Henry Ainley

Henry Hinchliffe Ainley (21 August 1879 – 31 October 1945) was an English Shakespearean stage and screen actor.

Henry Ainley
Henry Ainley early in his career
Henry Hinchliffe Ainley

(1879-08-21)21 August 1879
Died31 October 1945(1945-10-31) (aged 66)
Years active1900 – 1936
Spouse(s)Suzanne Sheldon
Elaine Fearon
Bettina Riddle, later Baroness von Hutten zum Stolzenberg


He was born in Leeds on 21 August 1879.[1] He was baptised 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.[2] 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.[3] He subsequently appeared as Gloucester in Henry V at the Lyceum in London and returned to Leeds to play at the Grand Theatre.[4] 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.[5]

John Gielgud 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.[6] But he described Ainley's Prospero as "disastrous",[7] writing in the Sunday Times in 1996,

Shakespearean screen credits include Henry VIII (1911) and As You Like It, a 1936 film which also featured his son Richard and Laurence Olivier.

Other roles

Ainley played Robert Waring in The Shulamite at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1906.[8] He 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.[9]

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 Samuel Phelps the "greatest actor of all" and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson "the greatest of Hamlets".[10]

Ainley died in London and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.[11]

Personal life

He was married three times - to Susanne Sheldon, Elaine Fearon and the novelist Bettina Riddle, who was known as the Baroness von Hutten zum Stolzenberg.[12] He had several children (although the published obituaries in The Times and The Stage disagree as to the precise numbers) which include the actors Henry T. Ainley, Richard Ainley and Anthony Ainley, and also Sam and Timothy Ainley, who were not actors.

Fifteen letters in the possession of Laurence Olivier's widow Joan Plowright 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.[13]

He was also the father of Henrietta Riddle who 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.

Selected filmography


  1.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Ainley, Henry" . Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.
  2. Barraclough, Ronnie; David Reekie (February 2003). Morley entertainers. Dubai: Zodiac Publishing. ISBN 1-904566-00-6.
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 21 June 2015. Retrieved 20 June 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. "Discovering Leeds - The Theatres". Retrieved 14 September 2005.
  5. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 21 June 2015. Retrieved 20 June 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. Jonathan Croall, Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904-2000, Continuum, 2001 pg 180
  7. Gielgud, John (17 March 1996). "Their exits, and their entrances". The Sunday Times.
  8. Wearing, J. P. (5 December 2013). The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press. p. 295. ISBN 978-0-8108-9294-1.
  9. "PDF of RADA personnel" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 June 2008. Retrieved 24 October 2005.
  10. "Fate of Sadler's Wells". The Times. 15 March 2002.
  11. "Find A Grave". Retrieved 8 September 2006.
  12. "Baron Divorces American Wife" Oregon Daily Journal (May 8, 1909): 1. via Newspapers.com
  13. Coleman, Terry (2005). Olivier. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-7536-4.


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