Skip to main content

Clare Leighton collection

Call Number: MSS 7

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises original artwork and manuscript material by Clare Leighton for a series of 12 Queen's ware plates representing New England industries, produced by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons in 1952. Each plate reproduces a circular, wood-engraved design depicting one of 12 traditional industries: Whaling, Cranberrying, Grist Milling, Ice Cutting, Codfishing, Lobstering, Logging, Marble Quarrying, Shipbuilding, Sugaring, Tobacco Growing, and Farming. The collection includes all 12 of the Wedgwood plates, plus extensive preparatory material, including Leighton's preliminary studies, compositional studies, wood-engraved states, and final prints (signed and unsigned). The collection also includes photographs of Clare Leighton working on the woodblocks. Written material in the collection includes numerous drafts of texts by Leighton describing her process in designing the plates, and over 40 letters from Leighton's acquaintances responding to her announcement on June 6, 1952 of priority sales for the plates (Leighton's original letter is also present).

Among the preliminary studies are finely executed graphite drawings, including a full-page drawings of a lobster, a whale vertebra, and sketches of tools, etc. Most of the engraved states have white ink added in Leighton's hand, with which she determined where more white was needed in the image before she carved alterations into the woodblock itself. The sequence of printed states available for each design offers an excellent step-by-step view of Leighton's process in engraving the blocks. There are also a handful of photographs of Leighton at work, engraving in her studio.

The collection includes Wedgwood's original brochure for the plates, with a brief overview of the project and short descriptions of each industry. Also present are Leighton's numerous drafts for the brochure texts, as well as additional writings by Leighton (many with her penciled corrections) describing her design process. There are detailed, multi-page narratives of her design process for Cranberrying, Grist Milling, Ice Cutting and Whaling. These offer windows into Leighton's engagement with the project, the people she met, her tireless search for subjects, and the curiosity and humility with which she approached the people and places involved in each industry. The texts for the four industries mentioned above are the most extensive and were likely composed first; drafts on the other eight industries are each about a page long, suggesting that she may have realized during the process that Wedgwood was only interested in printing very brief notes on each plate. It appears that Leighton's original longer texts were never published.

Correspondence includes a letter from Frederick Hill (Director of The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia) enclosing photos of whaling for her design. The rest of the correspondence concerns the advance sale of the Wedgwood plates. There is a copy of the typed letter (from 6 June 1952) that Leighton sent to about 75 of her friends and acquaintances announcing the sale of the plates. In response to Leighton's letter, there are over 40 typed and hand-written replies from prominent intellectual and artistic figures such as David Mitrany, Rachel Kallen (wife of philosopher Horace Kallen), Katharine Middleton (wife of R. Hunter Middleton), Frederic Melcher, and Nathaniel Saltonstall.


  • 1949-1953


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Yale Center for British Art, Friends of British Art Fund, and Mr. and Mrs. Bart T. Tiernan LLB 1968 and Mr. and Mrs. Nigel Hamway. Ten of the Wedgwood plates are the gift of Judith and Norman Zlotsky, Yale Class of 1953.


The collection is arranged into five series: I. Wedgwood Queen's ware plates of New England Industries; II. Artwork; III. Writings; IV. Correspondence; V. Photographs.


12 Linear Feet (1 box + 6 oversize)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection comprises original artwork and manuscript material by Clare Leighton for a series of 12 Queen's ware plates representing New England industries, produced by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons in 1952.

Biographical / Historical

Clare Leighton (1898-1989) earned early recognition as an innovative and original wood engraver in 1923, when her engravings were shown at the annual exhibition of the Society of Wood Engravers. The same year, she moved to Bloomsbury, London, where she met the radical journalist Henry Brailsford (1873-1958), with whom she lived for many years. His Marxist politics likely encouraged Leighton's dedication to portraying working men and women in her engravings, but she also seems to have had an innate respect for physical labor and those who wrest their living from the natural world. Leighton even liked to engage in the occupations she depicted (she spent a day harvesting cranberries for the Wedgwood series, and lamented that she could not go to sea on a whaling ship). Engravings such as her 1931 Lumber Camp series and "Bread Line, New York" (1932) are stark examples of social realism, and reveal her profound connection with the physical existence of man.

By 1925, when she began visiting America to give lecture tours, Leighton was already an established and respected artist. She illustrated books by Thomas Hardy and Thoreau, and published popular books with her own text and images, such as Farmer's year (1933), a chronicle of life during the agricultural depression, Four hedges (1935) about her Chiltern house and garden, and Country matters (1937), a nostalgic celebration of English rural life. Leighton was also influential as a teacher, and wrote two pedagogical texts on the craft of wood engraving: Wood-engravings and woodcuts (1932) and Wood-engravings of the 1930s (1936).

In 1939 she left Henry Brailsford and moved permanently to the United States, where she became a naturalized citizen in 1945. Her first project in the US was the semi-autobiographical Sometime -- never (1939), an exploration of her memories and inner imaginative world. Southern harvest (1942) displays her fascination with rural life in the American South; in the 1943 English edition, she wrote, "The true character of a people is to be found in its workers, and especially in the workers upon the earth, for it is here that man is up against the eternal, and it is here that he demonstrates his values and his worth."

In 1951 and 1952 she worked intensively on Josiah Wedgwood's commission for a series of 12 plates portraying traditional New England industries. The work took her all over the Northeast, and upon its completion she decided to move to Massachusetts (she would later settle in Woodbury, Connecticut). Although she broke new ground in designing the Wedgwood plates, she finished the project feeling both triumphant and exhausted. In the unpublished notes towards an autobiography she made in old age, she recollected: "Once I had finished the Wedgwoods, I realised I needed to forget wood engraving. It is no wonder that after so many years, I found myself growing exhausted by it. I felt I was running the risk of repeating myself and ceasing to grow." She saw the Wedgwood plates as one of her most ambitious projects, perhaps even the culmination of her career. The last major work she wrote and illustrated was Where land meets sea : the tide line of Cape Cod (1954), which the New England Society of New York hailed as a great contribution to the culture of New England. Soon after, she stopped engraving and began designing stained glass windows, mosaics, and other projects that spared her the detail-intensive and physically demanding labor of engraving.

The Wedgwood Plates

Clare Leighton had lived nearly 8 years in North Carolina when she received a commission from Josiah Wedgwood & Sons to design a series of 12 plates depicting traditional New England industries. The two-year project (1951-1952) sent Leighton traversing large areas of New England, to which she became deeply attached. In a draft of her "Introduction" to the Wedgwood series, she explains that she saw the commission as an opening to a new place: "Here, now, was my chance to discover New England. For always, I have found, the one way to learn the life of a land is to work upon it whether it be with plow or pencil."

As Leighton began traveling around New England, she found that "in the clean light of the North, the actual shape of the earth has a strength that is rare in the South." She got to know the people, whom she said resembled Southerners, having "the same far off, keen look in their eyes that you find in all fishermen, everywhere, the same angular bonyness of all tillers of the soil." However, she also believed that "Something happens to a man's face and stance when he battles the cold. I must be able to show this, with engraving tools, on wood." She tirelessly tracked down subjects to draw, seeking out old grist mills and ice-cutting teams (already anachronisms) in remote areas of New England. She even spent a day harvesting cranberries, and was dedicated to gaining a first-hand perspective on her subjects as much as possible.

Leighton initially planned to organize the plates by state, with logging and lobsters from Maine, codfishing from Massachusetts, maple sugar and marble quarrying in Vermont, tobacco growing in Connecticut, etc., allotting two subjects to each of the six New England states. However, she soon found that so many industries demanded representation--many of which could not be isolated by state--that this scheme would not work. In determining which industries to present, she writes that "I had decided from the very beginning that I wanted to make this an epic of earth and water. I wanted the basic, cradle industries of New England, rather than recent mechanisation. This m[u]st be the harvests of land and sea."

As an artist accustomed to illustrating books, Leighton was forced to tackle the difficulty of designing a circular (rather than rectangular) engraving for the Wedgwood designs. She solved this problem by depicting the tools of each trade in the bottom foreground. She recalls the riveting power of the many tools she examined and handled while researching subjects: "I myself grew intoxicated with the beauty and meaning of tools and caught something of the magic that man feels for the instruments of his craft ... Greater than will to power and more enduring than economic strain and stress is the inevitable shape of plow deter[m]ined by necessity. These designs, in which I have tried to show the rhythm of labour, are no sentimental escape from reality."


  • Stevens, Anne. Clare Leighton : wood engravings and drawings. Oxford : Ashmolean Museum, 1992.
  • Leighton, Clare. The wood engravings of Clare Leighton. Cambridge [England] : Silent Books, 1992.
  • Leighton, Clare. Quiet spirit, skillful hand. Charlotte, NC : Mint Museum of Art, 2008.
Guide to the Clare Leighton collection MSS.7
Finding aid compiled by Marissa Grunes and Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts
1080 Chapel Street
P. O. Box 208280
New Haven CT 06520-8280 US


1080 Chapel Street
New Haven , CT 06510

Opening Hours