filled sack swirl like the crescent of a new moon in a mesmerizing sureness of line. Leighton, the Streatham born alumna of Brighton, the Slade and Central carved an astonishing 850 blocks in her career, and Paul Liss considers that key to her virtuosity is that she remained true to this medium, immersed at her carving desk.

Gertrude Hermes (1901-1983), Waterlilies, 1930. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.

Leighton is not the only virtuoso female wood engraver in the exhibition. Gertrude Hermes ‘Waterlilies’ (the Tate has impression 27 from the print run of 30) seizes the liquid swirl on the surface of a pond, the primal force of the emerging leaves and unfathomable depths. Globules of water wobble like mercury on the lily pad and an ostentatious waxy flower floats out of the mud with bouyant incongruity. From the faintest hair thin lines to expressive gougings it is a masterpiece of texture.

Writing this with the museum quiet as a closed church and the exhibition out of sight in a physical sanctuary from which we are indefinitely barred has set me looking anew at the work that hangs at home. These once pulse-quickening pieces that familiarity makes me overlook are once again manifestations of a truth from seismographic artists. May Leighton’s supplication to artists ‘We are on the edge of a new civilisation and it is up to us to shape it’ ring in all our ears.

Sanctuary: Artist-Gardeners 1919-1939 is a selling partnership with Liss Llewellyn to support the Museum’s learning programme: commission on sales is in support of our programme of art and horticulture activities with London schools and communities and our brilliant Learning team Janine, Ceri, and Samia.

All the artworks in this article are still for sale. Purchasing an artwork is a fantastic and valuable way to support the Garden Museum while we are closed due to Covid-19. If you would like to know more about this piece or others please contact christina@gardenmuseum.org.uk.

Image: Clare Leighton (1898-1989), Trillium, original woodblock. Image courtesy of Liss Llewellyn.