York’s neglected artist Austin Wright celebrated in Thirsk

17 Jul 2013 @ 9.05 pm
| News
Austin Wright, who lived, taught and sculpted in York. Photographs: Zillah Bell Gallery
Austin Wright, who lived, taught and sculpted in York. Photographs: Zillah Bell Gallery

Review: Austin Wright (1911-1997): A Sculptor’s Drawings
Venue: Zillah Bell Gallery, Thirsk, till July 27

York has ever been neglectful of her artists. The great classicist John Flaxman is long forgotten. William Etty is reluctantly recognised, but little appreciated. Henry Scott Tuke, if remembered at all, is remembered with dismissive embarrassment.

John Harper is to have his St Leonard’s crescent desecrated in the holy name of “tourism”. Austin Wright, the only other celebrated artist who chose to live amongst us has suffered not only disdain, but actual insult. Not a happy record for a City that claims to have a Cultural Quarter.

The present neglect of Austin Wright is perhaps understandable, but certainly undeserved. I say understandable, for he stubbornly chose provincial isolation. That the neglect is undeserved, and indeed shameful, will be apparent to anyone who troubles to visit the present exhibition of Austin’s drawings and other works on paper at the Zillah Bell Gallery, Thirsk.

As with Etty, the early absorption and love of art was subject to the practicality of earning a living. There the similarity ends, for as a teacher of modern languages with a love and understanding of music, he inhabited a world conducive to his artistic development.

Nevertheless, he was over 30 before he began seriously to work as a sculptor. Thereafter his mastery of materials and his unique analysis of form ensured his recognition as a new force in art.

One of Austin Wright's drawings in coloured inks
One of Austin Wright’s drawings in coloured inks

He worked initially in wood, lead, concrete and bronze, but it was his discovery of the versatility of aluminium that allowed him to best express the complexity of his ideas: the revealed and the hidden, the tension of relationships, the part which is both part and whole, the potential of the static, and the delicate strength and balance of the natural world.

Public art sometimes seems intrusive. Such objection could never be made to Austin’s work. The vanished Rings of Roppa Moor bear sad testament to that, as do the Untitled and Dryad present, and so perfectly suited to York University campus

Austin had the eye of an anatomist / morphologist. He was in essence, amateur, artisanal and parochial. It is often said that his manifest indifference to the metropolitan art world was a blessing which protected him from fashionable, distracting influences. A contrary argument may be made, but we must take Austin’s work as is stubbornly and characteristically presented.

These beautifully sensitive drawings allow us to observe the genesis and development of Austin’s structural ideas. One cannot help experiencing through his eyes the delight he took in nature and his art. Whether you are familiar with Austin’s work or not, you are sure to find much to admire in this fine exhibition.