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Clare Leighton (1898-1989):
Unmounted (ref: 5713)
Signed by artist's nephew, titled
Print of original woodblock
9 1/8 x 11 in. (23 x 28 cm)
In 1931 Clare had the opportunity to spend some time in a lumber camp on the Quebec-Ontario border. She had read Louis Hémon's French Canadian classic “Maria
Chapdelaine”as an introduction to life in rural Quebec. The contrast between sparkling white snow and the darkness of the dense Canadian woods seemed especially suited to her favourite medium, and people at work had always been a favoured subject. At first the men of the camp were suspicious of this lone woman. However, when she hid any fear at the howling of wolves and shared the men's food and some of their hardships she won their respect. They told hertheir fantastic tales of Paul Bunyan, “the god of the lumberjacks”, and she was able to make numerous pencil sketches and notes. Clare's diary, written at the time and copied word-forword below, shows her first impressions in a peculiarly immediate form. These notes and the sketches were the basis for her subsequent engravings on the boxwood blocks. The prints depict the lumberjacks' life at a time when the only power in the remote forest lay in the muscles of men and horses.
February 16th, 1931:
Took the train to Gracefield. Men in thick fur
coats. Everybody knew each other - snow
everywhere - queer patches of yellow ochre
on the lakes where the snow was melting and
marking a thaw. The hills' curves showing
simply, the sky dead blue-grey. Stopped at
every station. When we reached Gracefield,
passing dumps of logs etc., Mr Gray the
overseer was on the same train and met me.
A snowmobile met us and we drove through
this sunless white to a hotel a mile off where
we had a substantial meal - soup, masses of
meat, potatoes, turnips and pie.
There were wonderful characters there -
“jobbers” - in torn wool and thick boots.
They came up to Mr Gray and wanted jobs.
One old French Canadian of 83 wanted to
sell us axe handles. They all talked a strange
French. After our hefty meal we started - this
time in a “team” - two horses harnessed to a
belled sleigh - covered ourselves with
bearskins and set off for a 26-mile run to take
4 hours. Past rolling hills and fields of snow,
the road very rough and each time we passed
a pit in the road we were severely shaken.
Had wonderful feeling of ecstasy, the two
horses' rumps and tails flailing in front of us.
Passed several broken-down settlements and
saw large hills covered with trees in the
distance. Through the “bush” of fir trees and
birch. Saw marks of deer and fox and rabbits.
Saw a deer. The trees were weighed down
with snow - the snow would be about three
feet in height - and some of the stumps were
looking like big night-caps. It would be in
occasional lumps on the fir trees and
weighing down the branches. Up and down
hills, past many little snow-covered lakes.
At last, at 5, we reached the depot. My room
was small and bare and clean. I tidied and
had a talk in the kitchen with the cook and
his wife and the maid in French. Supper of
meat and beans and potatoes and pie galore.
Mr Mansell the clerk and a Norwegian youth
were also at supper. I felt very solitary; talked
about nothing. It appears there are wolves'
howls to be heard at night. Got very sleepy
from the marvellous air.
Slept soundly; wakened by people in house at
5. Dead, heavy, leaden sky and snow falling.
Left at 8.15 for “Hatey's Camp”. Drove
through the bush with all the fir trees
outlined in white and heavy. Abundant
shapes on the stumps.
Passed some finished log cabins and crossed
over an ice lake; to my horror it was all
slushy and the horses' feet sank in. However,
Mr Gray said it was all right and we survived,
but it was an experience. At 10.15 we arrived
at Hatey's camp - a clump of log cabins with
heavy snow on top and icicles dripping down
about six feet. We sat inside the office and I
talked to fat, pleasant Mr Hatey and a strange,
handsome clerk called Pat. All the men's hair
needed cutting and in some cases it fell down
to their necks - nearly all French and wearing
check windbreakers. I drew the bunks and
the stove and the figures - everyone was so
amazingly good-natured. We ate with the
men in another hut, with tin mugs and tin
plates and a longer tin jug of tea. One plate
served for soup, pork, tomato sauce and
prunes and cake. There was heaps to eat and
wonderful roses on the oilcloth tablecloth.
Hatey and Mr Gray and Pat were there, and
the fat maiden who cooked. Always quantities
of strong tea. After dinner we inspected the
“dump” - thousands of logs on the lake.
I drew them until the snow got too bad.
Saw several teams of lumberjacks who had
broken camp. Pigs and a cow and many dogs.
Then went across another lake up to see them
“loading”. Drew it and photographed it. Then
back to the lake and watched them “landing”.
Then went back with Pat and Hatey and had
tea and left. Came across more frighteningly
slushy lakes. Got back - all the way in slight
snow - just at dusk. Don't forget the little fir
trees marking the road across the lake; if one
stepped on the snow part one would have
Dark, grey day - snow falling. An unearthly
quiet. Went to office and then started off for
a high-up dump. We drove in the opposite
direction past woods even more beautiful
with snow. Crossed Eagle River on a little
bridge, drove about six miles, up very steep
hills that the ponies could hardly take. Passed
several “skidways” of logs on river bank.
Finally in snow I drew quick sketches of logs
etc. Back to lots of lunch.
In the afternoon walked down to lake to
watch ice being cut. Looked at dam and on
the way got up to over my knees in snow.
I realised the cruelty of snow. The men were
starting with the ice, cutting the key block.
It was almost two and a half feet deep and a
beautiful pale blue in colour, with slush on
top. Came back in their cart, standing,
keeping balanced. Snow the entire time.
I couldn't work. Came back to office and met
Mr Hatey again, then went on snow-shoes
across the fields. Tripped several times and
fell deep in the snow. Always snowing. Came
back to house and tidied and changed.
Wakened late - still snowing unceasingly.
Telephoned to the Eric Brains (friends) then
went for a walk alone through the bush and
drew some shapes of snow on tree stumps.
Heard voices through the trees and tracked
down on skidway and drew it as well as I
could with the snow falling upon me. Back on
the sleigh to the clearing and up to the depot,
then wandered around and drew icicles and
sleigh. After dinner drew men's sleigh
returning. Then walked out to the bush and
picked up two men who selected a large pine
and watched them cut it down. First they
axed it at the side it was to fall, then sawed it
and then, with a huge heave, it fell aslant on
to balsams etc. Mr Gray held an umbrella over
me so that I could draw it in the snow, and
placed a bed of balsam boughs for me to sit
on. I drew all stages of it. They then slashed at
the boughs and proceeded to limb it. I drew
that excitedly. Then they sawed it into logs -
up to their knees in the snow.
Then we drove to the lake where they cut ice.
Mr Gray helped while one of the men held
my umbrella. I drew them. We drove back to
the pathetic fallen tree (it had moved me
strangely to see it fall like that) and Mr Gray
made my bed and held the umbrella while I
made a study of the trunk and boughs.
We walked back to the depot and arrived
worn and tired.
Quoted in Clare Leighton, The Growth and Shaping of An Artist-Writer, p. 37-45, Published by The Estate of Clare Leighton.