Henry Ainley
OccupationStage actor
SpouseSuzanne Sheldon
Elaine Fearon
Bettina Riddle
Baroness von Hutten zum Stolzenberg

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


He was born in Leeds on 21 August 1879.[1] He was baptised in St. George's Parish Church and brought up in Morley, West Yorkshire 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. He subsequently appeared as Glo'ster in Henry V at the Lyceum in London and returned to Leeds to play at the Grand Theatre.[3] 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",[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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 George 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.[7]

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".[8]

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.[9]

Ainley died in London and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.[10]


He was married three times to Susanne Sheldon, Elaine Fearon and the novelist Bettina Riddle, later Baroness von Hutten zum Stolzenberg. 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.

Timothy and Anthony Ainley were the sons of Clarice Holmes and were registered under that surname. He was also the father of Henrietta Riddle who was briefly engaged to Alistair Cooke in 1932.


  1. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Ainley, Henry". Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.
  2. Barraclough, Ronnie. Morley entertainers. Dubai: Zodiac Publishing. ISBN 1-904566-00-6. 
  3. Discovering Leeds - The Theatres.
  4. Gielgud, John. "Their exits, and their entrances", The Sunday Times, 1996-03-17. 
  5. Jonathan Croall, Gielgud: A Theatrical Life 1904-2000, Continuum, 2001 pg 180
  6. Wearing, J. P. (2013-12-05). The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel. Scarecrow Press, 295. ISBN 978-0-8108-9294-1. 
  7. PDF of RADA personnel. Archived from the original on 2008-06-26. Retrieved on 2005-10-24.
  8. "Fate of Sadler's Wells", The Times, 2002-03-15. 
  9. Coleman, Terry (2005). Olivier. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-7536-4. 
  10. Find A Grave. Retrieved on 2006-09-08.


External links

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