Joseph Wright, better known as Wright of Derby, has been described as “one of the most original, wide-ranging and consistently interesting eighteenth century British artists”.
One of his masterstrokes (so to speak) was to perfect the “candlelight” effect. A kind of 18th century version of Instagram, he created paintings of faces lit-up by the fire of flames or furnaces.
It’s stunning to see – and acts as a clear indication as to why Joseph Wright is regarded as a man in tune with his age: an artist capable of illustrating the dramatic advances which were being made in the arts, science, philosophy, and religion in what was a golden era for the City of Derby.
Wright lived in Derby most of his life, leaving it to train in the London studio of Thomas Hudson, to honeymoon, and to study classical art and architecture in Italy.
The only other times Wright ever left Derby were when his family fled the city during the Jacobite Rebellion (during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s brief but fateful stay in Derby); during a brief trip to the Lakes; and during a three-year spell when he was based in Liverpool – where, to distinguish him from an artist named Richard Wright, people first called him ‘Wright of Derby’.
Today, quite fittingly, the finest Joseph Wright paintings can be found in Derby Museum & Art Gallery.
Some are accurate portraits of the Midlands industrialists and entrepreneurs of the time. His painting of Sir Richard Arkwright, for example, is the one now faithfully reproduced in virtually every publication dealing with the Industrial Revolution.
Others feature his trademark candlelight paintings. In 1765, visitors to the Society of Artists in London were treated to a viewing of the first of his now world-famous series of ‘candlelight’ works, in which the strong contrasts of light-and-shadow highlight the dramatic effects of his subjects. Caravaggio and Rembrandt had both already perfected the technique; but Wright was known by his contemporaries as the leading British artist in this style.
And then, there’s ‘The Orrery’. His most recognised masterpiece, this painting shows a philosopher explaining the workings of the Solar System. The ‘audience’ is a small group of men, a young woman and some children – all of them lit-up by a thirst for knowledge.
It is possible, at the moment, to explore the Joseph Wright Gallery on a virtual tour at https://www.derbymuseums.org/spaces/museum-art-gallery-virtual-reality-tour.
But once we can all travel again, then why not plan a visit to see his ‘star’ in the city centre www.visitderby.co.uk/josephwrightmid; and his paintings in Derby Museum & Art Gallery https://www.derbymuseums.org/spaces/joseph-wright-gallery.
[This content has been prepared for VisitDerby: https://www.visitderby.co.uk]