(STANLEY) HOWARD LEIGH (1909 – 1942)

Many aviation collectors and dealers will have encountered Howard Leigh’s work in postcard, book, magazine, boys paper, or art-print form, perhaps without giving a second thought to his name! Leigh was one of the finest aviation artists of the 1930’s. Today he is best remembered as the illustrator of the earliest ‘Biggles’ books by W E Johns. However he made a wider contribution to aviation art during the inter-war period. Since his death, his work has been somewhat neglected by collectors including the postcard fraternity. Certainly his artistic talents are deserving of more attention.

This article will focus on his postcard illustrations. I aim to provide a brief biography and checklist of his cards. I must stress that biographical and bibliographical details are scarce so this is an incomplete listing of his work, based upon my own limited collection, and that of others – I would welcome any details or offers of cards or series that are not listed here!

Howard Leigh was brought up in Edgbaston, close to an RAF recruitment depot. Upon leaving school in the late 1920’s, it was his brother-in-law, and ‘Biggles’ author, W E Johns who had initially encouraged Howard to make the most of his artistic skills. Beside this ‘apprenticeship’, he received no formal art training. It could be argued that this is evident in the naïveté of some of his early artwork, and his reluctance to include the human form in his illustrations! Certainly his strengths lay more in the grace, and technical accuracy of his work. For a while he worked with Johns in the “Aircraft & General Fine Art Company” which had been newly established in East Grinstead, Sussex. The output of this company included amongst others, aviation Christmas cards, playing cards, jigsaws, postcards and calendars. If any APCC readers have details of items produced by this company, I would be grateful (the only postcards I am aware of are by the artist Frank L Westley with “A&G” written vertically alongside his signature on the cards).

By the early 1930’s, Leigh had established his name as an aviation artist and was beginning to contribute to aviation periodicals of the day (including the early issues of ‘Popular Flying’). During these years, he made several attempts at writing, restricting himself to aviation non-fiction, mainly historical. Most notable was his stunning book ‘Planes of the Great War 1914-1918’ (published by John Hamilton in 1934). He also wrote two series of the popular ‘Aircraft Modellers Guide’ (John Hamilton, 1933 & 1935) and was editor of the splendid ‘New Book of the Air’ (Oxford University Press, 1935) for which he also provided most of the illustrations!

The earliest postcards illustrated by Howard Leigh are reputed to be those that were collected together to form the 50 illustrations in ‘Planes of the Great War 1914-1918’. I have only seen scans of some of these cards. Accompanying this article is an illustration of the dust-wrapper and one of the prints from the book. Large collotype prints of these illustrations were also available prior to collection in book form in 1934 and were advertised in ‘Popular Flying’. The distinctive, precise pen and ink drawings are easily recognisable. Few of the illustrations credit the artist, although both the prints and the book illustrations bear printed pencil signatures which dealers occasionally pass off as ‘hand-signed’! In view of the scarcity of these cards, I find it unlikely that all 50 illustrations would have been issued in card form.

Illustration 1 – Dust-wrapper of ‘Planes of the Great War’

Illustration 2 – Armstrong-Whitworth F.K.8 from ‘Planes of the Great War’

In the mid 1930’s, the ‘Air League of the British Empire’ commissioned Howard Leigh to provide a series of colour cards. Civil, military and historic planes were included in this series which ran to a total of 60 cards. The cards were issued in sets of 6 at approximately 6-monthly intervals. The early albums are undated, but the first series is likely to date from 1934. The set was completed in December 1938 (Series 10). Each card could be inserted into an album, accompanied by a separate paper slip providing specifics of the aircraft illustrated. The album-issue cards all have blank backs. Most of these cards bear the printed signature ‘Howard Leigh’ though a few are unsigned. All the identification slips for the albums credit Howard Leigh as the artist. A number of variants of the cards exist with postcard backs or aircraft recognition silhouettes. It is likely these were sold separately. The postal dates for these variants suggest they were issued at a later date than the albums.

Illustration 3 – ‘The Air Leaguers Album of British Aircraft’ cover

Illustration 4 – Album page – Series 1, Number 1 - The De Havilland ‘Comet’

Howard Leigh continued to illustrate aviation books and magazines until the outbreak of WWII. This included an advertising campaign for KLG spark-plugs, but to the best of my knowledge, no further postcards. He joined the National Fire Service and at the time of his death in February 1942 was a Senior Company Officer. He was aged only 32.

There follows a checklist of Howard Leigh’s postcards. I hope this article will stimulate awareness of the important role Howard Leigh played in aviation art and postcards of the 1930’s. If APCC readers can help with details of cards I have omitted from this checklist then I would very much appreciate any information.

Checklist of Howard Leigh Postcards

Pen & Ink collotype prints

Simultaneous historical art-prints and postcards were issued of ‘Planes of the Great War 1914-1918’, prior to collection in book form in 1934.

Complete listing of The Air Leaguers’ Album of British Aircraft 10 albums, each containing 6 colour cards with blank backs, most bearing the printed signature “Howard Leigh”. Beneath each card in the album was a separate insert containing specifications of the featured plane.

Series 1 (c1934. All unsigned - Howard Leigh is credited on the separate paper slips)

  • Series 1 No 1. The De Havilland “Comet”
  • Series 1 No 2. The Airspeed “Envoy”
  • Series 1 No 3. The Short “Scipio”
  • Series 1 No 4. The De Havilland Four-Engined Express Air Liner (D.H.86)
  • Series 1 No 5. The Avro “642”
  • Series 1 No 6. The Miles “Hawk-Major”

Series 2 (all signed ‘Howard Leigh’)

  • Series 2 No 1. The Gloster “Gauntlet”
  • Series 2 No 2. The Hawker “Hart”
  • Series 2 No 3. The Fairey “Hendon”
  • Series 2 No 4. The Short R.24/31
  • Series 2 No 5. The Supermarine Day-And-Night Single Seater Fighter
  • Series 2 No 6. The Westland “Wallace”

Illustration 5 – Air League – Series 2, Numbers 1 & 3 - The Gloster ‘Gauntlet’ & The Fairey Hendon

Series 3 (all signed ‘Howard Leigh’)

  • Series 3 No 1. D.H.2
  • Series 3 No 2. Nieuport XXVII
  • Series 3 No 3. Spad
  • Series 3 No 4. Bristol Fighter
  • Series 3 No 5. Sopwith “Camel”
  • Series 3 No 6. S.E.5a

Series 4 (all signed ‘Howard Leigh’)

  • Series 4 No 1. The Hawker Monoplane
  • Series 4 No 2. The Short “Empire” Flying Boat
  • Series 4 No 3. The Fairey “Battle”
  • Series 4 No 4. The Monospar S.T.18 “Croydon”
  • Series 4 No 5. The Bristol Type 142 – “Britain First”
  • Series 4 No 6. The Avro 652

Illustration 6 – Air League – Series 4, Number 2 - The Imperial Airways Short ‘Empire’ Flying Boat

Series 5 (all unsigned – Howard Leigh is credited on the separate paper slips)

  • Series 5 No 1. The Westland “Lysander”
  • Series 5 No 2. The Short-Mayo Composite Aircraft
  • Series 5 No 3. The Handley Page H.P.52
  • Series 5 No 4. The B.A “Double Eagle”
  • Series 5 No 5. The Vickers “Wellington” MK.1
  • Series 5 No 6. The Miles “Mohawk”

    Illustration 7 – Air league – Series 5, Number 1 & 2 – The Westland Lysander and the Short Mayo composite aircraft.

    Series 6 (all signed ‘Howard Leigh’)

    • Series 6 No 1. The De Havilland “Albatross”
    • Series 6 No 2. The Bristol Type 138a
    • Series 6 No 3. The Armstrong Whitworth “Ensign”
    • Series 6 No 4. The Blackburn Naval Dive Bomber
    • Series 6 No 5. The Clyde “Clipper”
    • Series 6 No 6. The Vickers Supermarine “Stranraer”

    Illustration 8 – Air League – Series 6, Number 5 - The Clyde ‘Clipper’

    Series 7 (January 1937. All signed ‘Howard Leigh’)

    • Series 7 No 1. The Percival “Mew Gull”
    • Series 7 No 2. The Saro “London”
    • Series 7 No 3. The Hillson “Praga”
    • Series 7 No 4. The A.W “Whitley”
    • Series 7 No 5. The Slingsby “Kirby Kite” Sailplane
    • Series 7 No 6. The Gloster F.5/34

    Series 8 (March 1938. all signed ‘Howard Leigh’)

    • Series 8 No 1. The Percival “Q.6”
    • Series 8 No 2. The Vickers “Wellesley”
    • Series 8 No 3. The Hafner Gyroplane A.R.III Mk.II
    • Series 8 No 4. The Airspeed “Queen Wasp”
    • Series 8 No 5. The “Chilton” Monoplane
    • Series 8 No 6. The Miles R.R Trainer

    Illustration 9 – Air League - Series 8, Number 3 - The Hafner Gyroplane

    Series 9 (All signed ‘Howard Leigh’)

    • Series 9 No 1. The Vickers Supermarine “Walrus”
    • Series 9 No 2. The Tipsy Two Seater
    • Series 9 No 3. The Hawker “Henley”
    • Series 9 No 4. The Mosscraft Monoplane
    • Series 9 No 5. The “Bristol” Bombay
    • Series 9 No 6. The D.H.95 “Flamingo”

    Series 10 (December 1938. All signed ‘Howard Leigh’)

    • Series 10 No 1. The Fairey F.C.1
    • Series 10 No 2. The Handley Page “Harrow”
    • Series 10 No 3. The G.A “Cygnet” (mis-spelt as “Gygnet”)
    • Series 10 No 4. The Blackburn “Roc”
    • Series 10 No 5. The D.H “Moth Minor”
    • Series 10 No 6. The Boulton Paul “Defiant”

    Variant Issues of ‘Air League of the British Empire’ Series

    A number of postcard variants exist for the cards that formed the ‘Air League series’. Postal dates suggest these are later printings. Apart from the ‘British Aeroplanes of Two Wars’ cards, none of these credit the publisher. I am aware of the following:

    Cards with overprinting to the front

    1. Westland ‘Wallace’ – Front of the card has the overprint ‘WESTERN WALLACE’. Divided Post Card reverse.

    2. The Monospar S.T.18 ‘Croydon’ – Front of the card has the overprint ‘AVRO TIGER’. Blank reverse.

    3. The Handley Page H.P.52 – Front of the card has the overprint ‘HENDON’. Divided Post Card reverse.

    Cards with “POST CARD” and line dividing back

    4. Airspeed “Envoy” (unsigned)

    5. DeHavilland DH.86 (unsigned) Postally used 1943.

    6. Hawker ‘Hart’

    7. Westland ‘Wallace’ – Front of the card has the overprint ‘WESTERN WALLACE’.

    Illustration 10 – Variant postcard with overprint – ‘Western Wallace’ (Westland!)

    8. The Handley Page H.P.52 – Front of the card has the overprint ‘HENDON’.

    Cards with backs as below


    Printed in Great Britain


    9. The Supermarine Day-And-Night Single Seater Fighter

    Cards with backs as below

    10. The Blackburn ‘Roc’

    11. The D.H. ‘Moth Minor’

    British Aeroplanes of Two Wars (Silhouette backs) The set of 6 cards that had constituted Series 3 was re-issued in 1940 in a paper envelope under the collective title ‘British Aeroplanes of Two Wars’ at a price of 1/-. These cards bear black and white aircraft recognition silhouettes (front, side and below views) and specifications for each plane by J H Stevens on the reverse. They were “Published by The Air League of the British Empire, 1A Pall Mall East, London S.W.1”.

    12. D.H.2 - Reverse depicts Blackburn Skua I

    13. Nieuport XXVII - Reverse depicts Supermarine Spitfire 1

    14. Spad - Reverse depicts Boulton Paul Defiant

    15. Bristol Fighter - Reverse depicts Bristol Blenheim I

    16. Sopwith “Camel” - Reverse depicts Hawker Hurricane I

    17. S.E.5a - Reverse depicts Gloster Gladiator

    Illustration 11 – Paper envelope for the British Aeroplanes of Two Wars series

    Illustration 12 - Reverse of one of the British Aeroplanes of Two Wars series

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