Miss Clare Leighton

Claire Leighton cropoedClara Ellaline Hope Leighton, 34, (1898-1989) sometimes Clare Veronica Hope Leighton, started her career as an illustrator but was best known for her engraving. She is also immortalised in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (as Evelyn) – to be published later in the year, in August 1933. Her brother Roland was Vera’s fiancé and his death in the war and that of three others close to Vera are very much the story of the book. For a number of years (including at the time of the dinner) she was the partner of Noel Brailsford. Later they parted and she moved to the US where she continued her career until her death in 1989, 54 years after the dinner.


We can probably safely assume she was seated beside her partner Noel but engaging perhaps easily with all those on the table, most of a similar age save for Elizabeth Stevenson. With a future successful career as a teacher and lecturer, perhaps her conversations at the dinner gave her some insights as she developed her career. It would be nice to think that the dinner proved an event she looked back to with good memories.


Claire Leighton MARCHQuite possibly she was full of her new book, The Farmer’s Year, which she would have just finished or to which she would be putting the final touches, the first of her three books, a sombre vision of life on the land at a time of agricultural depression. She was probably aware that she would be “featuring” in Vera Brittain’s book later that year. Alternatively she may have been thinking of her Chilterns garden, as spring approaches. Indeed this print from her 1935 book “Four Hedges” – the name of the house in the Chilterns she and Noel moved into in 1931 – might easily be referring to March 1933.


Clare was born on 12th April 1898 at 40 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, London, the second of the three children of Marie Leighton née Connor, a writer of romantic fiction and of Robert Leighton, a writer and journalist. She began painting as a child under the guidance of her father and his brother Jack, a professional artist. After the family moved in 1915 to Keymer, Sussex, she attended Brighton College of Art, and between 1922 and 1923 studied painting under Sir Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Fine Art, and wood-engraving under Noel Rooke at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. Illustrating was her first source of income, including for Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, before developing her career as an engraver.

Winifred Holtby, writing as Celia in “Letters to a Friend” gives us these insights from 1921, when she was sharing a flat with Vera Brittain and Clare (this is after Clare’s brother, Vera’s fiancé, had been killed):

“Clare….is a student at the Slade School and paints rather modern portraits, after the style of Augustus John – the usual Slade revulsion from the pretty-pretty, that ends generally in what I should call the ugly-ugly. Apart from her painting – and though I laugh at it, I can’t help seeing she is clever – she is a charming person and I think we shall rub along quite well”. She referred to Clare as the granddaughter of Lord Leighton but a footnote corrects that, though there was a family connection.[1]

And in January 1922, when Clare was painting Winifred’s portrait, Winifred wrote:

“Clare is a large, lovely person, with heavy masses of straight brown hair that falls each side of her round, dimpled face, and is gathered into an untidy bun at the back of her neck. On the rare occasions when she is not carrying a paint brush between her teeth, she has a most ingratiating smile that sets all her dimples twinkling. She generally has a smudge of paint across her face, and her overall is always buttonless: but she is most orderly and thorough about her work, and has a friendly and tolerant disposition, a gift of making charming and ingenuous generalisations, and a most comfortable personality. When I sit to be painted, she quotes yards of W.H. Davis and other modern poets of the countryside, and whistles like a blackbird.”[2]

And a year later, on 12th February 1923, Winifred sent her friend Jean McWilliam a fuller portrait of Clare, which could have been written for “Clare’s Story So Far“: 

“Clare is a charming, a plucky child. She was never educated. She had a nurse till she was sixteen, and was never allowed even to post a letter without a maid. Suddenly she insisted on learning drawing. She was allowed, after great difficulties, to attend the Brighton Art School twice a week. She practised all day. She drew at night and at odd moments and on the kitchen table. They came to London. She went at intervals to the Slade. She took all her certificates on about quarter the proper training. She exhibited two pictures in the New English and one in the London Group. When her family went to the country she insisted on staying in town to study. She taught at an elementary school three days a week to gain money for her classes. She went to stay with an uncle. She slept on a sofa in his flat. She paid ten shillings a week for the run of a studio. She painted like a fury. One day her headmistress told her that she was Geddes-axed from her school. She had no job – no money – nowhere to live. If she went home it meant typing and doing housework and goodbye to her work. Then Vera stepped in, and took her to her agent, Truman and Knightley’s. She took her to Miss Monica’s and introduced her to the headmistress. She promised to look after her whatever happened. The St. Monica’s people liked Clare so much that they had her to teach one day a week. The agent found her two more jobs. Clare is earning £6 a week. I got her to do the cover of my book and introduced her to John Lane.  The directors fell in love with her – her candour, her childish naïveté, her decided talent. They want her work. She has taken two unfurnished rooms. She has furnished them with two painted barrels, a camp bed, and old deal table, two chairs and her painting things. Everything in the room she has painted blue and black against the cream-washed walls. She has crimson coconut matting on the floor, and blue curtains. She has filled a blue bowl with crimson apples and set it on her black tablecloth. She is happier than almost anyone I know. One day she will be great.”[3]

St. Monica’s was the Surrey boarding school which Vera Brittain had attended and where her aunt was the principal.

Clare met Noel Brailsford when she supplied drawings for the New Leader, the newspaper of the Independent Labour Party of which he was then Editor. In 1931 their paths also crossed when she painted Gandhi. At the time of the dinner they were living at 37 Belsize Gardens, London NW3, and at Peter’s Lane, Monks Risborough, Bucks. Convinced that wood-engraving was an art for the masses rather than for an élite, Clare worked independently of the private presses. ‘No one in our time’, wrote Eric Gill ‘has succeeded better in presenting the nobility of massiveness and breadth of life of the earth on a scale so grand.’ With a gift for friendship, Clare was influential as a teacher and lecturer.


These were earlyish days in Clare’s career and life, just beginning to publish. And perhaps the success of Vera’s book would have been a bit of a surprise and adding to her exposure. Clare and Noel broke up in the late 30’s – he struggled to deal with the death of his wife in 1937 – and she moved to the US in 1939. Clare travelled around for about 4 years before settling down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1943 and taking US citizenship in 1945. The idea she mentioned that “the true character of a people is to be found in its workers” was developed in her engravings for a survey published by Duke University “North Carolina Folklore” – and she published many more engravings in a number of books. She turned to stained glass and mosaic later. She did not marry. Clare died in a nursing home on 4th November 1989.


[1] Winifred Holtby, Letters to a Friend, p46, Collins 1937

[2] Winifred Holtby, Letters to a Friend, p86, Collins 1937

[3] Winifred Holtby, Letters to a Friend, p159-160, Collins 1937


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