Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wright, Joseph

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916147Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 63 — Wright, Joseph1900William Cosmo Monkhouse

WRIGHT, JOSEPH (1734–1797), painter, called Wright of Derby, to distinguish him from Richard Wright (1735–1775?) [q. v.], marine painter, was born at 28 Irongate, Derby, on 3 Sept. 1734, the third and youngest son of John Wright, an attorney of that town, who was called ‘Equity Wright’ on account of the uprightness of his character. His mother's maiden name was Hannah Brookes. He was educated at Derby grammar school under Dr. Almond, and soon showed a talent for mechanics. He made a small spinning-wheel, a toy ‘peep-show,’ and a little gun, but at eleven years of age his inclination for art showed itself strongly. He copied the public-house signs and made sketches in the assize court; one of Councillor Noel, in black and white chalk upon blue paper, done at the age of sixteen, is in the possession of his biographer, Mr. William Bemrose of Derby. In 1751 his father placed him with Thomas Hudson (1701–1779) the portrait-painter, the master of Sir Joshua Reynolds and of John Hamilton Mortimer [q. v.], for two years, after which he returned to Derby and commenced painting portraits. In 1756 he returned to study under Hudson, and remained with him about fifteen months. He soon obtained some local celebrity. He painted portraits of the members of the Derby hunt (now at Markeaton Hall), and was allowed to exhibit his pictures in the town-hall. From the first Wright was very fond of strong effects of light and shade, and soon added greatly to his reputation by his pictures of figures illuminated by artificial (chiefly candle) light. It is on his pictures of this class that his fame mainly rests, and nearly all of them were produced before his visit to Italy in 1773. Nor was his reputation confined to Derby. In 1765 he exhibited at the Society of Artists in London ‘Three Persons viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight;’ in 1766 ‘A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in the place of the Sun,’ now in the Derby Corporation Art Gallery; in 1768 ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump,’ now in the National Gallery; in 1769 ‘A Philosopher by Candlelight,’ and ‘An Academy by Candlelight;’ in 1771 ‘The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone discovers Phosphorus and prays for the successful Conclusion of his Operation, as was the custom of the ancient Chymical Astrologers,’ now in the Derby Corporation Art Gallery. Of the thirty-one pictures exhibited during what may be called his first period, 1765 to 1773 inclusive, more than half were candlelight or firelight scenes, four of them being ‘smith's shops’ or ‘forges;’ the rest were portraits (twelve) and landscapes (two), one of them a ‘Moonlight.’ Among the most successful examples of his imitative skill are his children blowing or playing with blown bladders. In November 1773 he went to Italy with his wife and Mr. Hurleston (great-uncle of F. Y. Hurleston, president of the Incorporated Society of Artists). At Rome he spent much time in making a series of sketches from the frescoes of Michael Angelo in the Sistine Chapel. He is said to have permanently affected his health by overwork, and by lying on his back on the stones of the chapel. He took with him his picture of the ‘Alchymist,’ which was much admired, and painted another called ‘The Captive’ (from Sterne), in which the attitude of the figure resembles that of Michael Angelo's Adam. The ‘Captive’ was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1773. Among other places which he visited in Italy were Naples, Florence, and Bologna. He was disappointed with Florence, pleased with Bologna, but his letters and diary did not record admiration for any works of art outside Rome. On the whole his visit to Italy had no very important effect upon his figure-painting, and of all the sights he saw there none produced so great a change in his art as an eruption of Vesuvius. On one so fond of strange and strong effects of light, this stupendous scene naturally produced a profound impression, and he painted no fewer than eighteen pictures of it, the last in 1794. He was also much impressed by the scenery about Rome and the grandeur of its ruins, and the general result of his visit to Italy may be said to have been that he abandoned candlelight pieces for scenes of conflagration, and to some extent figure-painting for landscape. To the exhibition of the Society of Artists in 1776 he sent ‘An Eruption of Mount Vesuvius’ and ‘The Girandola at the Castle of St. Angelo at Rome.’ These pictures were purchased by the empress of Russia for 500l.

He arrived back in Derby on 26 Sept. 1775, and shortly afterwards went to Bath, where he thought to find an opening for a portrait-painter, as Gainsborough had recently left that city for London. In this he was disappointed. The Duchess of Cumberland sat to him, but her commission for a full-length dwindled to a head, and he got so few sitters that he felt that there were enemies at work against him. In 1777 he returned to Derby, where he lodged for a while with his friends the Eleys, removing to St. Helen's House in 1779. In his native town he found much employment as a portrait-painter, and eventually raised his prices to fifty guineas for a full-length, and ninety and a hundred and twenty guineas for a ‘conversation piece.’ In 1778 he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, and continued to do so yearly till 1782. His contributions consisted chiefly of scenes in Italy, ‘Eruptions,’ ‘Girandolas,’ ‘Grottoes,’ and ‘Caverns,’ but comprised two beautiful and poetical figures—‘Edwin’ from Beattie's ‘Minstrel,’ for which Thomas Haden, a surgeon of Derby and one of the handsomest men in the town, served as a model (the figure was etched by Mr. F. Seymour Haden for Mr. Bemrose's life of the artist); and Sterne's ‘Maria,’ painted from Mrs. Bassano, also of Derby. In 1781 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1784 a full academician. The latter distinction he declined for reasons not precisely known, but he was angry with the academy for the way they hung his pictures, and because they elected Edmund Garvey [q. v.] before him. It is also said that he resented, as George Stubbs [q. v.] had done a year or two before, the rule that a member should deposit a picture with the academy before receiving his diploma. One result of his quarrel with the academy, which seems to have begun about 1782, was that he did not send any pictures to their exhibitions after that year until 1788. In 1783 he sent two pictures to the Free Society of Artists, and in 1785 he held a separate exhibition of twenty-five pictures at Mr. Robins's rooms in Covent Garden. In 1787 he sent some works to an exhibition at Derby. The exhibition in 1785 showed very fairly the extensive range of Wright's art. Its sentimental and poetical side was shown by the lady in Milton's ‘Comus;’ ‘The Widow of an Indian Chief’ watching her deceased husband's arms by moonlight; by ‘William and Margaret,’ a ghost scene from the ballad in Percy's ‘Reliques;’ ‘Julia, the daughter of Augustus’ (in a cavern); ‘The Maid of Corinth’ (painted for Josiah Wedgwood), and ‘Penelope,’ besides two scenes from the story of ‘Hero and Leander.’ There were also a few portraits and many landscapes, Italian and English, including ‘Matlock High Tor’ and a ‘Vesuvius.’ It also contained ‘A View of Gibraltar during the Destruction of the Spanish Floating Batteries on the 13th of Sept. 1782,’ which was bought by Mr. J. Milnes for 420l., the largest price received by the artist for any single picture. The quarrel with the academy was never healed, although Wright sent pictures to their exhibitions in 1788, 1789, 1790, and 1794. In 1790 a fresh cause of annoyance arose from the places assigned to two large pictures intended for Boydell's ‘Shakespeare.’ He exhibited them again the year after at the Society of Artists, with a note in the catalogue referring to their ‘unfortunate position’ at the academy, ‘owing (Mr. Wright supposes) to their having arrived too late in London.’

In 1794 he complained that his pictures at the academy were placed on the floor and injured by the feet of the visitors. He had also a quarrel with Boydell. The first picture he painted for the ‘Shakespeare Gallery,’ and the only one the alderman bought, was a scene from the ‘Tempest,’ ‘Prospero's Cell, with the Vision.’ Wright thought he should be paid as highly as any artist engaged on the ‘Shakespeare’ (including Reynolds), but Boydell would not give him more than 300l. for it, and hinted that that was more than it deserved. At the sale of the ‘Shakespeare Gallery’ in 1805 it was bought by the Earl of Balcarres for 69l. 6s. The other pictures from Shakespeare were the tomb scene in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and one of ‘Antigonus in the Storm’ from the ‘Winter's Tale,’ with a bear drawn from a sketch supplied by Sawrey Gilpin. The former was never sold, and the latter was bought by Wright's friend, John Leigh Philips. During all these years Wright went on painting portraits, with an occasional poetical composition, but most of these were not exhibited in London, and his public reputation was mainly based on his ‘candlelight’ pieces and pictures of fire and moonlight, until he obtained a wider popularity from the well-known engraving by J. Heath from his pathetic picture of ‘A Dead Soldier, his Wife and Child, vide Langhorne's “Poems,”’ which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1789. Heath bought the picture for 105l. before he engraved it, and reaped a large profit from his venture.

After 1790, though Wright went on painting for years, he produced nothing worthy of special record, except some landscapes painted from sketches taken on a visit to the lakes in 1793. Though not an old man, he had been more or less of an invalid and a dietarian ever since his return from Italy. In 1783 he wrote that he had suffered ‘a series of ill-health for these sixteen years past,’ and in 1795 that he had been ‘ten months without touching a pencil.’ He died on 29 Aug. 1797 at 26 Queen Street, Derby, whither he had removed from St. Helen's House about five years before, and was buried on 1 Sept. in St. Alkmund's Church. In 1773 he married Ann Swift, who died, aged 41, on 17 Aug. 1790.

In his youth Wright was handsome and of a sprightly disposition. He was fond of society, and played well on the flute. After his return from Italy he lived a very quiet life, much esteemed by all who knew him. His friends and acquaintances included few more notable people than Josiah Wedgwood [q. v.], Erasmus Darwin [q. v.], Sir Richard Arkwright [q. v.], and William Hayley [q. v.], who, as well as Darwin and others, celebrated his art in many bad verses. He was of a kind and generous disposition, giving away many of his pictures and drawings to his friends.

At his death Wright was little known as a portrait-painter, except in Derby and its neighbourhood, and it is doubtful whether even now his skill in this branch of art is sufficiently recognised. The only opportunity of anything like a complete study of his works of this kind was afforded by the collection of his paintings at the Derby Corporation Art Gallery in 1883, which comprised about sixty of his portraits. The list, though full of local notables, contained few names of wide celebrity, except those of Sir Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the ‘spinning jenny,’ and Erasmus Darwin. In comparison with Reynolds or Gainsborough he was a homely, almost a domestic, portrait-painter, but his portraits have the great merits of sincerity and thoroughness, show true insight into character, are finely modelled, and well painted. Among the finest are his portraits of himself, Jedediah Strutt, Christopher Heath, John Whitehurst, Mr. Cheslyn, Mrs. Compton, and Lady Wilmot and her child. He was very successful with children, whom he presented with all their artlessness and simplicity, and his powers as a colourist (which, if not of the highest, were considerable) are perhaps best displayed in some of his groups of young people, like those of the little Arkwrights with a goat, and the little Newtons picking cherries.

A small selection from his pictures was a prominent feature of the winter exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1886. Wright was an able and versatile artist, and the great reputation which he made in his lifetime is fairly sustained at the present day. As a painter of candlelight pieces, especially in those compositions ‘The Orrery,’ ‘The Gladiator,’ and ‘The Air-pump,’ where genre and portrait are combined with dramatic action, he has no rival in the English school; as a portrait-painter he holds a high, if not the highest, rank, and among painters of sentiment his ‘Edwin’ and ‘Maria’ entitle him to consideration. His pictures of Vesuvius and fireworks have, however, now ceased to attract, and his daylight landscapes want atmosphere. Richard Wilson [q. v.] good-naturedly hit their weakness when he agreed to exchange landscapes with Wright. ‘I'll give you air,’ he said, ‘and you'll give me fire.’

Fine mezzotint engravings from Wright's works did much to spread his reputation in his lifetime and have served to preserve it since. Valentine Green engraved ‘The Orrery,’ ‘The Air-pump,’ and others; Earlom ‘A Blacksmith's Shop’ and ‘An Iron Forge;’ J. R. Smith ‘Edwin,’ ‘Maria,’ ‘Boy and Girl with Bladder,’ ‘Boy and Girl with Lighted Stick,’ &c.; and among plates by W. Pether were ‘The Alchymist,’ ‘The Drawing Academy,’ and ‘The Gladiator.’

In the National Gallery is his masterpiece, ‘The Air-pump;’ in the National Portrait Gallery, London, his portraits of Arkwright and Erasmus Darwin and one of himself. He made many portraits of himself, one of which (in a hat) was engraved by Ward, while another is reproduced in Bemrose's ‘Life’ (1885) as well as the National Portrait Gallery portrait and an etching, the only etching by Wright that is known. An early sketch, in a turban-like cap, is reproduced as a frontispiece to a biographical notice by Bemrose, republished from the ‘Reliquary,’ quarterly journal, of 1864.

[Bemrose's Life and Works of Joseph Wright, 1885, 4to; Bemrose's biographical notice of ‘Wright of Derby,’ reprinted from Nos. xv. and xvi. of the Reliquary, 1864; Monthly Mag. 17 Oct. 1797; Hayley's Life of Romney; Johnson's Life of Hayley; Meteyard's Life of Wedgwood; Wine and Walnuts; Hayley's Poems; Catalogue of the Wright Exhibition at Derby Corporation Art Gallery, 1883; Redgraves' Century; Sandby's Royal Academy; Magazine of Art, 1883.]

C. M.