The Reaper (BPL 221) appears as the title page of one of Clare Leighton’s
most celebrated books, The Farmer’s Year: A Calendar of English
Husbandry (1933). From Lambing’ in January to The Fat Stock
Market’ in December, Leighton’s text and full page engravings provide a
remarkable account of English farming before the advent of agribusiness.
Clare 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, which was typically made of boxwood,
sufficiently hard to allow for a number of prints to be made before any
loss of sharpness.
This engraving shows the labourer setting out to reap the harvest of a
whole year’s varied travail, to cut and gather by hand what today requires
the use of fuel wrung from the bowels of the earth. His right hand holds
the tip of the blade to keep it from damage and from harming any
passer-by. His left keeps the scythe neatly balanced on his shoulder; from
his waist hangs a sharpening stone which he will need to use again and
again as the work proceeds.
In addition to the artist’s personal acquaintance with the scythe
(always loath to portray what she had not herself experienced, she
learnt to ….stroke the grasses to their death’) we can be sure that its
constructional details are accurate. This illustrates one of Clare Leighton’s
dearest principles; any criticism from a farm worker would have shamed
Commentary by David Leighton, Clare Leighton’s nephew and artistic executor. He is author of Clare Leighton: The Growth and Shaping of an Artist-Writer (2009).
We are grateful to David Leighton, the artist’s nephew and artistic executor for assistance.