The Wright Stuff

I’m no art expert.  But I do know what I like.  And I’ve always had a bit of a special “thing” for Wright of Derby.

I heard a recent BBC TV programme describe him as “one of the most original, wide-ranging and consistently interesting eighteenth century British artists”.  I don’t know about that.  But what I do know is that 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 only 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), 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 the Derby Museum & Art Gallery, which recently underwent a £150,000 makeover to better display the fabulous Joseph Wright Collection.

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 ‘A Philosopher lecturing on the Orrery’.  His most recognised masterpiece, this painting shows a philosopher explaining how the planets move around the sun during the course of the year.  The ‘audience’ is a small group of men, a young woman and some children – all of them lit-up by a thirst for knowledge.

For further details about Derby Museum & Art Gallery, visit the museum’s website.