About this image
An engraving print, probably by the equally famous artist William Blake. (The name 'Blake' is underneath the engraving as the sculpture of the original plate, and the artistic style of the eyes and mouth is very much like other paintings by William Blake). The engraving is a posthumous one as it is titled 'The late Mr Wright of Derby', and was produced just after Wright's death for The Monthly Magazine, September 1797.
Joseph Wright of Derby is considered on of the most important painters of his day. He was born in Iron Gate, Derby, on the 3 September 1734. He was the third son of John Wright, attorney and town Clerk, and his wife Hannah Brooks. He was educated at Derby Free School (now Derby Heritage Centre).
His early interest and talent in portrait drawing lead him to train formally from around the age of 17 in the studio of Thomas Hudson in London, initially for a period of two years in 1751 and then again for 15 months in 1756 to polish his technique. Returning to live in Derby, his reputation and career as a portrait painter began to flourish and he obtained commissions not only from Derby but increasingly from throughout nearby towns and cities.
He first exhibited in London at the Society of Artists in 1765, aged 31, showing two works including 'Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight'. This was the first of a series of 'candlelight' compositions by which his name became established. The two major works of this period were, to give their full titles, 'A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun' (1766), and 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' (1768). They represent a complex combination of art, science and philosophy and owe much to the Wright's circle of friends who included members of an important provincial group of philosophers, scientists and engineers, collectively known as the 'Lunar Society' - a title derived from their custom of meeting monthly on the Monday nearest the full moon. They demonstrated experiments and discussed the latest developments in chemistry, medicine, electricity, gases and industrial topics. Wright appears to have been particularly influenced by two members of the group: John Whitehurst FRS (1713-88) and Dr Erasmus Darwin FRS (1731-1802) (see image DCHQ200249, amongst others on this website). Whitehurst was by trade a maker of clocks, watches, barometers and other instruments and he lived only a few doors away from Wright's parental home at No. 28 Irongate, Derby. Erasmus Darwin moved to nearby Derby in 1781. However, his interests were wide-ranging, encompassing atmospherics, electricity, gasses, geology, canals and botany in addition to medicine. He was a lifelong friend of Wright and also his physician, treating him for an ongoing depressive state from which he suffered for the last 20 years of his life.
Wright spent most of his life in Derby. He worked in Liverpool from 1769 to 1771; he also travelled to Italy, arriving in Rome in February 1774 and returning to Derby in September 1775; then he attempted, unsuccessfully, to emulate Gainsborough as a fashionable portrait painter in Bath between 1775-7. However, only Italy left any lasting impression on his work and the fiery subjects of Vesuvius and the Fireworks in Rome (Girandola), extended his interest in the effects of light into an altogether vaster, outdoor scale.
Joseph Wright married Hannah Swift in 1773 at Ault Hucknall and they had six children, three of whom died in infancy. Hannah died in 1790 but Wright continued to paint up until his final year. He became increasingly asthmatic and nervous about the house and for these complaints he was treated by his friend Dr Darwin. He lived at his new home at No. 28 Queen Street, Derby, (John Flamstead, Astronomer Royal's former house), where he spent his final months with his two daughters, and died on 29th August 1797. Many of Joseph Wright's paintings, including 'A Philosopher Lecture upon an Orrery' and his 'portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright' hang in Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Many paintings by him can be seen on this website. Other examples of his work can be seen in the National Gallery and The Tate.
This image is one of a collection by the famous local antiquarian, Thomas Bateman, of Middleton by Youlgreave. (1821-1861). Bateman organized his collection by inserting them into a 4 volume copy of Lysons Magna Britannia, Derbyshire, creating a fascinating and unique illustrated record of the county. The purchase of the collection for Derbyshire Libraries was made possible by the generous bequest of Miss Frances Webb of Whaley Bridge, well known local historian, who died in December 2006.