About a Painting - A Prospect of Derby

A Prospect of Derby

A Prospect of Derby - Credit: Archant

Lucy Bamford, keeper of art at Derby’s Museums and Arts Gallery writes about ‘A Prospect of Derby’, c. 1725

A mere glimpse at the museums’ rich and varied collection quickly shows that the face of Derby is ever-changing. The city’s fluctuating fortunes are recorded in maps, paintings, prints and drawings, and even in the manufactures of its world famous porcelain company.

Following the recent re-opening and revival of the iconic Silk Mill, it seems fitting to explore a painting that captures the earliest manifestation of the factory and its surrounding landscape. ‘A Prospect of Derby’, painted by an unknown artist, takes its viewpoint from high ground to the east of the River Derwent. At first glance, the wide, almost panoramic, scene might appear somewhat naive: there is little sense of perspective. Giant swans command the river, dwarfing human figures. But perhaps this misses the point. Perspective and realistic depiction are less important than communicating important information about the town.

Streets and property boundaries are so clearly defined that even details of individual gardens, such as those serving the elegant residences fronting Full Street and the river, are picked out. In such levels of detail the painting begins to slip into the realm of cartography. Derby is, quite literally, ‘mapped out’ before us.

Who would paint such a thing and for whom? The painting is unsigned and the details of its provenance are largely unknown, but there are clues. It remains vibrant and freshly-coloured which suggests the artist was technically proficient. Making and mixing paint was the preserve of the artist and his pupils at this date and a sound knowledge of technique and materials imperative to a painting’s longevity. So the artist was trained and accomplished.

The wide angle view suggests the influence of earlier Dutch landscape ‘panoramas’. Continental artists were much favoured by British art patrons in the 18th century, and Dutch topographical artists such as Jan Siberechts travelled between country estates to meet commissions for prospects and panoramas. Such parallels might suggest the hand of a Dutch artist here. The debate remains open.

A striking feature of ‘A Prospect of Derby’, besides its colouring, is the dominant presence of the recently completed Silk Mills. Sitting on an island known as the Byflatt, and accessible only by a gated bridge, the scale and innovation of the factory, the first of its kind in the world, made it a tourist attraction. This is something not unnoticed by the artist of this painting: a small procession of boats with elegantly-dressed spectators makes its way towards a conveniently placed viewing house on an island beside the mills.

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Is it possible that someone connected with the Silk Mills commissioned this painting? Perhaps. The Chambers family is another possibility. Their home, Exeter House, is also prominent in the picture: a fine building with walled gardens seen to the left of the Silk Mills. It is from their garden, with its own boathouse, that visitors row to appreciate the mills, and their orchards and gardens, on the east bank of the river, form a significant proportion of the foreground. A finely dressed couple staring out at us from the gardens might even be Mr and Mrs Chambers.

‘A Prospect of Derby’ is a painting of great historical value, as a record of Derby’s past and a window onto the town’s daily life – its people, pride and ambitions – during one of the most exciting and transformative periods in the city’s history.

Now set within the stripped-brick interior of the Silk Mill’s newly refurbished ground floor space, ‘A Prospect of Derby’ invites us to re-imagine the town, and our place within its perpetual process of renewal.

New Silk Mill opening times: Thurs 3-9pm, Fri and Sat 1-5pm, Sun 11am-3pm.