Obituary: Austin Wright

James Hamilton
Wednesday 26 February 1997 00:02 GMT

Austin Wright found his language as a sculptor in the forms of plants, in the human figure and in the folds of the Yorkshire landscape.

He was brought up in Cardiff, of English Quaker parents, and although there were youthful stirrings of a desire to become a sculptor, he nevertheless took an orthodox route and read Modern Languages at New College, Oxford, and trained to become a teacher. His first posting, at The Downs, near Malvern, in 1934, set him in a school which was unique for its freedom of expression - W.H. Auden taught English; the art master, Maurice Feild, brought an exhibition of Dada to the school. The painter Patrick George, then a pupil, recalled that on Sundays "we remembered we were a Quaker school and sat in silence on rush- covered chairs for what seemed a very long time". When not taking French and German lessons, Wright taught painting and sculpture at The Downs; and, as a gesture to his friend and colleague, acted as witness at Auden's wedding in Malvern to Thomas Mann's daughter Erika.

In 1937 Wright moved to York, the city and county that became his home for the rest of his life. While teaching modern languages at Bootham School during the day, he taught art in the evenings, and felt his way as a sculptor. He approached Henry Moore for advice and encouragement, and recalled being told, quite bluntly, just to get on with it. Moore gave him a practical tip - that the edge of a piece of broken glass was good for finishing curved surfaces. There are echoes of both Moore and Barbara Hepworth in Wright's early figure sculpture, but gradually the tall, attenuated, skeletal forms that became characteristic of Wright developed, and these began to set him apart from his contemporaries.

As a conscientious objector, Wright remained in Yorkshire during the Second World War, continuing to teach at Bootham when the school was evacuated to Helmsley. This lengthy contact with the North Riding landscape was the beginning of a lifelong romance with the hills and valleys of his adopted county.

Wright did what he could as an artist in the English provinces after the war to make London sit up and take notice. He exhibited small lead figure groups in Cork Street, and hoped for more exposure there; he took part in the LCC Holland Park Sculpture Exhibition in 1957 and was included in a British Council touring exhibition to Scandinavia and South America, where he won the Acquisition Prize at the Sao Paulo Biennale. He was noticed in particular by Charles Sewter, who wrote in the Manchester Guardian in 1955: "It would not be outrageous, far from it, to claim that Austin Wright is the most gifted sculptor working in Britain today."

Perhaps because he doggedly refused to move to London - he had married and had a young family by now - Wright's work tended to evade the concentrated focus of the London art world. He began to have other priorities, which would not be helped by close contact with the mainstream. After a brief but productive period of melting figures from concrete, Wright discovered in the early 1960s the sculptural potential of aluminium.

It had many advantages, among them extreme ductility which allowed thinner, more apparently fragile forms. And it was cheap, light to use and carry. Being released from the earthbound materials of lead and concrete was for Wright like being sprung into the air. "It projects its lightness," he said of aluminium. "It speaks out to any form of light in the sky. Come out into the garden and it chirps in a startling way."

During this period Wright took a renewed interest in plant forms, most productively when he was Gregory Fellow in Sculpture at Leeds University, 1961-62, and in another characteristic motif based on the relationship of the human hip and torso. These sources naturally intermingled, reaching mature expression in Moon (1962, Leeds City Art Galleries) and Ring and Wall (1964, Bretton Hall College). Other work simply reflected his joy at being alive. He windmilled his arms and gave a whoop of joy the moment he heard that he had sold a major work to an American collector - that whoop became Ring, a sculpture that could only possibly be made in aluminium so delicate, so fleeting that, like a soap-bubble or the gesture Wright spontaneously flung out that day in 1965, it practically isn't there.

Wright's sculpture was made not in a studio - there was no such place - but in the barn and long garden behind his house outside York. From the chaos in the barn ideas for eloquent, elemental forms appeared. The ring form, for example, evolved to the scale of the monumental Two Rings (1975-77), sited briefly but majestically on the Yorkshire Moors above Helmsley until it was cut down and stolen for scrap.

His garden became Wright's primary source of inspiration. He drew there incessantly, making sheet after sheet of broad, open drawings of the form of the laurel leaf or of his apple trees which developed as material for sculpture. When York University awarded him an Honorary Degree in 1977, he made, extempore, a speech that defined his passion for the Yorkshire landscape:

It is the one place that I needed to return to to work. I could take all the journeys to fabled Shiraz and Samarkand without meaning. I am no tourist. It is here. I have always believed that, artistically, the real thing is under your feet.

Despite his 60-year immersion among the people and inflexions of Yorkshire, Wright always retained a Welsh lilt to his voice, and Welsh turns of phrase: "Let's have a look-see," he would say as he opened an old sketch-book. If he had been in the thick of the national art world in the 1950s and 1960s (and there are those in Yorkshire who have ritually mourned that), the Austin Wright we now know would not have existed. Those rare, febrile plant forms, those noble rings would have become too knowing, too concerned with speaking an international language to have preserved their innocence.

Discovering Wright has been like discovering evidence of a whole new school of art developing in parallel with the known world, a new country on a new morning.

James Hamilton

Austin Andrew Wright, sculptor: born Chester 4 June 1911; married 1945 Susan Midgley (one son, two daughters); died York 22 February 1997.

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