Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on August 8, 2008 with permission of the Mint Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Mint Museum of Art, directly through either this phone number or web address:


Clare Leighton: Her Family Foundations

by David Leighton


It isn't a matter of deciding, as though one were planning for a career as a doctor or a lawyer, wrote Clare Leighton in an unpublished essay titled "The Growth and Shaping of an Artist," the decision is already made and one has been stamped by it from the earliest moments -- even before one could formulate what was happening. [1] This element of predestination seems to be present in any artist's life and it remains one of humanity's permanent mysteries. Nevertheless, with Clare Leighton we can also trace a network of strong family influences that affected her choice of professions.

The greatest of these must have been the almost obsessive enthusiasm for creative work in the Leighton household. This embraced all members of the family. Clare's mother, Marie Connor Leighton, had written precocious romantic poetry from her teenage years and maintained her literary productivity throughout her life. As the family's main breadwinner she wrote some 65 novels, most of which were published in serial form in the popular press. Clare declared that she herself had "almost been born into the ink-well," as even in the early stages of labor her mother could only with difficulty be persuaded to lay aside her ever-active goose-quill pen. [2]

Marie was also opinionated and hurtfully dismissive of Clare's looks, ambitions and talents. Fortunately Clare had the stamina to react with determination. Indeed, in the essay quoted above, she wonders whether temporary damming up of free expression may sometimes bear artistic fruit, much as the medieval painter's apprentice learned all there was to know about the medium while grinding and mixing his master's pigments.

For Clare in childhood, work meant first learning to read and write, not just with correct spelling, but striving for copy-book perfection; hours of neat sewing and mending; and conforming to the old adage that children should be seen and not heard, (except, that is, when they were practicing an approved piece of music on the piano). Twice daily she was taken for a walk around the pleasant residential area of London known as St. John's Wood, carefully dressed to impress the neighbours and tightly holding onto her nurse's hand.

As she grew older Clare developed an interest in recording her impressions of the world around her, although she often chose to describe it visually rather than in writing. She noted, almost daily, in her teenage diaries: "drew trees; sketched market people; drew sailing boats." She read avidly from the many books in the house. Her early inclination to think for herself must have created a degree of stress that found little sympathy within the household. She later described the nature of her upbringing as "juvenile monasticism."

Fortunately, Clare's artistic development was greatly helped by the sympathetic support of her father, who was older and wiser than Marie, though his day-to-day influence in the household was attenuated by his deafness. By all accounts, Robert Leighton was the kindest of men. Trained in youth as a printer and bookbinder, he later became a newspaper editor and wrote some 40 books of adventure stories. These largely had historical themes; they were entertaining and informative and were much favored as school prizes. Uncredited, Robert edited Hall Caine's monumental "Life of Christ," published in 1938, four years after Robert's death. He was also an acknowledged expert on dogs. His secret ambition, however, was to be an artist and he would often sneak up to the children's room, set up an easel and paint with his daughter.

While Clare's younger brother Evelyn taught himself warship recognition and the Morse code in preparation for a naval career, her older brother Roland was the openly favored child. Looked up to by the others, he absorbed his parents' work ethic and took most of the prizes at his public school. (American readers may like to be reminded that in this specifically English context, "public" perversely means "selective, fee-paying and private!") As a youngster he started a Leighton family news-sheet which Clare illustrated. This early collaboration prefigures Clare's later decisive work for the "New Leader" magazine, edited by the left-wing thinker and activist Henry Noel Brailsford. When, like so many others, Roland lost his life as a young officer in the carnage of the First World War, the family was devastated. Marie went into something of a decline. Her anonymous and emotional book "Boy of My Heart" told Roland's life story and bore on the dust-jacket Clare's sepia pencil portrait of her much loved and admired brother (fig. 1).

In that same year, 1916, 18 year-old Clare made an artistically mature charcoal portrait of her father's brother. Uncle Jack, a young widower, was himself an artist and illustrator who accompanied Clare on numerous sketching trips to mainland Europe. They travelled by train and bicycle and brought home many drawings and watercolors (see plates 1-10). Some of these would later be transformed into wood-engravings, notably those from the 1920s of Toulon and Dalmatia.

Clare's later exposure to some of the finest intellects of her day, primarily as a result of her close association with Noel Brailsford, greatly enriched her own development. Here it is appropriate to mention an additional early influence, which did much to supplement her literary environment at home, her patchy schooling, and the sound art training that she received at Brighton and in London. Besides his brother Jack, Clare's father had three unmarried sisters who lived in a country cottage at the end of a narrow lane, resplendent with wild primroses in the spring, but damp and chilly in the winter. Aunt Alexes was an actress whose inherited talents may have led to Clare much later being described by a lecture agent as "one of America's most dynamic platform personalities." Aunt Jean ran the household. Aunt Sarah spent much of her time reading books in a variety of languages. Clare's mother thought the three aunts beneath her social level, so she saw little reason to maintain contact with them. However, on the threshold of adulthood, Clare asked Uncle Jack whether he thought Aunt Sarah would like to see her. His reply was: "Well, she's been waiting 18 years for you!" The resulting relationship became a source of continual support throughout Clare's life. She later wrote,

There was such power in this frail little woman; the power to produce in another those things she had not been able to produce herself. She was the first person to show me love. It was not the demonstrative type, I don't remember a hug or a kiss. But in me she placed the hope that I might create those things that she had not been able to do.

There can be no doubt that Aunt Sarah provided much of the fortifying emotional self-confidence which sustained Clare throughout the vicissitudes of her adult life.

In the course of one of their many comfortable chats in front of a log fire in the winter or in the garden on a summer evening, Sarah told Clare of a touching incident concerning an earlier member of the Leighton family. Clare's grandfather, although well known as a Scottish poet and raconteur, had earned his living as a travelling salesman for a company of seed merchants. Amid the tedious concerns of commerce, he had always hankered after work in which "head, heart and hand might join." On a business trip to America he had been profoundly moved by a visit to Niagara Falls. As he gazed in awe at the thundering torrents, the biblical injunction to "Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days" came into his mind. He had in his pocket a small volume of his own poetry. Pensively, he took it out and threw it over the railing into the roaring white spray, trusting that something might in due course be returned.

Many years later, Clare came to see her own wood-engraving, which demands collaboration between just those three elements -- head, heart and hand -- as a fulfilment of her grandfather's wish.

1 This and all subsequent quotations are drawn from the Leighton family papers, which are in the possession of the author.

2 Mention of the "ink-well birth" is also made in Leighton's book Tempestuous Petticoat (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1947).


Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 8, 2008, with permission of the with permission of the Mint Museum of Art. The permissions waere granted to TFAO on Augusst 8, 2008. Mr. Leighton's essay pertains to the exhibition Quiet Spirit, Skillful Hand: The Graphic Work of Clare Leighton, on display at the Mint Museum of Art May 17 - September 14, 2008.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jonathan Stuhlman, Curator of American Art, Mint Museum of Art, for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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