Joseph Wright landscapes return home to Derby

Arkwrights Mills, by Joseph Wright, c.1795-6, oil on canvas Photo: R Tailby/ Derby Museums

Arkwrights Mills, by Joseph Wright, c.1795-6, oil on canvas Photo: R Tailby/ Derby Museums - Credit: Archant

Lucy Bamford, Senior Curator of Art, reports on Derby Museums’ latest exciting acquisitions for the county

A View of Cromford Bridge, by Joseph Wright, c.1795-6, oil on canvas
Photo: R Tailby/Derby Museums

A View of Cromford Bridge, by Joseph Wright, c.1795-6, oil on canvas Photo: R Tailby/Derby Museums - Credit: Archant

As his name suggests, Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ (1734–1797), shares a long and seemingly inextricable link with his home town and county. And whilst no statue graces the city’s Market Place, in the manner of his contemporary Thomas Gainsborough at Sudbury, a stylised memorial to him exists in Iron Gate, and in the world’s largest and most diverse collection of his work at Derby Museums.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that the museums’ collection does not run to a painting of the Derbyshire landscape; a subject Wright came to favour increasingly in his later years, and which eventually provided inspiration for some 30 or so paintings. Happily, all this is about to change as the museum welcomes into its permanent collection two little-known paintings of the landscape around Cromford, made at the very end of Wright’s life.

The return of these pictures to Derbyshire is in no small part thanks to the Duke of Devonshire, who spotted them in the catalogue of a New York auction house in April and quickly alerted museum staff. Two weeks of frantic bid writing followed until, on the 13th April, they were successfully secured at auction, with financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, and the V&A Purchase Grant Fund.

Whilst relatively small in size, at 23 x 30 inches, the pictures nevertheless ‘pack a punch’. Warm sunlight pervades throughout. On one hand a view of Sir Richard Arkwright’s first cotton mills, illuminated by the rays of the early morning sun as it emerges from behind clouds; on the other, a broad view of the Derwent Valley below Matlock Bath, the large edifice of Arkwright’s mansion, Willersley Castle, glowing in the evening sun. As companion paintings, Wright composed his scenes in mind of one another and their eventual display together. Yet whilst it is tempting to order them according to the time of day they depict, they might equally be placed in reverse to reflect their geographical situation. Travellers making the journey between Cromford and Matlock Bath will be familiar with the high, imposing formation, known as Scarthin Rock that rises up either side of the A6, and shields the view to the River Derwent. In Wright’s day, this ridge was gradually being cut away to allow for the passage of the road, and appears in Wright’s two paintings, as it did in reality, as a bisection between Willersley and the mills at Cromford. To place the pictures together in this way is to see this landscape, rocks and all, in panoramic vision.

Given their subject matter, it would seem reasonable to assume that these pictures were originally commissioned by the Arkwright family. After all, the same self-aggrandising tone is present in two commanding full length portraits of 1789-90, ordered from Wright by Richard Arkwright junior (1755–1843) and now in Derby Museums’ collection. Sir Richard Arkwright (1732–1792), textile leviathan, straddles an incongruously-delicate chair beside a portion of the cotton-spinning rollers he claimed to have invented. Workman-like hands, a no-nonsense broadcloth coat and plain breeches, worn shiny at the knees, proclaim his hard-fought journey up the social ladder. On another canvas, his son Richard stands in a leisurely fashion beneath a Derbyshire crag; clad in fine silks, and accompanied by his wife and child. From humble beginnings as a Lancashire barber, Sir Richard’s meteoric rise to wealth and success plays out across these portraits like a kind of ‘rags to riches’ tale. From mill to mansion, Sir Richard’s story and the physical impact of his industrial activity on the local landscape are similarly mirrored in Wright’s views of Cromford.

Interestingly, Wright’s two landscapes capture the Arkwright family’s connections to other prominent Derbyshire industrialists. The distant tower poised above Arkwright’s mills, an early predecessor to the present Memorial Stand at Crich, was built by Francis Hurt in 1788. Francis (1722–1783), who was himself the subject of a portrait by Wright of about 1780, was a lead magnate whose smelting works and foundries supplied Arkwright’s mills with components for its cotton spinning machinery. In 1780, the family ties were cemented further by the marriage of Francis’s son, Charles, to Sir Richard’s daughter Susannah. Similarly, in painting his view of Willersley Castle, Wright could not have ignored the newly-built home of Peter Nightingale (1736–1803), called ‘Woodend’. Constructed between 1795 and 1796, it is tempting to wonder how Richard Arkwright Junior would have viewed this house when he came to live at Willersley in 1796. In 1783, Peter Nightingale and Benjamin Pearson junior, an employee of the Arkwrights, established a cotton mill at Lea Bridge without Sir Richard’s authorisation. Despite legal proceedings, the mill continued to run and does so to this day as John Smedley’s.

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It’s easy to imagine these pictures gracing the walls of Willersley Castle, but in fact it would appear that Wright sold his landscapes, not to the Arkwrights, but rather to Daniel Parker Coke (1745–1825), a barrister and independent MP for first Derby and then Nottingham. Coke lived out his bachelor days in the lee of All Saints’ (now Derby Cathedral) at the College in Derby, where he amassed a sizeable collection of books and paintings. Joseph Wright’s personal account book records the sale to him of ‘A View of Cromford Bridge Its Companion of Arkwright’s Mills Sold to D.P. Coke’ for £52 and 10 shillings; a price seen elsewhere in his book for pairs of pictures of this size. His wording suggests that the pictures may have been painted speculatively, and indeed they are just two of a possible eight views of Cromford; five of which may depict the first of Arkwright’s famous cotton mills. Two of these, depicting views of the mills by daylight and moonlight, belonged to Richard Arkwright junior.

Wright wasn’t the only artist who felt moved to depict this beguiling stretch of the Derwent Valley. Derby Museums’ collection features, among many others, a watercolour of Arkwright’s Mills by the artist William Day (1864–1807), made during his tour of Derbyshire in 1789, and a Derby Porcelain plate painted by Zachariah Boreman (1738–1810), showing a view of the mills that is almost identical to that seen in Wright’s painting. The distinctive landscape no doubt played a part in drawing these artists to this area, but it is tempting too to wonder how much of a part Sir Richard and his mills played in this. A combination of recent high profile lawsuits relating to his patents for various improvements to existing mill machinery, his wealth and ‘larger than life’ character, coupled with the success and impact of his factory system, must have made for an attractive subject for these artists and their audiences.

The historical significance of the pictures and the stories they tell of some of the people and places they depict is one aspect of their appeal. That they may have been among Wright’s last paintings is another. The details of Wright’s later years are patchy, but he was certainly still working in April 1796, as a letter penned to his friend and patron, John Leigh Philips, reveals. Though just 62 years old, Wright’s health was failing quickly and, as he related to his friend, it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to honour his still-steady supply of commissions. Despite this, he managed to produce a number of landscapes, many inspired by his trip to the Lakes in 1794, along with a handful of portraits. And whilst Wright’s views of Cromford are not signed or dated, it is possible to place them among the pictures of this time based upon the details glimpsed within them, the most significant of which appear in Wright’s view of Willersley Castle. Sir Richard Arkwright never saw the completion of his mansion, but in his will, made just five days before he died in 1792, he expressed a wish for his son Richard to ‘complete and finish the chapel I have lately built’. The presence of this church within Wright’s painting, along with the home of Peter Nightingale seen immediately above it, might help date the picture to between late 1795 and spring 1796, when the exteriors of both structures were completed. Identifying Wright’s very last painting is likely to remain an impossibility, but the reappearance of these two landscapes does at least help to build up the picture of his final year. By May 1797, he was confined to his bed where, as his niece Hannah Wright later recalled, ‘he became gradually weaker, and on the 29th August… he breathed his last.’

These two paintings have never before been shown at Derby Museums, having passed through a succession of private owners since they were painted. From 21st June, visitors to the Museum and Art Gallery at Derby will be able to view them on display in the Joseph Wright Gallery for the first time. w

With special thanks to Doreen Buxton and Maxwell Craven for so generously sharing their knowledge, help and advice.