Joseph Wright of Derby
An English artist who explored a new direction
Joseph Wright (1734-97) spent much of his life in his birth town of Derby and is thus often referred to as “Joseph Wright of Derby”. He was an original painter who is generally renowned for his paintings that used science and industry for their subjects. He was, however, also an excellent portraitist and painter of landscapes.
His Early Life
Joseph Wright was one of five children born to a Derby attorney, his date of birth being 3rd September 1734. Little is known about his childhood apart from the fact that he was educated at Derby Grammar School and that he was interested in drawing from an early age.
When he was aged 17 he was sent to London to be apprenticed to Thomas Hudson, a fashionable portrait painter. After two years he returned to Derby, being somewhat dissatisfied with spending too much time finishing the background details of Hudson’s portraits.
Wright tried to establish himself as a portraitist in Derby, but came to realise that he needed more guidance. He therefore went back to Hudson’s studio for a further 15 months.
On his second return to Derby he tried his hand again as a professional portraitist, and this time he was more successful. He soon established a reputation for this kind of work and was able to set up his own portrait business in Derby.
A New Development
In the early 1760s Joseph Wright turned his hand to something new, which was “candle-light” pictures in which the chief source of light was a candle or lamp that highlighted faces and objects and threw other parts of the canvas into deep shadow. He sometimes included the Moon as a secondary light source.
This approach was unprecedented in English painting but had been used for some time in European art, notably by Caravaggio in the early 17th century and his followers who became known as the “Caravaggisti”.
However, what made Wright`s approach original was his choice of subject matter, namely the world of science which had not previously been a theme that attracted artists. Two notable works in this genre were “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery” (1764-6) and “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1767-8).
Towards the end of 1768 Joseph Wright moved away from Derby and settled in Liverpool, which was a flourishing cultural centre. A Society of Arts, modelled on London’s Royal Academy, was set up in 1769 during Wright’s stay in the city.
Wright concentrated on portrait painting while in Liverpool and there were complaints from fellow artists that he was stealing their business.
After three years he returned to Derby where he married Anne Swift, apparently not with the approval of his own extended family. It was a successful marriage that was to produce six children.
The couple visited Rome in 1774 for a stay that kept them away from England for nearly two years. He was fascinated by Rome, where he spent a lot of time making sketches of classical statues and monuments, although he was unmoved by most of the High Renaissance art that he came across. An exception to this indifference was Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. He contracted a liver complaint after spending hours lying on the floor to get a better view.
A visit to Naples coincided with a minor eruption of Mount Vesuvius, of which Wright was able to make a spontaneous oil sketch.
Their visits to other Italian cities on their return journey were brief, despite all the artistic treasures to be seen in Florence, Venice and elsewhere. He did not reckon that he would see anything to rival what he had seen in Rome.
Wright was able to make good use of the contents of his sketchbooks when he resumed his large-scale painting back in England.
Joseph Wright did not stay long in Derby before moving to Bath in November 1775. He hoped to fill the portrait-painter gap that Thomas Gainsborough left when he had departed for London the previous year.
However, this did not prove to be a good move due to the fact that the fashionable residents of Bath did not appreciate Wright’s down-to-earth style of portraiture. Potential clients expected to be flattered by a portraitist, and Wright’s Midlands honesty was not to their liking. Commissions for portraits were therefore few and far between and after two years he had no choice but to head back to Derby, where he spent the rest of his life.
Becoming Better Known
One problem with being based in a relatively small provincial city is that one will find it difficult to be appreciated by the leaders of the artistic world, who are generally located in the larger cities and particularly London. Joseph Wright had no wish for obscurity, so he regularly sent canvases to London for exhibition.
He was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1781, but he desperately wanted to achieve full membership. He was passed over for this honour in 1783, having quarreled with some senior members, and therefore looked elsewhere for recognition, namely Liverpool. This led to him mounting an exhibition of 25 of his own works in the city in 1785, which was probably the first example of a one-man exhibition in the country.
However, this move was not as successful as Wright had hoped, so he patched up his quarrel with the Royal Academy and resumed exhibiting in London.
His Later Life
Joseph Wright suffered from ill health in middle age, although he added to his asthma by depression caused by imagining ills that did not exist. He was greatly helped by his friend Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles) who was not only a key member of the “Midlands Enlightenment” but a physician who was able to prescribe appropriate treatments for his patient.
Health concerns did not restrict Joseph Wright from making visits to friends in various places and making tours of the Lake District in 1793 and 1794 which resulted in a number of landscape paintings.
Joseph Wright died in Derby in August 1797 at the age of 62.
His paintings and drawings can be seen today in galleries around the world, but the largest collection is almost certainly that held at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.