Joseph Wright of Derby - a new guide to his life and work

Self-Portrait at the age of about 20, c.1753-4

Self-Portrait at the age of about 20, c.1753-4 - Credit: Archant

Lucy Bamford and Jonathan Wallis of Derby Museums talk about their new book on the artist

A View of Cromford Bridge to Arkwright's Mills, c.1795

A View of Cromford Bridge to Arkwright's Mills, c.1795 - Credit: Archant

September the 3rd will mark Joseph Wright of Derby’s 283rd birthday. Not really a special celebration; we will save that until 2034 – the tercentenary of the artist’s birth – when hopefully the whole of Derby will celebrate with us. This year however, Derby Museums has published its first book about the city’s most famous son for 20 years. The last book was published to mark the bicentenary of his death in 1797.

For at least the last five years we have talked about writing a book about Wright. However, there was always something else that took priority; an exhibition, a funding bid to write, or a talk to give. As a result, the book was put on hold.

After the success of the Derby Book Festival in 2015 and 2016 we started to talk about it again, along with the possibility of launching it during the Festival. A date was soon booked in the 2017 Festival diary and, with the incentive of a deadline to work to, we set about writing. Wright has been the focus of numerous, mainly scholarly, publications over the years; all of which are now out of print. The sort of book that our visitors wanted was an introduction to his life and work. So although we had enough information to write a much longer and in-depth study, we had neither the time nor market for such a publication. Indeed, our challenge was to present Wright’s story in a broadly accessible and engaging manner, without over-simplifying and losing the important bits.

Derby Museums has the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Wright’s work making it possible to describe Wright’s life and work entirely through objects from the museums’ collection.

A Blacksmith's Shop, 1771

A Blacksmith's Shop, 1771 - Credit: Archant

Wright was born at the family home on Irongate; a stone’s throw from All Saint’s Church (now Derby Cathedral), in 1734. His father was a respected local attorney and Wright had been expected to follow in his footsteps. However, from a young age he was ‘determined to try to draw’ and after initially drawing in secret in the attic he gained the support of his father and began his apprenticeship in the London-based studio of Thomas Hudson in 1751, where he trained to be a portrait painter. Indeed, portraits were to be an important mainstay of Wright’s business for the rest of his life.

Wright spent time working in Liverpool and later in Bath, as well as travelling further afield to Italy. But it was to Derby that he always returned. For an artist of Wright’s stature to be based in a regional town, over 100 miles from London and the epicentre of the British art world, was unusual. It is possible that his unhappy experience in Bath and his perceived ill-treatment by the Royal Academy encouraged him to stay in his home town. From Bath, he wrote to his brother Richard back in Derby: ‘I wish I had tried London first, and if it had not suited me, I wou’d then have retired to my native Place, where tho’ upon smaller gains I cou’d have lived free from the strife and envy of illiberal and mean spirited artists.’

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Wright is best known for his paintings showing different effects of light. This included the way that light fell on to the fine fabrics worn by his portrait subjects as much as it did to the scientific, industrial, enlightened subject paintings and landscapes he produced. He spent most of his career exploring and improving upon his technique, from the glitter of moonlight on the ruins of Virgil’s Tomb or how the light from a simple lamp, candle, or white hot rod of iron, might best bring drama to a scene. He designed a specially built ‘room’ inside his well-lit studio in which he could set up candlelit scenes to be viewed through the small openings, thus allowing him to study and paint the way that the light illuminated objects accurately.

Derby – a place that was fast becoming a hub of the Industrial Revolution following the construction of Arkwright’s Mills in Cromford in 1771 – and the friends that Wright had in the town, were his safe haven. Erasmus Darwin, bestselling poet and noted physician, had treated Wright for ‘Melancholy’, or what today we might call depression; something that had plagued him for much of his life. Indeed, the state of his health was something that he often referred to in his letters. It deteriorated following long hours lying on the cold floor of the Sistine Chapel during his trip to Italy between 1773 and 1775. In 1794 he reported ‘a slight paralytick affection on my right side, wch. Disabled my limbs & render’d my speech imperfect’. He recovered from this minor stroke to continue to paint for the next couple of years, before dying at home in 1797.

The Reverend D'Ewes Coke, his wife Hannah, and Daniel Parker Coke, MP, 1781-2

The Reverend D'Ewes Coke, his wife Hannah, and Daniel Parker Coke, MP, 1781-2 - Credit: Archant

Joseph Wright of Derby: An Introduction to his Life and Work through the Collection at Derby Museums, by Lucy Bamford and Jonathan Wallis, is available from Derby Museums shop and online from priced at £12.