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Henry Ainley

Henry Ainley early in his career
Born Henry Hinchliffe Ainley
21 August 1879(1879-08-21)
Morley, West Yorkshire, England, UK
Died 31 October 1945 (aged 66)
London, England, UK
Years active 1900 – 1936
Spouse(s) Suzanne Sheldon
Elaine Fearon

Henry Hinchliffe Ainley (21 August 1879 – 31 October 1945) was an English Shakespearean stage and screen actor, father of actors Richard and Anthony Ainley, and Sam Ainley, who was not an actor.

He was born in Leeds, where he was baptized in St. George's Parish Church and brought up in Morley by his father Richard, a cloth finisher, and his mother Ada, but moved to London as an adult to pursue an acting career.[1] He made his professional stage debut for F.R. Benson's company of actors and later joined Herbert Beerbohm Tree's company. He found fame in 1902 as Paolo in Paolo and Francesca.


Shakespearean roles

Ainley's first stage role was as a messenger in Macbeth. He subsequently appeared as Glo'ster in Henry V at the Lyceum in London and returned to Leeds to play at the Grand Theatre.[2] Later roles included Oliver Cromwell, Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Macbeth himself. He played Malvolio (1912) and Leontes under the direction of Granville Barker and portrayed Hamlet several times, including a 1930 production that was chosen for a Royal Command Performance.

John Gielgud, writing in the Sunday Times in 1996, described Ainley's Prospero as "disastrous",[3] although he generally held Ainley in high regard and fulfilled a longstanding ambition to perform with him when Gielgud played Iago opposite Ainley's Othello in a 1932 BBC Radio broadcast.[4]

Shakespearean screen credits include Henry VIII and As You Like It, a 1936 film which also featured his son Richard and Laurence Olivier.

Other roles

Ainley played Joseph Quinney in Quinneys' on stage in 1915 and on film in 1919. He appeared in A. A. Milne's The Dover Road opposite Athene Seyler in 1922 and as the Bishop of Chelsea in Bernard Shaw's Getting Married at the Haymarket Theatre. In 1929, he played James Fraser in St. John Ervine's The First Mrs. Fraser, a role he reprised for the film version in 1932. He also starred in stage and radio productions of James Elroy Flecker's Hassan.

Behind the scenes

In 1921, Ainley became a member of the council of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and served as its president from 1931 to 1933.[5]

Ainley's own theatre company launched the stage career of Robert Eddison.

In 1932, Ainley was part of the effort to save the debt-laden Sadler's Wells theatre. According to a report in The Times dated 15 March 1932, Ainley considered Sadler's Wells stalwart Phelps the "greatest actor of all" and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson "the greatest of Hamlets".[6]

Fifteen letters in the possession of Laurence Olivier's widow suggest that Ainley may have had a sexual relationship with the younger actor in the late 1930s. The letters - said by Olivier's biographer Terry Coleman to be explicitly homosexual in content - suggest that Ainley was infatuated with Olivier, even if, as some members of Olivier's family insist, notably the actor's son Tarquin Olivier, the feeling was not reciprocated.[7]

Ainley was married and divorced twice. He died in London and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.[8] He was also the father of Henrietta Riddle, with the novelist Bettina Riddle, later Baroness von Hutten zum Stolzenberg. Henrietta was briefly engaged to Alistair Cooke in 1932.


Henry Ainley made recordings for the Gramophone Company by the acoustic method, and also later for the same company (as HMV) by electric recordings. The early acoustics were as follows:

  • 1456 The Day (Chappell) (Ho1100/B393) 10"
  • 1457 The Kaiser and God (Pain). 1915. 10"
  • B393 The Charge of the Light Brigade (Tennyson). 10"
  • C490 Why Britain is at War. (coupled with GILBERT, Jhn Bull's budget song)
  • D177 Carillon 'Chantez, Belges, chantez!' (Sing, Belgians, sing!) poem by Emile Cammaerts, declamation with orchestral music composed by Edward Elgar. (two sides) 12". 1915.


  1. ^ Barraclough, Ronnie; David Reekie. Morley entertainers. Dubai: Zodiac Publishing. ISBN 1-904566-00-6.  
  2. ^ "Discovering Leeds - The Theatres". Retrieved 2005-09-14.  
  3. ^ Gielgud, John (1996-03-17). "Their exits, and their entrances". The Sunday Times.  
  4. ^ Jonathan Croall, Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904-2000, Continuum, 2001 pg 180
  5. ^ "PDF of RADA personnel". Retrieved 2005-10-24.  
  6. ^ "Fate of Sadler's Wells". The Times. 2002-03-15.  
  7. ^ Coleman, Terry (2005). Olivier. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0805075364.  
  8. ^ "Find A Grave". Retrieved 2006-09-08.  

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

"HENRY AINLEY (1879-), English actor, was born at Leeds Aug. 21 1879, and was educated for business; but a meeting with George Alexander and an engagement for a " walking-on " part turned his thoughts to the stage, and he joined F. R. Benson's touring company for two years. He then appeared at the Lyceum theatre, London, in 1900 as Gloucester in Henry V ., and in 1902 at the St. James's theatre as Paolo in Stephen Phillips's Paolo and Francesca. He played Orlando in As You Like It both at the Comedy theatre in 1906 and at His Majesty's theatre in 1907. In 1910 he appeared there again in many Shakespearean parts, and in 1914 he played Leontes and Malvolio in Granville Barker's production of The Winter's Tale and Twelfth Night at the Savoy theatre. After serving during the World War he began management at the St. James's theatre with Tolstoy's Reparation in 1919, following it up by a production of Julius Caesar early in 1920. In 1921 he played Prospero in The Tempest at the Aldwych theatre, and John Beal in Lord Dunsany's If.

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