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New in the gallery -- Albert Wainwright (1898-1943)

Albert Wainwright (1898-1943)

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Wainwright was born in 1898 in Castleford in the borough of Wakefield. The youngest of three children, he had a Methodist religious upbringing and was expected by his father to become an engineer, like himself. It was thanks to the help of his perceptive art teacher at Castleford Secondary school, Alice Gostick, who spotted and nurtured Wainwright’s artistic talents, that Albert’s father allowed him to leave the engineering apprenticeship that he hated and attend Leeds School of Art in 1914, aged 16. {Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth attended in 1919 and 1920}

It has been hinted at in one of Wainwright’s diaries that he suffered a nervous breakdown partway through his studies at Leeds School of Art, which is possibly the reason why he dropped out in 1916. Aged 18 he joined the Royal Flying Corps as a volunteer and was officially called up a year later where he was stationed at Hatton Camp in Buckinghamshire. By the time he left the Flying Corps in 1919, the family had moved to Monk Fryston near Pontefract. {I wonder if they liked Pontefract Liquorice, I hear the company that makes it in Pontefract is trying to have it Patented so that the big companies can't sell it if it's not made pontefract.} It was around this time that he attended Saturday morning pottery painting sessions at the Grammar School with Miss Gostick, along with his sisters Hilda and Maud. Henry Moore, as a former pupil of Miss Gostick’s, was also in attendance. Moore was a close personal friend of Wainwright’s until their correspondence stopped abruptly after 1920. We can only speculate as to the reasons for this {lovers tiff?}, but photographs and letters in the archival case show that they had at once been dear friends, writing beautifully illustrated letters to one another as soldiers during WWI to keep spirits up...

...in 1920 Wainwright received his first one-man exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery aged just 22. The show was very well received and drew the attention and support of Sir Michael Sadler, Vice Chancellor of Leeds University and notable art collector, and Frank Rutter, the influential art critic and curator. It also led to Wainwright being represented by the Goupil Gallery in London where they held solo shows of his work in 1921 and 1922. His art nouveau-inspired watercolours received great praise in the Sunday Times who lauded his ‘great ability in decorative design’.
Wainwright was subsequently invited to join the influential Leeds Art Club, an iconoclastic organisation that served as a forum for discussing radical socialist and anarchist politics, avant-garde philosophy and modernist art and poetry. Frequented by the great and the good of the Yorkshire art, music and literary scenes, Wainwright made many important connections here that led to commissions for set and costume designs for local Leeds theatres, as well as plenty of opportunities for book illustration. In particular, he was commissioned by private presses such as that of his friend Sydney Matthewman, who engaged him as the principal illustrator for his Swan Press books.
In 1927 Wainwright was made temporary art master at Castleford School for two years when Miss Gostick was ill. It was during this time that he made his first visit to Germany on Café Noir with illustration by Albert Wainwright, published by Swan Press, 1927 Collection of Ian and Vivien Starr a school excursion. The visit had an overwhelming effect on him and he fell in love with the countryside and the people. {all his sketch books from Germany are kept in a glass cabinet but then the gallery has a digital version on Ipads attatched to the wall so you can flick through them and really there's some truly remarkable pages in the sketchbooks, it really provides an insight to Germany pre war, pre Hitler and it really seem idyllic and lovely.} It would become the first of many trips he would make between then and 1938, sometimes on his own and sometimes with his partner George Collins. We have a number of sketchbooks on display that record descriptions and images of the places he visited in Germany, which was undergoing significant political and social change at this time with the rise of National Socialism and anti-Semitic sentiment. In his 1938 sketchbook, in a passionate outburst he writes of his disgust at the horrors being perpetrated by the Nazi regime, the betrayal of his own faith, and the ideological hijacking of the German youth movement.

Many of the places Wainwright drew and painted were closer to home. He filled dozens of sketchbooks with pen and ink drawings, and watercolours of the industrial landscapes and green rolling hills of his home county, Yorkshire. And when the family bought a cottage at Robin Hood’s Bay in 1930, {There's a really large watercolour of Robin's Hood's Bay which particularly stood out to me because it says in the description that he drew all the characters in from imagination, which I found extraordinary because there must be hundred's in this picture, it's kind of like a Where's Wally there's that many, and it's so pretty, so that make's me respect him even more because it made it clear he had a really vibrant imagination.} he spent every summer painting watercolour portraits of holidaymakers, scenes of the beach and the town’s red roof tops. This, along with his work for the theatres as a set and costume designer, was his main source of income. Wainwright received many commissions to design the sets and costumes for local theatres including the Leeds Civic Playhouse and the Leeds Art Theatre, for plays ranging from Greek tragedy and restoration comedy, to the modern dramas of Ibsen, Chekov and Shaw. These would eventually amount to more than 100 productions, the most ambitious of these was the Miracle Play held at Kirkstall Abbey in 1927 for which he designed over 700 costumes. From the late 1920s to the outbreak of the Second World War he did important work for the children’s theatre movement, not only in designing sets and costumes and directing productions but also in writing his own ambitious and colourful costume plays. Examples of these designs are on display in the exhibition. {there were some very feathery designs}
Wainwright often makes reference to his sexual identity as a gay man in his paintings. The subtleties of these references reflect the largely covert nature of homosexual culture in the early 20th century. In his work ‘We don’t live here anymore’ he includes a book in the picture’s foreground entitled ‘Strange Photograph of Albert Wainwright working on costumes designs for the Civic Playhouse production of ‘Salma’, 1929 Wakefield Permanent Art Collection rother’ (1931). This is an important book as it provides an early and objective documentation of homosexual issues in 1920s New York. In another work, ‘Robin Hood’s Bay’, Wainwright has painted a miniature version of himself in the crowd, flirting with a sailor and a young man. His sketchbooks are replete of drawings of beautiful androgynous men and men in uniforms, often in intimate embrace. These sketchbooks were not intended for public view but are a remarkable and rare document of gay love in the 1920s and 30s. {cute, but what does it matter which way he swung? The only reason I kept this paragraph in is because I love this picture below the line work is so sensitive and echo's the flowing and ebbing nature of the watercolour underneath making it look romantic, I like it's a lot.}

Despite having grown a moderate reputation for himself in Yorkshire, Wainwright never achieved the same level of commercial success or recognition as his school-friend Henry Moore and had to supplement his art-making with teaching. In March 1943 he applied for and was offered a post as art teacher at Bridlington School for the duration of the war. He had been with the school for only 3 months when he was suddenly taken ill with meningitis and died on a bus on his way home to Harrogate in September 1943.
Although Wainwright only lived to the relatively young age of 45, he has left us with a prolific body of work including thousands of watercolours, drawings, painted ceramics, costume and theatre designs and book illustrations, which reveal him to be an artist of powerful inventiveness and ability. The Hepworth Wakefield is pleased to be home to the largest public collection of his work, gifted by the artist’s sister Maud Wainwright in 1981.

(More art on our Gallery Page)


  1. I like the flowers at the beginning and probably the last pic the most.

    1. The headline picture (the cherry blossoms) is extremely beautiful, one of the most stunning pictures in the entire gallery.

  2. Wainwright has such a wonderful skill in capturing such intimate moments. Thanks for sharing these. I would have loved them in my art appreciation class.


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