Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797)

[Description: 5778_Lady by Joseph Wright] JOSEPH WRIGHT of DERBY (1734 – 1797)
Portrait of a Lady in a Derbyshire landscape, possibly Hannah Wright,
sister of the artist

ENGLAND, circa 1760

Oil on canvas

Height: 50 inches (127 cm)
Width: 40 inches (102 cm)

Provenance: Private Collection by direct descent through the Arkwright family.

The Sitter: An oil on canvas portraying Joseph Wright’s sister, Hannah Wright – Hannah Wright (1732–1810), in a Feather Hat – which came from the Wright family, is on display in Derby Museums and Art Gallery, and bears a striking physiological similarity to the lady in this portrait (see image below). While the Derby portrait represents a younger woman than ours, the facial characteristics are extremely similar. Furthermore Hannah Wright would be aged about 28-30 at the time our portrait was painted, which fits with her physical appearance. It is probably impossible to confirm – but an interesting possibility.

Whoever she may be, the lady in this portrait is effectively depicted in fancy dress. Her costume, jewels and feathers are derived from Peter Paul Rubens’ famous portrait of his second wife, Helena Fourment, of the 1630s, at one time in the collection of Catherine the Great of Russia, and now in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. It became fashionable for English ladies to adopt fancy or historical dress for the Masquerades, or Masquerade Balls, which had become very popular with 18th Century Society. This practice provided participants with a forum to re-establish and transcend their own identities, and created an unreal effect on observers, causing Horace Walpole to comment in 1742 after seeing a masquerade given by the Duchess of Norfolk: 'quantities of pretty Vandykes, and all kinds of old pictures walked out of their frames', and it is believed that Mary, Duchess of Ancaster wore this particular costume to a Masque at Ranelagh. She was subsequently painted by Thomas Hudson (Wright’s teacher) wearing the costume (a portrait so popular that it was engraved by James MacArdell and published in 1757), and thenceforward a number of society ladies requested that they be depicted in the same manner, and this portrait is one of their number (another of Lady Oxenden is in the Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales).

The Setting: The depiction of the rocky crag in the background is distinctive to Wright and locates the painting very firmly in his native Derbyshire. Wright used the same crag in the decorative cartouche that he produced as a sort of frontispiece for his friend Peter Perez Burdett's Survey of Derbyshire, published in 1767, which shows a carefully drawn, picturesque Derbyshire crag through which a road has been driven. Wright and Burdett were very close throughout the 1760s and one of Burdett's maps reveals Wright's limited circle of patronage in this decade, which focused around a series of neighbouring estates and families. Burdett's map names all the families associated with the various estates: the Burdett family on the Foremark estate, adjacent to the Trent; the Scheverall-Pole's who occupied the neighbouring Radbourne estate; and Earl Ferrers (who commissioned The Orrery and for whom Burdett worked as a private secretary) at Stanton Harold, to name a few.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 - 1797): As a painter, Joseph Wright reached an astonishingly early artistic maturity. Some of his greatest and most original works, including those depicting scientific experiments, were executed shortly after he set up on his own in the late 1750s. Born in Derby in 1734, he was the son of an attorney, but it is not known what decided Joseph to become an artist. By sixteen, he went to London to train in the studio of London’s then most fashionable portrait painter, Thomas Hudson (who had previously taught Joshua Reynolds) 1751-53, and he returned for a second spell 1756-57. On his return to Derby he began his own career, taking portrait commissions from the landed gentry around Derby and the Midlands. He was soon liberated from the stylistic stamp of his teacher Hudson, refusing to idealise the features of his sitters, and instead exploiting the visually seductive effects of light playing on drapery. The latent realism of his early portraits was to mature into the powerful directness of his portraits of industrialists like Sir Richard Arkwright and his close friend Erasmus Darwin. The income from portraits allowed him to paint uncommissioned works like the scientific subjects, scenes of work and industry, and later his landscapes which experimented in the use of unusual lighting effects. His “candlelit” paintings of the 1760s made him famous, and mezzotint reproductions of his works sold extremely well, and although still based in Derby he often exhibited in the London galleries.

Wright spent a brief period in Liverpool between 1768 -1769 where he gained the epithet ‘of Derby’ to distinguish him from another artist by the name of Wright who practised in the city. In 1773 he went to Italy, visiting Rome and Naples, where he witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius which had a profound effect on his later landscape painting. He was, from this time, influenced by Vernet’s pictures which further emboldened him to explore the possibilities of experimentation with lighting in the subject of landscape. Returning to England in 1775, he briefly set up a practice in Bath but the fashionable social milieu there was clearly at odds with his Enlightenment sensibilities so in 1777 he returned to Derby where he remained for the rest of his life. He was the first successful British artist to eschew the capital city and prefer a life in the provinces, but his decision seems not to have adversely affected his career as he was elected ARA in 1781, and then RA in 1784, but he declined the honour and later held the RA in considerable suspicion. Patrons continuously sought his work, especially from industry, and they included Josiah Wedgwood and Jedediah Strutt. Although best known for his scientific subject works, the core of his output was portraiture which, like both Reynolds and Gainsborough, provided him with a steady income. Wright was one of the most original and talented artists of his generation and his work has been appreciated continuously since its creation, he died after a period of ill health in his beloved Derbyshire in 1797 and was buried in Alkmund’s Church, Derby.

Literature: Aileen Ribeiro, The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England, 1730 to 1790, and its Relation to Fancy Dress in Portraiture, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 1975.

We are grateful to Paul Cox, of the National Portrait Gallery, for his assistance with the cataloguing of this painting.


Posted on January 25, 2017 and filed under Painting.