AUSTIN Wright’s best-known work, Two Rings, could not fit into the slim upstairs room at York Art Gallery designated to mark the 100th anniversary of the Upper Poppleton sculptor, artist, teacher, musician and gardener.

Not that it could be on show anyway, because the “metal merchants of Middlesbrough”, in the words of Wright’s widow, Sue, removed the 8ft-high rings one by one from Roppa Moor, Helmsley to melt them down.

Even in their moorland lifetime they were mistreated, one of the gallery attendants recalling the day he watched a mountain biker riding the loops. Now you must make do with looking at a maquette of Two Rings and a Yorkshire Sculpture Park poster of the original.

Such can be the fate of public works of art, and how ironic for a sculptor who so loved nature, gardens and plant life, that further works have been damaged or stolen.

“Austin has just been very unlucky that so much of his public work has been vandalised,” says Sue. “He even had a big bronze stolen from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and it took eight years to get the insurance money for that – even though he was on the original panel that set up the park.”

It would be wrong to say that there is a similar gap in the annals of the history of British sculpture – James Hamilton wrote a biography of Wright and York Art Gallery held a retrospective show on his 80th birthday – but Sue believes Austin Wright should be more appreciated in his adopted home city.

“He was a prophet in his own city,” she says, although she was quick to praise the support and encouragement given by Hans Hess, one of the most influential curators at York Art Gallery.

“I want publicity for Austin because he really was totally neglected – though he chose that really, because his artist friends said ‘you ought to move to London or St Ives’, but he was passionately keen on York, even though he was a Welshman [born in Chester in 1911 and raised in Cardiff from the age of six months].”

Maybe Sue feels that sense of neglect more than Austin Wright did in his lifetime. “He didn’t feel neglected. He had a lot of small exhibitions but was considered so modern that people didn’t buy them,” she says. “Even though the sculptures were life-like, people would say, ‘Oh, why have they got such long legs?’.

“That’s why he was viewed as being frightfully modern, and yet now there’s all this installation art we have to get our minds round… well, that was how he was thought of back then.”

As if to make up for the past, the Sculpture and Drawings exhibitions crams in almost too much, but what a rewarding show it is, the notes being essential reading to gain a full measure of the man and his work, here represented by eight sculptures and accompanying drawings and sketches.

The works highlight how Wright’s subjects, themes and materials changed throughout his life, with examples of his early works in wood, terracotta and later works in metals such as lead and aluminium.

Sketches of nature and abstract landscapes, inspired by his garden and the Yorkshire landscape are contrasted with scenes around York, such as figurative works that feature the backdrop of Leeman Road and Exhibition Square.

Wright had taken his first artistic steps in evening classes at Cardiff Art School before reading German and French at New College, Oxford, and settling on a career in teaching modern languages, a path that took him to Bootham School, where he had earlier done teacher-training. He branched out into teaching art, adding The Mount to Bootham, and it was at The Mount that he met Sue.

Come the end of the war, and the conclusion of her training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, they married and in 1946 moved into the 1793 house on the Green at Upper Poppleton that would become so integral to his work.

Yet they might never have acquired the run-down house with its 14 layers of wallpaper for insulation. “Austin had a friend down the river at Nether Poppleton and cycled down to see her to ask if she knew of anywhere coming up for sale,” recalls Sue.

“She said there was a sale at the Green and he fell in love with this place, which had a wonderful garden and a barn that was really part of the farm next door.

“He agonisingly went through the auction process and he got the bursar from Bootham School to hold his hand throughout. All his savings – he had £800 saved– went into it and the bids went well over that, even though the house was in a ruinous state. Eventually it went for £1,300, and thankfully my father helped him out.”

That barn studio remains as it did when Austin Wright worked there, days when his wiry frame grew ever more muscular the more he worked in wood, lead and aluminium.

Was he a prophet in his own city? His art was made of the Wright stuff and this exhibition is a fitting reminder of his skill, craft and modernising talent.

• Austin Wright’s Sculpture and Drawings are on display at York Art Gallery until October 2. A 25-minute Arts Council film about Austin Wright, made by Hull student Harry Duffin in 1971, is being shown in the Gallery of Pots, courtesy of the Yorkshire Film Archive.

Force that drives the flower...

Author James Hamilton will give an illustrated talk on Austin Wright, entitled The Force That Drives The Flower, at the Tempest Anderson Hall, Yorkshire Museum, Museum Gardens, York, on May 12 at 6.30pm. Tickets, which include a glass of wine, cost £12 for the Friends of York Art Gallery, £14 for non-members and £5 for students.

To buy tickets, send a cheque and stamped addressed envelope to Mrs Susan Parker at 29, St Paul’s Square, York YO24 4BD.

Did you know?

• Austin Wright and York-born poet WH Auden taught at The Downs School, the Malvern College preparatory school, at the same time.

• His 1957 work, The Argument, won the acquisition prize at the São Paulo Biennale in 1957.

• He played viola in the York Symphony Orchestra for 30 years.