Looking at a Painting: A Conversation of Girls, Joseph Wright

PUBLISHED: 14:36 28 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

A Conversation of Girls

A Conversation of Girls

Elizabeth Jackaman looks at a painting...A Conversation of Girls by Jospeh Wright of Derby (1734-97).

Perhaps we can begin by enjoying this image of three children playing in the fresh air as they decorate a garden ornament with flowers, a timeless activity of girls. Most notably one child is black, clad in a plain frock of coarse, striped stuff. The two white girls wear the simple, classical-style dresses which were fashionable with adult women in the mid-eighteenth century. The arrangement of the three around the urn produces a pleasing pyramidal composition. Our attention is directed from one to another, following their gazes, appreciating the flesh tones, the softness of the materials and flowers against the harsh texture of the bronze vessel and its stone plinth. We feel the breeze of the outdoors in the light and dark sky, and close examination (here a visit to see the original would be a bonus) reveals a distant ship at sea.

The relationship between the three is complex and uncertain: they are all playing together. The girl in the centre stretches forward to take flowers from the basket held by the kneeling black child, seeming to brush her chest as she does so. The other two exchange glances, maybe words, about their play. The red-headed girl seems to invite us to consider this unusual scene, and indeed what we see here is challenging and prompts controversy. Portrait groups of small children were popular with wealthy parents wanting lasting memories of fleeting childhood days. And artists, Gainsborough in particular, painted benevolent families meeting the rural poor. Hogarth, Reynolds and others painted portraits of grand sitters with finely-dressed black servants like exotic accessories, some actually attending the master, others entertaining him, almost as a family pet. But two little white girls in a conversation and a pastime with a black child is astonishing for its time.

Scholars are in strong disagreement about the relationship between these children. The identity of the sitters is unknown, and the painting may have been intended as a 'conversation piece'. Joseph Wright painted it during his three-year stay in Liverpool at the end of the 1760s. This period of his career is the subject of a major exhibition (including this picture) which I reviewed last month. It continues at the Walker Art Gallery until 24th February. Whilst it is certain that he was patronised and befriended by people involved in the slave trade, he also had links with early abolitionists. It is tempting to regard this work as proof of his sympathy with the latter group, demonstrating the ability of children to break down barriers created by earlier generations. But it has been interpreteted as an example of the black girl's inferior position, the child of family servants kneeling to offer flowers to the other girls. Whatever the meaning, Wright's profile rendering of the black girl must be one of the most striking of his portraits, strong and noble, in contrast to the rather sweet flimsiness of her friends. He would have had more opportunity of seeing and drawing black servants of the Liverpool bourgeoisie than he had among his Derby patrons.

Some Joseph Wright paintings have been criticised for poor attention to anatomical correctness. The figure facing us is an example: her broad chest and short arm are poorly proportioned. Although he did spend time in Liverpool studying a treatise on perspective, the arrangement of space in his depiction of the stone structure, seen from a low viewpoint, is unsure. But any shortcoming in Wright's technique is made up for in the overall storytelling in the picture. Whichever meaning of the scene we choose, the faintly observed ship on the sea must tell about the black child's family origin and the grim travels almost certainly endured by her parents.

And so, from our pleasure in looking at the three girls playing in a garden, we have achieved what the artist may have expected of his viewers, the unfolding of a narrative from a conversation piece.

The Walker Art Gallery, William Brown St, Liverpool, is open daily from 10am to 5pm. The exhibition of Joseph Wright's paintings currently on view closes on 24th February. A book and catalogue of the exhibition, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool by Elizabeth E Barker and Alex Kidson is published by Yale University Press, price 40, hb, 216pp, ISBN 978-0-300-11745-5

Latest from the Derbyshire Life and Countryside