George Hainsworth: Modest artist who remembers those who helped him

Artist George Hainsworth at the Hester Gallery, Meanwood, Leeds
Artist George Hainsworth at the Hester Gallery, Meanwood, Leeds
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In the days when George Hainsworth went to art school people from his background rarely made that journey. Sheena Hastings reports.

BORN two years before the Second World War, George Hainsworth’s early childhood memories of the conflict and the trauma of living through air raids over Britain are still very much alive, both in his head and in his work.

You can see it in his mixed media work Over the Rainbow, a beautifully finished piece where the rainbow in the background and its promise of happiness – or at least a pot of gold – is seemingly beyond reach due to the presence in the foreground of a beautifully concocted but threatening plane made from segments of wood and cork.

It features in paintings and sculptures by the artist, made over the last few decades, in a new show at the Hester Gallery in Leeds.

From very early childhood he remembers making drones and planes from whatever materials were lying about the house. Young George might not have been good with words – and he says he still isn’t – but this son of a sheet metal worker and his wife understood the language of materials and had a natural bent for expressing himself through them.

He is the first to say that he was not academically bright, unlike older brother Gordon, who passed the 11-plus and went to Lawnswood School in Leeds before heading off to Cambridge.

George failed the exam and went to a secondary modern school, where he still struggled with written language but continued to shine at art. “It was my mum who pushed and got me into art college, even though it was by a devious route,” says Hainsworth, who is now 75, and lives near Wetherby with his artist wife Lucy. He wonders now if his reading and writing problem was dyslexia.

While still at the secondary modern George was encouraged by his mother to take his paintings to the vice principal of Leeds College of Art, Cyril Cross. Cross could see the raw talent, and between them, he and Mrs Hainsworth arranged for George to switch to another school to take the GCEs he’d need to apply to the Art College.

“I had the utmost respect for Cyril Cross and what he did to help a working-class lad with a few academic problems but some artistic promise. Back then people from my kind of background generally didn’t go to art college.

“Of course, once I got in he never said a word to me. He’d done the deed, at a time when there simply were these social barriers, even if you had a gift. I was also fortunate that I had parents who were determined that I would have a good education.”

After a few years at Leeds College of Art, Hainsworth went on to the Slade School in London, where he says he didn’t like most tutors, but was taken under the wing of the great Sir William Coldstream.

While at the Slade his focus shifted from painting to sculpture. Prising concrete information from him about his achievements – such as winning the Gulbenkian Foundation Prize to study sculpture in Rome – is a pretty thankless task.

He would rather talk about the outstanding people who helped him on his journey (“Coldstream looked after me and my ‘temperament’”), rather than repeating reviews of his work or bandying the names of the great and good who have collected it.

When pressed to make any comment, he simply says: “When I let a piece go from my studio into the outside world I know it’s good.” Paul Klee is mentioned several times as an influence and focus of admiration, but his simple philosophy seems to have been to ignore modishness or bandwagons and “find my own truth”.

He met his wife, the printmaker and sculptor Lucy Mary Rogers at the Slade, and after starting a family, Hainsworth accepted a job teaching at Leeds College of Art under the leadership of the inspirational Harry Thubron.

It was a particularly exciting time to be involved in art education, with Thubron and his acolytes carrying out experiments in taking students away from the restrictive art and design curriculum into what was to become the country’s first art foundation course.

George Hainsworth’s 40-year teaching career took him to Leeds Poly, which later became Leeds Met, and he retired from his professorship there in 2002. Throughout his career artistic practice ran alongside, and he exhibited extensively in this region, London and abroad.

“Teaching should come out of continuing artistic practice,” he says. “I was lucky in the people who taught me, and enjoyed passing on what I knew. But it’s very important for students to see you, the teacher, continuing to make work, being brave...”

He stipulated early on in his teaching that he would never teach theory, as “it got in the way of addressing the canvas”.

Hainsworth likes to pursue several strands of work and subject matter at any given time. The current show encompasses highs and lows, joy and gloom, abstract expressionism and figurative pieces, beautifully worked bronze figures and mysteriously shadowy oils on canvas or board that speak of sometimes ambivalent responses to the human condition.

A kite surfer on a beach is powered by a billowing, beautiful red balloon worked in undulating brushstrokes that almost shift before the eye. The Angel of the North is brought down to size and doll-like insignificance by placing it in a more universal space.

Hainsworth says he has never regretted teaching. “A very good teacher can draw out of a student almost more than they’ve got, and teaching young people makes you, the teacher, look again at your ideas. One of the things I hope I taught well was that you need to keep the courage as an artist to break away from moulds. There always needs to be an element of fear in making work.”

Under the Stars – Paintings and Sculptures by George Hainsworth. Hester Gallery, Leeds, until November 3.

Art teacher’s varied life

George Hainsworth was born in Leeds and attended Leeds College of Art and The Slade School of Fine Art, under William Coldstream.

He gained the Gulbenkian Scholarship in Sculpture at the British School in Rome. He went on to teach fine art at Leeds College of Art and subsequently lecture as Professor of Art at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Hainsworth has worked with both figurative and non-figurative subjects and has dealt with representational subjects, religion, flowers and still life and mythology as well as delving into varying degrees of abstraction.

He was a member of the MM Arts Group and belongs to the Yorkshire Sculpture Group.