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Discovering the lost sketchbooks of Albert Wainwright

Classmate to Henry Moore, contemporary of Christopher Isherwood and forebearer to David Hockney, Albert Wainwright was a remarkable artist. His sketchbooks capture gay culture of the interwar years, and now, thanks to a new book, they have been unearthed,

Living sculptures: a glimpse of the treasures inside Wainwright's sketchbooks.

Albert Wainwright’s remarkable and graphic 1920s sketchbooks captured Anglo-German relations between the wars and the gay culture of that period, interspersed with large sections that focus on his adolescent German muse Otto and rural German architecture, much of which was bombed during the Second World War.

The new book, titled Albert & Otto, is thanks to the determined pursuits of independent Portsmouth-based bookseller Callum James, a specialist in gay literature, and his editor friend Nick Elm. The pair have been chasing the lost legacy of Albert Wainwright for years, stalking the sketchbooks from owner to owner until eventually their current executor, the reclusive collector Robert Orme.

Persuading Orme to share the top shelf of what may now be a potentially priceless collection, this astonishing new book Albert & Otto presents a trio of Wainwright's sketchbooks within one jacket.

Born in 1898, Wainwright was a boarding school master who filled his holidays with overseas rural excursions. Unlike his better-known contemporaries Isherwood and Auden who garlanded Berlin as the global epicentre for homosexual proclivities and thinly-veiled sex tourism, Wainwright preferred to lose himself in Germany's remotest regions, using his tin of watercolours to capture the life less documented.

A star pupil at Castleford School, Albert Wainwright was one of two boys who caught the eye of small-town art teacher Alice Costick. In a Billy Elliot-type story, Miss Costick decided to lay on special evening classes for her two protégés in the hope that Leeds College of Art would accept them, and she clearly had an eye for talent. The other boy was called Henry Moore.

A conscientious objector, Wainwright spent the war in Yorkshire painting camouflage. He filled thirty sketchbooks in total that depicted rural scenes, architecture, peasant villagers and young men. He forged a side-business by painting portraits in Robin Hood’s Bay, mainly of his friends' sons, as well as local scenery. Wainwright began to receive recognition in the art world, and was given an exhibition in Wakefield, but then he collapsed suddenly on a bus journey and died from what turned out to be meningitis.

Sadly but inevitably it was Wainwright’s strictly Methodist sister Maud who inherited his life’s work, and like poor Lord Byron before him, Wainwright suffered the posthumous injustice of having his family destruct his inwardly reaching diaries as they outwardly reached to the sitting room hearth and burned them under the selfish and thinly-guiled excuse of “saving his reputation”. Ninety per cent of his legacy went up the chimney.

However, three sketchbooks miraculously survived as a Manchester art dealer Ian Starr bought a big bundle off Wainwright a few years before his untimely death, safely alleviating a sizeable body of work from the indignant family fireside of future years. It is these beautiful remnants that are published in Albert & Otto.

The book is split into sections, "Germany 1929", "Otto in Germany 1929", and "Otto in England". Wainwright’s younger lover and long-time muse Otto was the son of Wainwright’s friends. Presumably Otto's parents didn’t suspect anything unusual when Wainwright proposed taking the boy away for weeks at a time. Some of the results of these uninhibited holidays are laid out in the clear pink brush strokes!

As well as Otto, Wainwright painted other boys too and had a lot of enthusiasm for developing Anglo-German relations between the wars via school exchange programmes. Assisting the Castleford headmaster J R Dawes, Wainwright would either take a bunch of Yorkshire lads off into the sticks of northern German, or host harangues of German boys on home pastures. In a similar vein to the fictional League of Gentleman character Herr Lipp, there is little doubt that Wainwright used his socio-political exchange programme to vent his obsession with the adolescent male figure.

Bizarrely, at the time of his death, Wainwright lived only a few fields away from a then six-year-old David Hockney. Turning the pages of Albert & Otto there are jaw dropping similarities between Wainwright and Hockney’s eye for rural scenes that are at once strangely vivid and yet reticent. Both artists also share the same striking flick in subject matter between the homosexual and the horticultural, inflating both themes with that strange brand of jovial gravity. One can cannot help but wonder if Wainwright was an early influence on Hockney, albeit via Wainwright's sporadic bouquet of local exhibitions.

In James and Elm's book it is the most graphic watercolours and line-drawings of Wainwright’s that initially grab the viewer’s attention. Young Otto in one picture sunbaths naked on a beach of prehistoric grit - Whitby’s stormy Saltwick Bay. Another sketch has Otto rolling his legs back over his head playfully while throwing a cheeky grin at the artist. There are numerous sketches that take place in German gymnasiums and summertime park scenes, where it was then the norm for German boys to play-fight in the buff.

Yet it is Wainwright’s more subtle depictions of rural German landscapes and his crush on quaint architectural details that I hope might procure a sudden rise in interest and monetary value for his work within art buying circles.

One watercolour shows a mysterious fairy-lit boat twinkling merrily, as viewed from the banks of a silent moonlit pond. Haunting, enchanting, completely unexplained. A few pages along there is painting of interconnecting telegraph lines sticking out menacingly in a  field at sunset. Wainwright's sometimes cartoony touch that he brings to provincial windmills, distant power stations and short-tempered cattle herders bears a strange resemblance to the work of present-day Japanese anime house Studio Ghibli.

These still life watercolours are interspersed with original poetry, music scores and quirky military doodles in which Wainwright mimics the gently-snowballing propaganda that he witnessed first hand while touring rural Germany.

This long-awaited release of the under-appreciated paintings of Albert Wainwright are a valuable addition to art history and the more fragile history of gay culture. Fragile because Wainwright’s small painterly pages are windows into a fascinating past that for decades historians refused to document. Powerful because Wainwright’s work also challenges the gay ethos of today. Rather than seek approval from a thankless society and seek to tie the knot before the altar, Wainwright belonged to a generation of gay thinkers who sought solace in the margins, in the nourishing detachment of the great outdoors and in the pleasure-seeking psyche of the nudist.

Hopefully Albert Wainwright will no longer have to settle for the bronze plinth, and instead enjoy some of the recognition that his old school buddy Henry Moore has been basking in all these years. Henry Moore's sculptures of fat ladies may have been lying in Yorkshire's chilly sculpture park for years, but Wainwright's boys were doing it for real a long time before. Living sculptures, now available in book form for the first time.

Albert & Otto: Albert Wainwright's Visual Diary of Love in the 20s is available on Amazon from Callum James Books