Derby Museum’s influential new Joseph Wright exhibition
PUBLISHED: 13:16 19 June 2014
Simon Burch reports on a seminal Joseph Wright exhibition – ‘Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond’ – which runs until 31st August at Derby’s Museum and Art Gallery
In February 1776, Derby artist Joseph Wright penned a letter home, reporting how his time as a portrait painter in Bath was not working out as well as he would have hoped – to put it mildly.
‘I wished I had tried London first and if it had not suited me I would then have retired to my native place which, though upon smaller gains, I could have lived free from the strifes and envy of illiberal and mean spirited artists,’ he wrote. ‘What I have seen since I have been here has so wounded my feelings, so disturbed my peace as to injure my health.’
At that point, he had already complained to his sister Nancy about how he had yet to receive a commission and, by April 1776 when he had finally done so, he bemoaned his luck to his brother, Richard, lamenting: ‘The Duchess of Cumberland is the only Sitter I have had, & her order of a full length dwindled to a head only.
‘The great people are so fantastical and whimmy, they create a world of trouble.’
It was all a far cry from Wright’s career to date, when he enjoyed great success painting portraits in Derby and Liverpool, while his famous works, including the iconic ‘Philosopher Lecturing On The Orrery’, had won him critical acclaim.
Prior to Bath he had spent two years touring Italy – learning new techniques in a country whose art was considered to be the best in the world – before, on his return, spotting a vacancy in Bath following the departure of Thomas Gainsborough, who had made a handsome living painting the portraits of rich people who flocked to the fashionable spa town to bathe in its waters.
It should have been a great opportunity for Wright, yet he lasted just 18 months before returning home to Derby, his venture having turned into a failure.
It is no surprise that Wright’s time in Bath is generally regarded as an ignominious chapter in an otherwise glittering career, but a recent reappraisal has led experts to conclude that it did nevertheless directly benefit his development as an artist.
Those fateful 18 months are now being explored in an exhibition called ‘Joseph Wright: Bath and Beyond’, which begins at Derby’s Museum and Art Gallery on 24th May, having already taken place at Bath’s Holbourne Museum.
That it looks at the ‘Beyond’ – in this case paintings completed in Derby and Liverpool both before and after Bath – is important, because the exhibition’s curator, Amina Wright (no relation) regards his time in Bath as a gestation period, where he worked up new ideas that he had explored in Italy and which would shape his output for the rest of his career – thanks in no small part to the fact that he was otherwise under-employed.
For Lucy Bamford, who is a Senior Curator for the Derby Museums Trust, the exhibition – which features paintings loaned by the National Gallery, Tate, the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge – offers a rare opportunity to explore an important, if traumatic, period of Wright’s life.
‘Here’s a long-awaited show that explores an element of Wright’s life and career that hasn’t been appraised properly before now,’ she says. ‘Bath has always been seen as Wright’s failure, but the exhibition puts forward that it was formative for his later life and work and was, in fact, something of a watershed in his career.’
It is also an exciting chapter in the museum and art gallery’s own history. It is the first major exhibition of Wright for many years and coincides with the opening of a Joseph Wright Institute, as well as acting as a prelude to a much larger international exhibition scheduled for 2019.
There are a number of theories as to why Wright failed in Bath. As evidenced by his letters, he believed that he was the victim of a smear campaign by other local artists, while there are also reports of him displaying a cantankerous side with clients.
There is also the suggestion that, as an outsider from the provinces, he lacked friends in Bath to open doors for him. True, he did enjoy the patronage of Erasmus Darwin, who sent out personal introductions on his behalf, but it seems that there were few friends of sufficient influence in the town to put out a good word for him amongst high society.
It is also clear that Wright’s style and approach were ill-suited to many of Bath’s clientele. His meticulous eye for detail meant that he took longer to complete his paintings than other artists – which was a disadvantage among pleasure-seeking visitors who were only in Bath for a limited time. He was also uncompromising in the level of realism he put into his paintings, sparing no-one’s blushes to record their double chins or florid complexions, along with the finery of their clothes. While this was accepted by the more pragmatic and unpretentious industrialists and merchants of Derby and Liverpool, it went down badly with the moneyed glitterati who cherished beauty, frippery and the finer things in life.
‘I actually admire him for that,’ Lucy says. ‘I suspect that, as with many artists, finance could drive Wright only so far. You need to make a living, but if you are going against the grain of your creative interests, then you have to draw a line.
‘It seems Wright wasn’t prepared to idealise his subjects. His approach was honest and deeply intuitive and that was perfectly acceptable to most of his clients, but if it meant that he couldn’t break into the higher echelons of Bath society, then so be it.’
It is also clear that Wright – a business-savvy and handsome, if insecure, depressed and sickly man – struggled to make the kind of personal connection with his subjects that would help him to get the best out of them.
‘How Wright responds to his subjects is fascinating,’ Lucy says, ‘and there is no better example of this than two portraits he painted in Liverpool of two sisters, Penelope and Lucy Stafford, in the late 1760s.
‘In Wright’s portrait, Penelope’s character is palpable and her face is lively, but by contrast Lucy appears sulky and rather plain.
‘The painting itself appears to lack the flourish and warmth Wright bestowed upon its companion of Penelope. It’s clear that he clicked with Penelope and as a result, he put a lot more into her picture than he did with Lucy.
‘You can imagine that if he was feeling anxious in Bath amongst strangers, then that might transmit itself into his paintings.’
The best example of this from the Bath period is his 1776 portrait of Agnes Witts, who it is recorded was a lively woman with a great zest for life. Not so in her portrait, where she looks distracted and bored – hardly an endorsement of Wright as a portraitist.
Tellingly, Agnes’s was one of the few portrait commissions Wright received during this period that did not come from an established friend or acquaintance.
Yet whilst his portrait commissions largely foundered in Bath, Wright’s stock as a landscape artist rose, with the proceeds from visitors paying to tour his studio once covering his rent for an entire quarter.
His most famous work from Bath is ‘Vesuvius in Eruption’, which was based on sketches he made in Italy and completed in Bath while waiting in vain for commissions. The picture, which has been loaned by the Tate, is a masterpiece, contrasting the cool effect of a full moon with the red heat of the gold-flecked magma spewing deep from within the Earth and flowing down the mountain’s slopes.
The painting complements another of his Bath triumphs, the ‘Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant’Angelo’, where a huge bonfire lights the town and rockets streak into the dark sky, adding touches of light into every corner of the painting.
The popularity of sentimental literature at this time led to a demand for paintings that explored similar themes, and, following his return to Derby, Wright built on his work in Bath by continuing to explore light and nature on pieces which also reflected the fashionable Cult of Sensibility. These include one of the most celebrated works in the art gallery’s Wright collection, the dream-like ‘Widow of an Indian Chief, Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband’, which was completed in 1785.
‘It is wonderful to see how Wright’s time in Bath helped him to progress as a painter, but it also gives us an opportunity to consider what might have happened if the venture had been a success,’ says Lucy. ‘I think that Derby would have always claimed Wright as its own, but he may well have become Wright of Bath, or perhaps simply “Joseph Wright”. Might this have changed our view of him?
‘The current profile of Wright owes much to a high level of interest in him in Derby during the 19th century. That might not have been the case if he had not returned, which means that our understanding of him and his work, plus the size and very nature of our Joseph Wright collection, might have been very different indeed.’
‘Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond’ runs from 24th May to 31st August at Derby’s Museum and Art Gallery in The Strand.