About a Painting - Joseph Wright’s ‘Vesuvius’

'Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples', copyright Tate, London 2008

'Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples', copyright Tate, London 2008 - Credit: Archant

Joseph Wright’s ‘Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples’, c1776–1780 by Lucy Bamford, senior curator of fine art for Derby Museums Trust

A blast of white hot gas issues from within the glowing red cone of Mount Vesuvius, its slopes streaked with viscous magma, whilst billowing columns of dark smoke fill the night sky.

Far below, a scene of a sombre tragedy plays out, barely apparent amidst the tumult of the surrounding landscape, as two figures bear a man’s corpse away followed by a shrouded female mourner. To the right, rock and fire slip away to the sea, its ripples picked out by the cool light of the moon above, suffusing the whole with a quiet melancholy.

One of more than 30 recorded paintings of Mount Vesuvius by Joseph Wright of Derby, this spectacular vision, on loan from the Tate Gallery, currently forms the centre-piece of an exhibition at Derby Museums and Art Gallery devoted to the artist’s time in the spa town of Bath between November 1775 and June 1777. Though unsuccessful in attracting commissions for portraits, his time there was nevertheless productive. At a rented studio in Brock Street, working from studies made in Italy between 1773 and 1775, he developed and displayed large exhibition pieces such as this.

Mystery surrounds the identity of Wright’s first painting of ‘Vesuvius In Eruption’, produced whilst in Rome in early 1775 and which he brought with him to Bath, although the painting currently on display is representative of that original version. Whatever happened to it, it is clear how Wright felt about it and its effect on the public of Bath – even if they were not queuing up to have him paint their portrait.

Writing home to his brother Richard in 1776, Wright reported happily: ‘Great numbers visit my Painting Room daily… all admire my Pictures exceedingly. As to the Picture of Vesuvius the Town rings with commendations of it…

‘I have just now finished a Companion to it, The Exhibition of a great Fire work from the Castel of St. Angelo in Rome, the one is the greatest Effect of Nature, the other of Art that I suppose can be.’

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Both ‘effects’ are exhibited together at Derby Museum and Art Gallery for the first time, to reveal Wright’s original idea in all its astonishing brilliance.

Many scholars have questioned whether Wright actually saw the volcano in eruption during a trip to Naples in 1774. Though he himself recorded witnessing ‘a very considerable eruption’ in a letter home to his family, reports of the volcano’s activity from that time suggest that what Wright saw was less forceful than his painting would have us believe.

Like a stage director, ever mindful of effects and the impact of his art, Wright composed his scene to convey the full, sublime drama of nature’s power alongside recognisable history and topography.

For Wright and his contemporaries, returning from the Grand Tour, the newly excavated cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii provided a potent reminder of the volcano’s ever-present threat; an experience Wright was moved to reflect upon in his ‘Italian Journal’.

That Vesuvius resonated deeply with Wright is also clear from the sheer number of views of the volcano he produced during the last 20 years of his life.

Even the brushwork of this early version, in its highly worked and closely observed rendition, seems to express the manifestation of a profound and lasting interest.

The exhibition Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond runs at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until 31st August. Admission is free.