Artwork of the Month: Albert Wainwright, Manora Thew as Salma, 1929
Holly Grange, Exhibitions and Collections Assistant, chooses January’s Artwork of the Month: Albert Wainwright’s Manora Thew as ‘Salma’, 1929 (pictured). This watercolour painting features in our exhibition In Focus: Albert Wainwright in the Yorkshire in Pictures Gallery. This display aims to bring the work of this talented and much neglected local artist to a wider audience. Born just ten miles from where The Hepworth Wakefield now stands in Castleford, Wainwright was prolific during his relatively short lifetime, producing thousands of watercolours, book illustrations, drawings, costume designs, theatre backdrops and painted pottery. Despite this, and the modest reputation he established for himself in his home county of Yorkshire, he never achieved anywhere near the level of recognition as his school-friend Henry Moore. After his death aged 45, his work was left to his sister Maud. In 1980 she exhibited hundreds of his paintings and theatrical designs, including this one, as part of a large retrospective show at the Wakefield City Art Gallery. After this, she sold the majority of the collection to Wakefield Art Gallery and it is now looked after by The Hepworth Wakefield. This painting is a particularly interesting example of Wainwright’s work as it functions as both as a portrait of an individual, the 1920s star of screen and stage Manora Thew, and as a record of a theatrical costume that he designed for the character of ‘Salma’ in the eponymously named play at Leeds Civic Playhouse in 1929. Thew is depicted floating on a wave of undulating clouds: the folds of her costume billowing out around her, leaving only her hands and face visible. She wears an elaborate Arabian headdress and her black hair flows down in long tendril-like strands. The colours and geometric patterning of the costume show that Wainwright was aware of the exotic costume designs of Léon Bakst and the other Ballet Russes designers. The Ballet Russes was a ballet company based in Paris between 1909 and 1929. Originally conceived by Sergei Diaghilev, it is widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century, in part because it promoted ground-breaking artistic collaborations among choreographers, composers, designers, dancers and visual artists all at the forefront of their fields. There is considerable archival material in The Hepworth Wakefield’s collection that relates to the production, which was one of the largest and most ambitious that Wainwright was involved with. Although the play received less than favorable reviews – it was described in one local paper as ‘an ill-told story…smothered in irrelevancies’ – Wainwright’s costumes and backdrops nonetheless received a great deal of praise. The photo above shows Wainwright working on a design for one of the backdrops. The plays Wainwright worked on would eventually number more than 100 productions. The most ambitious of these was the Miracle Play held at Kirkstall Abbey in 1927, for which he designed an incredible 700 costumes. From the late 1920s to the outbreak of World War II, he did important work for the Children’s Theatre Movement, designing sets and costumes and directing his own productions such as Gods of the Mountain in 1924.