The Artwork of Albert Wainwright
Born in the historic market town of Castleford, West Yorkshire in 1898, Albert Wainwright was painter, illustrator, and designer of theatrical costume and sets. A prolific artist, his body of work includes thousands of watercolors, drawings, painted ceramics, costume and theatre designs and book illustrations, which reveal him to be an artist of powerful inventiveness and ability.
The youngest of three children, Albert Wainwright had a Methodist upbringing and an early interest in art. He attended Castleford’s Secondary School where he met classmate Henry Moore and began a friendship secured by their mutual interest in art. Until 1920, Wainwright and Moore would correspond to each other through illustrated letters, even as soldiers in the first World War. Although encouraged by his father to seek a profession as an engineer, Wainwright was given permission to train in the arts through the persuasive efforts of his secondary school’s art teacher.
In 1914, Wainwright entered Leeds Arts University in West Yorkshire. Through his studies, he was influenced by the works of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and Russian painter and theatrical designer Léon Bakat, as well as, the new works created by the Viennese Secessionist artists. Wainwright was also drawn to the fluid use of line, exaggerated forms, and dynamic use of pattern and color in the works of painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
After his service in the Royal Flying Corps, Albert Wainwright rejoined his family who now lived in Pontefract, West Yorkshire. He transformed a room in the family home for use as a studio where he continue his work as artist and designer. In 1920 at the age of twenty-two, Wainwright had his first solo exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery which, well received, gained him the support of Leeds University’s Vice Chancellor Sir Michael Sadler and influential art critic Frank Rutter. He also gained representation by London’s Goupil Gallery which held solo exhibitions of his work in 1921 and 1922.
In 1927, Wainwright was appointed temporary art master at Castleford’s Secondary School for two years. During this period, he went on a school excursion to Germany, the first of his many journeys to Europe, both alone and with his partner. This was a time of great social and political change in Europe, particularly in Austria and Germany with the rise of fascist movement. Beginning with this trip to Germany, Wainwright began a regular practice of illustrating sketchbooks with people he contacted and landscapes he admired. After his family bought a cottage in 1930 at Robin Hood’s Bay, he would spend every summer there to paint watercolors of people on holiday, beach scenes, and depictions of the town’s red roofs.
As a gay man, Albert Wainwright exercised discretion in his life, a necessity felt by many during that era due to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 which had made homosexuality illegal; often a letter of affection was sufficient to bring prosecution. He did have a life-long lover, George Collins, who was a schoolmaster and friend of the Wainwright family. Wainwright often refers to his sexual identity as a gay man in his work. His sketchbooks contain not only landscapes but also studies of men in uniforms at rest or play. Although generally clothed, Wainwright’s portraits of men were sensitively painted with alluring expressions. He considered these sketchbooks as personal and private documents and not intended for public view.
Wainwright received many commissions to design costumes and sets for local theaters including the Leeds Art Theater and the Leeds Civic Playhouse. He designed for plays ranging from Greek tragedies to modern dramas by Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov and Bernard Shaw. Wainwright designed sets and costumes for over one-hundred productions which included seven-hundred costumes for a single play in 1927, the “Miracle Play” held at Kirkstall Abbey on the north bank of the River Aire.
Wainwright never achieved the same level of commercial success and recognition as his school friend, sculptor and lithographer Henry Moore, and had to supplement his art with teaching. In March of 1943, he applied for and was offered a teaching post for the duration of the war as an art teacher at the historic Bridlington School in Yorkshire. After teaching for only three months, Albert Wainwright was stricken with meningitis and died on a bus on his way to his Harrogate home in September of 1943. His work is in many private collections; the largest public collection of his work is housed at the Hepwotth Wakefield Gallery in West Yorkshire, England.
Notes: An extensive online collection of Albert Wainwright’s work can be found at “Albert Wainwright: The Unseen Archive” located at: https://sites.google.com/view/albertwainwrightunseenarchive/home
A short video on his life is available at the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery site located at: https://hepworthwakefield.org/our-art-artists/collections/highlights/albert-wainwright/
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Albert Wainwright”, circa 1912, Vintage Print on Card Stock, Hepworth Wakefield Collection, West Yorkshire, England
Second Insert Image: Albert Wainwright, “Portrait Study of George Collins”, Date Unknown, Watercolor on Paper, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Albert Wainwright, “The Dragon Slayer”, circa 1927-1938, Gouache on Paper, 39 x 54.3 cm, Wolfsonian-FIU, Miami Beach, Florida
Bottom Insert Image: Albert Wainwright, “Boy Sleeping”, Date Unknown, Watercolor on Paper, 23 x 27.5 cm, Private Collection