Country Matters by Clare Leighton
(Little Toller, paperback, 200 pages. Out now and available here in the Caught by the River shop.)
Review by Frances Castle
Country Matters is the third book by Clare Leighton that Little Toller have reprinted in recent years.
Leighton was born in London in 1898. She attended Brighton, Slade and Central schools of art, where she studied wood engraving under Noel Rooke. After her studies she travelled throughout Europe, taking delight in sketching local people and farm workers, and awakening a lifelong passion for depicting scenes from rural life. In the following years she became an established illustrator, illustrating books by Thomas Hardy, Gilbert White and Henry David Thoreau, and designing pottery for Wedgewood. By 1937 when this book was first published, she was already considered one of the finest wood engravers of the period, and a central player in the in the Arts and Crafts revival of British wood engraving.
In 1930 Leighton and her partner, the political journalist Noel Brailsford, bought a plot of land in Monks Risborough on which they built a house called ‘Four Hedges’. They lived here, on the edge of the Chilterns, for 10 years. It was during this period, inspired by the local landscape and village life, that she wrote Country Matters. At the end of the 1930s her relationship with Brailsford disintegrated and she moved to America, where she eventually took up citizenship.
After the Great War there were many changes to rural life, but at the time that Leighton set out to document the countryside in this book, the last remnants of the old world were still hanging on. As she notes in the preface: “In the countryside today there is a piquant merging of the new into the old. Horse plough and tractor turn the clods in the same field of the ploughing match.” A period of transition, old trades like that of the blacksmith still existed. In the second chapter (entitled The Village Smithy) she notes that “The smithy stands at his anvil fashioning unwanted horseshoes, while less than thirty yards away, at the foot of the lane, roars the traffic on the main road.”
The book is divided up into 14 chapters, each about an aspect of agricultural life. Some are based on village characters – the tramp, the witch, the smithy – but most are about the bigger events in the local calendar: flower shows, cricket matches, and the harvest festival. Each chapter is illustrated with Leighton’s beautiful black and white woodcut illustrations – some full page and some vignette, statuesque figures set against detailed rural scenes. Particularly dramatic is the unlikely image of the elephant caught in a thunderstorm at the village fair. Despite the bucolic nature of the subject matter, Leighton never reverts to tweeness or cliché. Her drawing is always powerful and seems to capture a brooding, darker side to country life.
This is a beautiful book that documents a period of rural Britain between the wars. Always slightly the outsider – she was after all born in London – Leighton perhaps had a keener eye for detail than those that were born to village life. Little Toller should be congratulated for finally making her work available in print again.
Buy a copy of the book here.