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Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797
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Joseph Wright of Derby 1734-1797

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Self-portrait aged 59 in a grey-brown coat and Portrait of Rev. Christopher Alderson, B.D.




Oil paintings on canvas 23 x 17 inches, each in original carved and giltwood neoclassical frames.


Painted circa 1793. Previously unpublished.


Provenance: John Holland of Ford Hall, Derbyshire (1734-1807) by whom left in a life interest to his widow and then in trust (Alderson was a Trustee) to the heirs of his relation Joseph Bilbie,

His daughter and sole heiress Mary Anne Bilbie who married 1st March 1832 Francis Hall of Park Hall (co. Nottingham) esq. and who died 31st July 1877;1

Her nephew Francis Hall (1856-1928) son of her husband’s younger brother, Geoffrey Brock Hall (Park Hall 1807 – Guelph, Canada, 1st April 1886)

Flora Caroline Hall (nee Hamilton) (6th September 1865 – 5th July 1939)

Estate of the late Flora C Hall, being the contents of Rivers Lea, Guelph, Ontario, sale, Ward-Price & Co, Toronto 23-28 September 1946 lot 718 (Wright) and 719 (Alderson) where purchased by a local Canadian collector by whom sold at auction in Toronto, Canada, circa 1980 to a Private Collector, lately of Guernsey, from whom acquired by us.



Literature: (self portrait) Wm. Bemrose (1885) The Life and Works of Joseph Wright A.R.A., commonly called Wright of Derby where a variant of the composition is reproduced as the frontispiece of the book;

Benedict Nicholson (1968) Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light pages 22, 134-5, 172 and Catalogue number 172 page 230 (as untraced), the composition recorded from a copy as figure 9;

John Ingamells (2004) National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, pages 496-7 sub catalogue 4090, Self-Portrait circa 1785;

Elizabeth E. Barker, Walpole Society LXXI (2009) Documents relating to Joseph Wright 'of Derby' (1734-1797) page 147 #119 (letter to John Holland from Joseph Wright 3rd April 1794)

(Mr Alderson) cf. Nicholson, op. cit. Catalogue page 174 in the transcription of the artist's account book as “amongst pictures which are chiefly late” as either “A 3qrs. of Mr Alderson, £12.12s” or “Do. A copy of Do.”


Joseph Wrightwas born in Derby, of a respectable family of lawyers. His initial training as a portraitist had been with the Londoner Thomas Hudson, for whom he worked as a drapery painter from 1751-3 and again in 1756-7. In between these years he stayed with his family in Derby, where he is recorded as painting his parents, his two sisters and his brother (all now lost) as well as "the portraits of many of his friends as of the principal families of the neighbourhood". Wright made attempts to establish his practice as an artist in Liverpool, and also in Bath. He regularly exhibited his paintings.

Like many artists of his time, he travelled to Italy as a Grand Tourist in 1773-1774. He drew and painted ancient ruins, copied classical statues and saw the spectacular fireworks accompanying the Carnival in Rome. In Naples he witnessed an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which provided him with the inspiration for several dozen paintings depicting the dramatic effects of fire and darkness. He explored the picturesque caverns and grottoes around the shores of the bay of Naples. Impressions of Italian nature, “beautiful and uncommon, with an atmosphere so pure and clear” are reflected in many of his subsequent works, though he never became an “Italianate” landscape painter, with the subordination of design and colouration to the “clarity and truth” which marks his work.

Success as a portrait painter made money for Wright, but it was his scientific and industrial paintings, full of dramatic contrasts of light and darkness, which distinguished him from other contemporary artists and assured his unique position in British Art. Wright’s residence in Derby, although provincial, turned out to be fortuitous, because it was here that the Industrial Revolution was at most visual, through blacksmith shops, glass and pottery kilns, the new purpose-built factories, new machines and engines. Here he met, on equal status, the pragmatic and innovating men who were inventing the New World of manufacturing, rational (occasionally radical) politics and practical scientific methodology.

Wright was never a formal member of the Lunar Society, the Birmingham club to which so many of the New Men belonged, but his long friendship with John Whitehurst (1713-1788) and Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) certainly made him a Lunar satellite. Unlike many other European groups of intellectuals representing the movement of the Enlightenment, the Lunar Society of Birmingham was fortunate to inspire a great artist, who was not only able to produce the likeness of its members, but who also captured the pathos and excitement of experiment and discovery.


The sheer breadth of Wright's achievements as a painter are illustrated not only by his work as a portraitist (where he is the equal of any artist of his age), his and innovatory dramatic candle-lit and scientific pictures, but also in his many and varied landscapes, which alone would guarantee him a place at the forefront of British Art of the 18thcentury. They stretch from the age of Richard Wilson to foreshadow the continental Romanticism of Caspar Friedrich, and illustrate a creative mind open to the new trends in European art. He is truly the English artist of the Age of Enlightenment.


1 qv Derby record office D37 M/T760-761 1832)

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