Joseph Wright of Derby

We’ve been to see the Joseph Wright of Derby exhibition at the Walker, which concentrates on the works he completed while in Liverpool from 1768 to 1771 at the start of the town’s cultural Renaissance and growing status as a major world port, depressed after failing to sell An Experiment on a Bird. During his time in Liverpool, Wright was remarkably productive painting not only portraits but his trademark candlelight works. His account book, on display at the exhibition, lists many of the paintings he produced. Wright’s visit transformed Liverpool from an artistic backwater, into a place where art patrons felt confident and proud of their taste.

Wright spent most of his time in Liverpool painting portraits. On a page of his account book headed ‘Sitters at Liverpool 1769’ he listed twenty-eight names. We can calculate from this and his known absences from Liverpool that he completed a portrait every nine or ten days.

Wright’s clients mostly came from Liverpool’s leading merchant families, many of whom were connected by marriage as well as business. Many of their names – Clayton, Leece, Hardman, Tarleton – are familiar from today’s street names. Wright also attracted patrons from the countryside around Liverpool, such as the Heskeths and Leighs. Richard Gildart, whose portrait by Wright is shown above, was one of Liverpool’s most prominent citizens during the 18th century. He was a merchant in the sugar trade all his life, Mayor three times and a member of parliament for nearly twenty years. He was also involved in the slave trade, owning ships that transported slaves across the Atlantic. Here he is 95 years old.

Wright also developed a new style for his Liverpool portraits, concentrating on large plain forms, intense observation of detail, and high finish. These were some of the most remarkable of all 18th century portraits. Shortly before moving to Liverpool, Wright gained celebrity in London with his painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Like the earlier Orrery, the Air Pump painting was a depiction of a science exhibition. This one, however, is set up to inspire suspense and sympathy along with curiosity among the onlookers. Exhibited in 1768, the painting shows an air pump, which the demonstrator cranks to remove air from a glass bowl in which a bird is sealed.However, he failed to sell the painting, and this led him to re-examine his use of dramatic light effects.

He decided to scale down from the heroic size of the Air Pump. He began to develop subjects with outdoor settings, and experimented with new ways of using paint to depict light. He also incorporated into his paintings the resuls of a fresh study of perspective.

A key painting at this time was An Academy by Lamplight. This may well relate to the founding of Liverpool’s first Society of Artists in 1769. Wright’s friend Peter Perez Burdett was its President.Wright’s artistic inclinations were shaped during his boyhood in Derby. Born in 1734, Wright was mechanically minded and curious, and a frequent visitor of the shops in his town, where he would observe the work of the various craftsmen. This love for mechanics showed itself later in life by the introduction of an air-pump and an orrery into two of his principal pictures. Wright was also interested in drawing, and when he was 17 trained formally with Thomas Hudson, a successful portrait painter in London. Wright subsequently painted numerous portraits, including several self portraits.

As an adult, he was a member of the Lunar Society, an impressive circle of intellectuals that included scientists, artists, and industrialists.  Amongst those who attended Lunar Society meetings more or less regularly were Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Galton Junior, James Keir, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, John Whitehurst and William Withering. Correspondents included Sir Richard Arkwright, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Both of Charles Darwin’s grandfathers (Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood) were members of the Lunar Society. This combination of influences resulted in dramatic paintings that captured the mood of progress and possibility in Britain in the 18th century.

“He’s considered one of the most important 18th century British painters,” writes Elizabeth Barker, curator of the Wright exhibition.

We recently visited Derby Museum where we saw what is perhaps Wright’s most famous painting, The Orrery. The painting, exhibited in 1766, features an orrery, a model showing the movements of planets in the solar system. A lamp in the centre represents the sun. In Wright’s composition, the lamp is not visible, but its reflections illuminate the faces of the audience. According to Benedict Nicolson, author of a study of Wright:

“He watched chemical experiments being conducted at night in darkened rooms. On the polished surface of the table would be set a lamp, and as the spectators crowded around to observe what was happening, shadows would play on their faces or hover menacingly on the wall behind them, shuddering as the flame flickered.”

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