Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Darkness
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London 2020 pp368 col195 bw £45
Since the publication of Benedict Nicolson’s catalogue raisonné in 1968, Joseph Wright of Derby has received patchy scholarly attention: one cradle-to-grave monographic exhibition in 1990; two more limited shows dealing with Wright’s time in Liverpool and Bath; a dozen or so focused articles which concentrate on a handful of paintings; but no serious book-length study considering his art.
This makes the appearance of Matthew Craske’s Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Darkness particularly welcome. Craske’s title sets the tone for his account, placing him critically in opposition to Nicolson, whose two-volume work was entitled Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light. Taking his cue from Richard Cumberland’s description of ‘bold, eccentric Wright, that hates the day’, Craske eloquently positions Wright as an artist of the night. For Craske this means much more than Wright’s familiar interest in nocturnal subject matter, it encompasses Wright’s melancholic and ‘valetudinarian’ character, his investigations into optics and the broader significance of the night to mid-18th-century culture. Wright the man of feeling, the painter of sensibility, would have understood that the night was the appropriate time for mediations on mortality – night thoughts in the tradition of Edward Young – and Craske traces the intellectual and cultural place of darkness from Locke’s tabula rasa to Burke’s sublime, by way of popular raree shows. The Wright that Craske sketches is misanthropic, living in rural seclusion as a country gentleman. This contrasts starkly with the post-Nicolson view of Wright as a sociable middle-class provincial who was active in the circles of the urban-based learned societies of the Midlands.
The book is formed of two parts: the first, ‘Artistic Identity’, comprises a series of thematic chapters that explicitly challenge the prevailing view of Wright as a painter predominantly concerned with science and industry. Craske uses early literary sources to expert effect, and the championing voices of William Hayley and Anna Seward, along with the two obituaries commissioned by Wright’s brother, Richard, and written by John Leigh Philips and Thomas Moss Tate, amply demonstrate that Wright was understood by his contemporaries to be a ‘man of feeling’. Craske goes further, demonstrating that Wright himself embraced and played up to his sentimentalised persona in both life and art. This is a refreshing aspect of the book’s method: Craske is meticulous in approaching Wright – and his works – from within the documented parameters of contemporary discourse in Wright’s immediate circle. As a result, Craske makes short work of historians who have instrumentalised Wright’s pictures, finding little evidence to support the readings of An Experiment on the Air Pump as either representing a crisis of faith – Craske describes Wright as ‘a rather staunch and dour Protestant’ and points out he subscribed to a book of sermons as he was working on the painting – or as an evocation of ‘gothic’ angst in the face of modern scientific advancement.1
The second section of the book is entitled ‘Wright’s Pictures’ and consists of a series of broadly chronological chapters examining Wright’s subject-paintings and landscapes. Here the themes explored in the first section of the book are tested against Wright’s works. The chapters on Wright’s great sequence of candlelight paintings – Three Men Viewing the Gladiator, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery and An Experiment on the Air Pump – are full of new perspectives. Craske importantly corrects an idea first proposed by William Schupbach that the opaque illuminated jar in the centre of An Experiment on the Air Pump contains a ‘decayed skull’ (p126). He points out that the presence of a rod weighing down the specimen indicates that it is flesh rather than bone and identifies contemporary experiments on observing air in organs (although the rod is surely not made of glass as Craske insists?). Craske casts these three early candlelight paintings as conversation pieces, suggesting that they were understood by their first owners explicitly as portraits. More than that, he posits that The Orrery and An Experiment on the Air Pump were conceived as pendants and were hybrid commissions organised by Peter Perez Burdett, a notion perhaps undermined by Craske’s discussion of The Orrery’s first owner, the rackety Earl Ferrers, who was advanced money by Wright himself.
A subsequent chapter examines Wright’s sequence of depictions of iron forges, positioning them as critiques of the ‘Grand Style’, as articulated in Reynolds’s Discourses. In the first, painted for Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne, and now at the Yale Center for British Art, Craske sees Wright making a great picture out of vulgar things and minute observations, suggesting that ‘Wright seemed intent on making a picture about the very opposite of a great historical event’ yet one that was ‘strangely, obliquely, philosophical’ (p186). For Craske, it is this obliqueness that has caused them to gain troubling prominence in the recent presentation of Wright. Without a narrative source, scholars have persisted in seeing them as political: the work of a member of the bourgeoisie celebrating proletarian labour and, as such, Wright has been co-opted as a proto-Marxist. But, as Craske points out, it is the works for which we do have narrative sources that offer the more accurate account of Wright’s politics. The chapter on Miravan Breaking Open the Tomb of his Ancestors is particularly rich – visually, Craske cleverly identifies the influence of contemporary theatre – while the literary source, from John Gilbert Cooper’s Letters, offers compelling evidence that Wright was actually interested in preserving the status quo and not concerned with social mobility. In a subsequent chapter, ‘The Indian Widow’, Craske goes further in disassociating Wright from a political position he only acquired in the late 20th century, unpicking his abolitionist credentials.
Where I think Craske over plays his hand is in seeing in Wright’s use of stoical texts an intimation that he was in any way opposed to commercial society. Here was a man who, in Craske’s own account, used the profits from a lucrative profession to buy property, advance loans and whose art is revealed, chapter after chapter, to have been calculatingly focused on the market. Craske makes a strong case for Wright’s late single female-figure subjects (The Indian Widow, The Lady in Milton’s Comus, Maria from Sterne) as having been conceived following his failure to sell a sequence of single-figure male subjects: the female protagonists, all showing women in tribulation, were specifically designed to appeal to male collectors. Craske correctly characterises Wright’s time in Italy as a commercially focused enterprise, seeing his turning to landscape as a way of capitalising on his access to Classic Ground. It is a shift in which Craske detects the example of Richard Wilson, who returned from Italy with a series of prospects that he subsequently replicated, christening them ‘good breeders’. While Wilson is the progenitor of this business model, it is surely telling that so many other British artists resident in Rome in the second half of the 1770s made the same shift: Thomas Jones, John Robert Cozens, Francis Towne and even Wright’s own travelling companion, John Downman, saw the commercial potential in the landmarks of the Roman campagna and the scenery of the Campi Phlegraei.2
Craske argues that Wright deliberately avoided selling to British ‘milordi’ in Rome, preferring, instead to sell to ‘the new rich’ back home. Craske asserts: ‘This cannot have been a financial decision, for he was manifestly aware of the profusion of ‘cavalier’ money. So, it is best … to consider it a moral and, significantly, a political matter’ (p220). Here I think he is mistaken. The reality of Rome in this period was that there were very few British tourists who actively acquired expensive modern art. Most travellers were sons and heirs, their finances controlled by tutors. Furthermore, the commercial structures that had evolved to serve travellers, particularly the emergence of powerful resident art dealers, specifically worked against artists. It was a system decried by many of Wright’s contemporaries.3 More interesting is Craske’s observation that the list of new clients who purchased Italian views from Wright post-Rome had never visited the Continent and do not obviously fit the grand tour profile. But this may reflect his geographical shift back to Derbyshire after the ‘nerve-shredding humiliation’ of his 20-month sojourn in Bath, rather than anything more conscious.
The most disappointing chapter deals with Wright’s ‘Old Men’. Throughout the book, while Wright’s intellectual world is expertly evoked, the visual is handled with less care. Craske has a tendency of presenting Wright in a vacuum (like the bird in the air pump). Thus, we are told Wright’s depictions of old men were a singular, unsuccessful strategy undertaken by the melancholic Wright in full knowledge that they were unsaleable. This ignores the fact that the ebullient Joshua Reynolds was making similar works at precisely the same date with great commercial success. Just as Wright’s Philosopher by Lamplight started life as a powerful head study of John Staveley, so Reynolds’s Ugolino began as a portrait of the paviour George White, and it sold after its appearance at the Royal Academy in 1773 for the astronomical price of £420.4
Craske has a tendency to treat Wright’s paintings as images rather than objects. One result of this is that there is little about Wright’s studio practice. Craske alludes to Wright’s replication of paintings, but this is never directly addressed, and even in chapters where variants of a single composition are discussed not all variants are illustrated or even mentioned. For example, it seems to me strange that the best of the iterations of Virgil’s Tomb, that now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is neither reproduced, nor discussed. What of the second version of the Academy by Lamplight, a curious work that points to Wright’s commodification of his candlelight pictures? Or the chiaroscuro study of A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery at the Yale Center for British Art, which surely foregrounds the role of Wright’s engravers in the evolution of the painting? In matters of attribution Craske rarely dissents from Nicolson and, where he does, I find him unreliable.5 In his chapter on the Dead Soldier, the version at the Yale Center for British Art is simply presented as autograph with no explanation or disclaimer. While questions of quality and attribution may fall beyond the scope of Craske’s argument, the curious reader might expect some pointer to explain why the Yale version looks so odd in reproduction. Furthermore, the chapter makes no reference to the third version of the picture now at the Holburne Museum in Bath.
Sometimes I disagree with Craske’s reading of details. For example, in relation to Lord Melbourne’s first Blacksmith Shop, Craske states, ‘It includes a boy who, by staring at the ingot, has hurt his eyes and turns away in distress’ (p30). While this fits Craske’s argument, I would suggest that the boy is turning away because one of the sparks from the metal being worked has flown into his eye: the sparks are clearly visible in the painting and even more apparent in Richard Earlom’s mezzotint made after the painting. I have other quibbles. For example, neither Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego nor Rembrandt’s Head of an old Jew was at Chatsworth during the 18th century, for both are consistently recorded at Devonshire House in London, which means neither William Pether nor John Hamilton Mortimer in fact travelled north to make their respective prints.6 Craske can be somewhat ungracious about other scholars. Elizabeth Barker, whose PhD thesis on Wright traversed much of the same ground as Craske, is not cited in the bibliography. Her edition of Wright’s family papers published in the Walpole Society form the backbone of the book and yet in the only textual reference to her she is erroneously called Emma (p71).7
One final niggle. For those who encounter him anywhere other than the National Gallery in London, Yale Center for British Art or Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Joseph Wright is primarily a portraitist. He trained in the studio of mid-18th-century London’s most successful practitioner, Thomas Hudson, and throughout his career portraiture was the motor that drove Wright’s commercial machine. Yet Craske is remarkably silent on Wright’s portraiture and its role in enabling him to experiment with historical compositions and participate in London’s exhibition culture. Portraiture paid the bills, attracted his remarkable roster of Midlands clients and, to a certain degree, underlines his originality. It is the minuteness of observation in Wright’s portraiture – particularly his fastidious delineation of costume – that distinguished him from his London-based competitors; yet, reading this book, you would be forgiven for thinking Wright was primarily a historical painter. A simple tabulation of Wright’s account book would have shown that Wright, like Joshua Reynolds, like Thomas Gainsborough, and like John Singleton Copley, was a portraitist first and a subject painter second.
None of this distracts from the significance of this book. Craske has made a major and welcome intervention, questioning assumptions about one of the most unusual, if familiar, figures in 18th-century British art and in so doing, he offers a powerful new reading. Craske effectively challenges the late-20th-century view of Wright as a painter of ‘the Enlightenment’, cleverly pushing-back at lazy assumptions about his intentions, his philosophies and ultimately his audiences. The book, published with evident care by the Paul Mellon Centre, is typically attractive in design and intelligently laid out by Emily Lees, with copious excellent illustrations. What is more, this book is deeply researched, deeply felt and written with a refreshingly lively voice, and it will deservedly form the basis for all future discussion of Wright.
- I do not agree with Craske’s characterisation of Wright’s views on Catholicism. After all, he wrote excitedly to his brother from Rome: ‘[M]y Pictures are in great estimation here I am shortly to be introduced to the Pope, it is thought he will honor me with a medal,’ which is hardly the sentiment of a rabid anti-Catholic. See Elizabeth E Barker, ‘Documents Relating to Joseph Wright of Derby’, Walpole Society, LXXI (2009), p82.
- Where Wright was remarkable was in his fascination with sky studies. The two Italian sketchbooks in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, are filled with naturalistic sky studies. They were almost certainly stimulated by his contact with Alexander Cozens and the theories he was developing, theories that would eventually appear in The New Method on Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1786). Cozens is a name missing from Craske’s account.
- See Jonathan Yarker and Clare Hornsby, ‘Buying Art in Eighteenth-Century Rome’, in Scott Wilcox and María Sánchez-Jáuregui Alpañes, eds ,The English Prize: The Capture of the Westmorland, an episode of the Grand Tour, exh cat., New Haven and London 2012, pp63-87.
- It is surprising that Craske completely ignores the literature on this topic, particularly Martin Postle’s work on the subject. See for example ‘Patriarchs, prophets and paviours’ in Martin Postle, Joshua Reynolds: The Subject Pictures, Cambridge 1995, pp121–60.
- As far as I can work out, Craske is the only scholar to accept a painting of an Old Beggar Man dated to 1771 that looks doubtful to me. It appeared at Sworders (not ‘Swoffers’, p321, n6) and more recently at Sotheby’s London, 4 December 2019, lot 32, where I saw it in the flesh and where it failed to sell.
- Robert and John Dodsley, London and its Environs Described, London 1761, vol II, p226.
- Elizabeth E Barker, ‘A very great and uncommon genius in a peculiar way’: Joseph Wright of Derby and Candlelight Painting in Eighteenth-Century Britain, unpublished PhD diss, New York University 2003.
A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), 1766 (detail).
Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 203.2 cm.
Derby Museum and Art Gallery.
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