About a Painting: Joseph Wright’s ‘The Reverend D’Ewes Coke, His Wife Hannah, and Daniel Parker Coke’

The Reverend DEwes Coke (1747-1811), His Wife Hannah, and Daniel Parker Coke (1745-1825) Photo: Derby Museums Trust

The Reverend DEwes Coke (1747-1811), His Wife Hannah, and Daniel Parker Coke (1745-1825) Photo: Derby Museums Trust - Credit: Archant

Jonathan Wallis, head of museums for Derby Museums Trust, discusses Joseph Wright of Derby’s conversation piece

Joseph Wright of Derby is known to many of us as the painter of the Enlightenment, recording a time in the 18th century when science, discovery and the rise of industry changed the face of Britain.

His most well-known paintings, of scientific experiments, blacksmiths, volcanoes and philosophers, are less in number than his portraits, but it was his paintings of people which formed his steady income.

One of the greatest of all his portraits is the ‘conversation piece’ of The Rev. D’Ewes Coke, his wife Hannah and Daniel Parker Coke MP, which was painted in 1781-2 and shows the three sitters in the countryside.

Conversation pieces were painted as subjects for those who were viewing the painting to discuss and this group portrait is typical in that we, as viewers, are not given all of the information about what can be seen. As 21st century viewers, we are also at a further disadvantage because we do not understand many of the finer details that are present which would have been understood by a viewer 200 years ago.

However, an understanding of who the people are and their interests does help. The Reverend D’Ewes Coke (1747-1811), was the rector of Pinxton and South Normanton from 1771 until his death 40 years later. Alongside his ecclesiastical duties he was a keen botanist, like many gentlemen of the period and, in common with Erasmus Darwin, he contributed to Pilkington’s View of the Present State of Derbyshire in 1789. His second interest was etching and it is possible that Wright has depicted a stylus to represent his hobby.

The backdrop to three figures is probably the grounds of Brookhill Hall, Pinxton, which the Reverend D’Ewes Coke had recently inherited.

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Mrs Hannah Coke (née Heywood) was an heiress who married the Rev. D’Ewes Coke in about 1772. According to family records she was spoilt as a child, which led to her becoming ‘rather disagreeable as an adult’. Wright certainly does not show her in an entirely flattering light, but she does, however, blend in well with the natural world around her, which links to a love she had of drawing the natural world.

The third figure, Daniel Parker Coke (1745-1825) is, in my eyes, far and away the most interesting character. He was Derby born and bred, educated at Derby Grammar School before becoming a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and then a barrister in 1768. After four years as Member of Parliament for Derby he became MP for Nottingham in 1780, enjoying a reputation as an MP for being ‘animated, public spirited and honest’.

From 1782-85 he held the position of Commissioner for Settling American Claims and at the end of the American War of Independence he was influential in establishing and administering claims for compensation from the loyalist Americans who had returned to Britain, in many cases having lost their estates and most of their possessions.

He lived for many years in College Place in Derby, right next to All Saints Church – now Derby Cathedral – in a building fronting both Queen Street and Full Street. When he died, with no children of his own, he left everything to the children of his distant cousin – the Rev. D’Ewes Coke.

The weather in the picture is changeable, as suggested by the umbrella that sits on the table at the front of the picture and which is, incidentally, the property of the painter not the subjects. Indeed, the same umbrella appears in another of Wright’s best-known portraits, that of Richard Arkwright Junior and family.

The three sitters are shown contemplating both a drawing and the view in front of them, but exactly what they can see and are talking about is left for us to decide – and discuss as part of a conversation amongst ourselves.