About a Painting - Joseph Wright’s ‘Romeo & Juliet, the Tomb Scene’

Joseph Wright of Derbys Romeo and Juliet, the Tomb Scene, oil on canvas, exhibited 1790

Joseph Wright of Derbys Romeo and Juliet, the Tomb Scene, oil on canvas, exhibited 1790 - Credit: Archant

Lucy Bamford, Derby Museums’ Senior Curator of Fine Art, writes about Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Romeo and Juliet, the Tomb Scene’, oil on canvas, exhibited 1790

Methinks I feel a desire to paint Juliet waking in the Tomb…’ Joseph Wright revealed to his friend and adviser the poet William Hayley, in a letter of 1786. His subsequent scene focuses on the dramatic moment in Shakespeare’s famous play when Juliet wakes from her drugged sleep to discover her lover, Romeo, dead beside her.

Upon hearing the approach of a guard, Juliet retrieves Romeo’s dagger with the lines ‘Yea, noise? then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger!’ before taking her own life.

The shadow of the guard and Juliet’s bright, twisted body, her hand raised in sudden response to the noise behind her, brilliantly convey the urgency of her final moments. Her pale, sculpted figure appears like a funerary monument, and a portent of approaching death.

Wright painted this picture for the London print seller and Alderman John Boydell, whose idea was to commission paintings from distinguished artists to create a ‘Shakespeare Gallery’ on Pall Mall, selling prints of the paintings to the public.

Wright had already painted scenes from The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, also with advice from Hayley, and conceived of this work as an addition to the series but Boydell rejected it. Wright’s anger, coupled with his conviction that Boydell had classed him below the other artists involved (notably Benjamin West), led to a bitter argument that raged for several years and damaged Wright’s relationship with Hayley.

The subsequent death of Wright’s wife, and later arguments with the Royal Academy over the painting’s poor display in 1790, amounted to one of the darkest periods in Wright’s life.

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As Wright wrote to his friend John Leigh Philips in 1791: ‘The two pictures I exhibited last year in the Royal Academy of Romeo and Juliet and Antigonus in the Storm, were certainly painted too dark, sad emblems of my then gloomy mind…

‘I have simplified the back ground… enlarged the park and thrown more light into the Tomb, so that Juliet is now bright without being a spot… they are much improved indeed.’

The result is a powerful scene, its main action defined by a theatre-like arch and focused lighting, but although thought by many to be the best of Wright’s three Shakespeare-inspired pieces, it did not sell in his life time.

Interestingly, it appears as a painting inside another painting, having been recreated in Samuel Rayner’s famous 1839 hand-coloured engraving of an exhibition at the Derby Mechanics’ Institute. Rayner’s painting is also in the Museum and Art Gallery – Wright’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is on the back wall, towards the left.

With all the drama of live theatre, and echoes of the artist’s personal and professional strife, this potent scene is among the most interesting of Wright’s later paintings. Not to be missed, ‘Romeo and Juliet, the Tomb Scene’, is on display in the Joseph Wright Gallery at the Museum and Art Gallery.