‘The label “Wright of Derby” is likely to be permanent, although it inevitably has provincial connotations which now seem inappropriate.’ So Judy Egerton writes in her introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition of his work which runs until 22 April at the Tate. ‘Inappropriate’, I suppose, because ‘provincial’ suggests pictures which cannot stand metropolitan comparisons – something which Wright’s work, from the time of the exhibition of the Orrery and the Air Pump, did very successfully. On the other hand, Wright’s individuality is inseparable both from a provincial culture – that of the Midlands in the second half of the 18th century – and a provincial style.
‘Provincial’, not because it was a crude version of a metropolitan model, but because, in portrait-painting at least (and portraits were Wright’s bread and butter), it lacked the suavity, the power to project fantasy without losing likeness, which was the achievement of more fashionable and upper-class 18th-century face-painting. If Gainsborough had developed the neat manner of Mr and Mrs Andrews, rather than a feathery allusiveness of touch, he too might have been a provincial painter. Wright painted middle-class people (although, as Egerton points out, they were often very prosperous and very well-connected ones) and members of the landed gentry. It is to other middle-class arts that one turns for parallels. The most attractive of Wright’s portraits of couples – that of the Reverend Thomas Gibson and his wife Mary, for example – have the quality of a Jane Austen happy ending: ordinariness is not glamorised, good feeling is celebrated. The finish and-detail of his paintings often look Dutch, and give good value inch by well-painted inch. Whether he knew Dutch pictures, or whether this is a case of convergent evolution, is a matter of dispute. Whichever way, it is a style which fitted well with the values of those he painted. Egerton quotes a critic of 1768 who said Wright was ‘a very great and uncommon genius, in a peculiar way’. The peculiarity distinguishes him from metropolitan contemporaries. ‘Artists are, or should be, different from each other,’ Egerton says. ‘Wright is not elevated by putting down Reynolds, nor are his gifts easily measured against Gainsborough’s. Wright is his own man.’ The point is taken, but Wright’s differences, the strangeness which creeps into some of his portrait groups, his predilection for lamplight and fireworks, eruptions and moonlight seem to fit better with the tastes and interests of the men and women described in the lively catalogue notes than they would have done with those of the more fashionable world.
Following the portraits in sequence, one watches him gathering skills. A stiff self-portrait about the age of twenty shows him in a Cavalier lace collar and a cloak lined with red. Anne Bateman, painted a year or so later, is also board- (and perhaps bored-) stiff. Five years on, in 1760, he painted William Brooke, four times Mayor of Doncaster: a mercer dressed in good brown velvet with a great belly swelling above spread knees, and arms akimbo. This pose of the fat man of authority (it is similar to the one Ingres put M. Bertin the banker in) would be used again in the portrait of Richard Arkwright. Miss Cracroft from the same year is a tumble of satin and lace; a veil blows from her shoulder and flowers garland her bosom, but despite the mobile stuffs her face is as still, her back as rigid, as Anne Bateman’s. The catalogue suggests that the tug and flutter of clothes is something Wright learned during his apprenticeship with Thomas Hudson. In 1762 Francis Knowle Clark Mundy inherited Markeaton Hall. He had Wright paint him and five of his friends in the livery of the Markeaton Hunt – his father and five of his friends had sat to Devis 13 years before. Wright poses them casually. Harry Peckham stands with hand on hip; he was to die after breaking his neck while hunting. Nicholas Heath sits with his arm over the back of his chair; he changed his name to Nicholas Nicholas when he inherited an estate, Boy Court. Mrs Wilmot, painted in riding clothes in the same year, leans forward on a rail, whip in hand. She shares the picture with a chained fox – a ‘bagman’, the catalogue suggests, released to give the hunt sport when foxes were not to be found. There is no flutter of drapery here.
James and Mary Shuttleworth were painted with one of their daughters. Mrs Shuttleworth sits at a table with a book open before her. She has raised her eyes to look patiently at the painter. Her husband, to her left, in red and blue, rests his hand on his hip and leans on his gun. The daughter, her eyelids drooping in a curious way, echoes her father’s pose in miniature. She holds a dead partridge fastidiously by its claw above the curious nose of a grey dog. Mother and daughter are dressed for the drawing-room in sprigged muslin and satin-Nimrod has brought his tribute to them. Shuttleworth was an MP and High Sheriff of Yorkshire.
Mr and Mrs Chase are a more fantastical household. Her midnight-blue dress is seen through a starry maze of lace; a white cockatoo which she inspects with amusement sits on her raised hand. He, in a grey coat laced with gold, looks admiringly at her and holds his flute in the attitude of one who is about to play; he was probably a banker’s son. In 1769 Wright painted Mrs John Ashton. The Quakerish modesty of her black and white dress is belied by its gloss. Her late husband had been in the slave trade. Mrs Sarah Clayton (a courtesy ‘Mrs’, she was unmarried) held a leading position in the coal trade in Liverpool; she points to a plan of Clayton Square, a development she oversaw personally. In this portrait, although the setting is not outdoors, the light, striking from a low angle, suggests the bright pale sunlight which comes cleanly through rain-washed air after an autumn or spring shower. In a slightly more diffuse form it illuminates John Milnes, who stands, in a suit of the palest buff-grey, in front of the lichen-covered trunk of an autumnal oak, pointing with his black hat to a ship which breasts a distant horizon. Pink-faced and rather plain, he nevertheless manages to remind one of Hilliard’s young man standing in front of a rose bush. Milnes, the son of a cotton manufacturer, was radical as well as rich, and called his illegitimate son, born in Paris in 1792, Alfred Mirabeau. Thomas and Mary Coltman, again outdoors in fresh weather, she on a grey horse, he standing beside her an arm resting on her hip, are put into poses which suggest informality, amiability and mutual comfort.
Mr and Mrs Peter Perez Burdett are altogether stranger; the portrait Wright painted as a gift hadn’t, until now, been outside Prague since the subjects’ daughter took it there on her marriage. The husband – young, lively, in casual bright clothes – contrasts with Mrs Burdett whose satin, lace and pearls make a rich landscape of cream-coloured hills and valleys; she seems to have stepped out of a very grand drawing-room to join her husband by a rustic fence. His expression is lively. She looks older than him (she was), tired and sceptical. His attribute – a telescope – is relevant to his professional activities: he was a cartographer and surveyor. He failed in a number of enterprises before making a career in the Margravate of Baden. Wright lent him money and took advice from him on perspective and the paraphernalia of alchemy.
A dimmer light illuminates Brooke Boothby, who lies, chin on gloved hand, in a glade at sundown – the horizon is pink. The book on the ground before him, a finger marking his place, is lettered ‘Rousseau’. Boothby had undertaken the first publication of Rousseau’s posthumous autobiographical Dialogues in 1780, the year before the portrait was painted. It is a late example of an English iconography of melancholy which goes back to Oliver and Hilliard. Boothby was later thrown into so deep a fit of grief by the death of his five-year-old daughter that he took to sad foreign wanderings, which ended with his death in Boulogne in 1824, when he was 78.
In the 1789 portrait of Richard Arkwright, his attribute – a model of a cotton-spinning machine – stands beside him (a last shot perhaps in a patent suit he had been involved in). Another cotton manufacturer in the same year, Samuel Oldknow, rests his arm on a bolt of the muslin which had made him the fortune he was to see dwindle in the recession which accompanied the Napoleonic Wars.
Reading the catalogue and looking at portraits like these you build up a picture of a much more interesting society than ‘provincial’ in its perjorative sense suggests. When one comes to consider Wright’s originality, the fact that he chose to paint in this society, and did not find success when he tried to develop a fashionable portrait practice in Bath (‘the great people art so fantastical and whimmy, they create a world of trouble’) is significant.
Wright’s technique involves not one but many ways of painting. Highlights are laid on in single neat brushstrokes. Hair is swept in finely so that the marks made by individual bristles in the brush lay down the paint which represents single strands in the subject. Lace is drawn thread by thread. The leaves of trees are applied as a thick impasto, velvet is given its highlights in streaks of white which are worked into the local colour on the shadow side. In the lamplit and candlelit scenes, and the forges, areas of highlight and shadow are painted with an effortless, almost mechanical smoothness: the details of buttons and braid are as economically stroked in as petals by a china painter. Perhaps it was because he had so many kinds of handwriting when he drew with paint that his drawings are unconvincing and stiff. The record of sea caves in Italy, reused in a number of paintings, are exact but uninteresting graphically; a self-portrait in chalk is unpleasantly smooth. The simplifications of lamplight and moonlight, the glare of volcanic eruptions, the light of dusk, a rainbow – all these became subjects. He suffered from depression, and dark themes may have been congenial. He was a friend of industrialists, men of science and engineers, and the kind of light which so suited his talent was also that by which the soooty, noisy business of manufacture became dramatic.
The best portraits are of men and women who were friends or long-standing patrons. In some others the fine detail of the face is blended and smoothed, and the confidence in how to apply paint which makes his coats and frocks so neat deserts him: in these he seems to be struggling with the problem of getting a likeness. This is not the case in the two great pictures of scientific demonstrations (An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump and A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in the place of the Sun), or in the pictures of forges at night. Here invention is given reign; the models serve his purpose, not he theirs. These pictures are dramas on a common theme. At the centre of the picture is a light source – a lamp, a candle, a piece of white-hot iron – which illuminates, or is itself the subject of, an action or demonstration under the control of a figure of authority: the red-gowned Philosopher in the Orrery, the Prospero of the Air Pump, and the smiths who hammer white-hot iron in the forge pictures. Held within the circle of light are those who learn (a man taking notes, an attentive child) and those who are overcome by what they see – the girls disturbed by the fluttering cockatoo in its evacuated globe, the boy who turns away from the heat and noise of hammer and anvil. There are also those distracted by each other: the young couple looking into each other’s eyes in the Air Pump, the children who are intrigued by the mechanism of the Orrery but are not, like the man taking notes, attending to the lecture. And there are figures deep in thought, staring seriously at forge or experiment.
Iconographically, they parallel those nativities in which the byre is lit brightly. Wright’s philosopher then takes the part of Joseph, the contemplatives those of the shepherds. In nativities, too, the attendant crowd goes about its business, more or less oblivious to the Light of the World. Whatever significance they may have had for Wright these forge and candlelight pictures now stand as symbolic representations of the birth of a new world. They read today, not as pictures of science and technology, but as pictures about the impact of science and technology on people. The power science was to give is celebrated, but the possibility of inhuman experimentation (the figure of the boy on the right of the Air Pump is taken from the plate in Hogarth’s Stages of Cruelty showing an anatomy lecture) and the smoke of mass industrialisation is also prefigured.
The Tate exhibition is beautifully and rationally hung. The portrait of Brooke Boothby is in a room labelled ‘Melancholy and Sensibility’, along with a scene from Romeo and Juliet, The Widow of an Indian Chief watching over the arms of her deceased husband, The Lady in Milton’s Comus and other pictures essentially literary in their inspiration. Here the provincial label really does fail to stick: but the pictures also have little of the strangeness which makes so many of the others memorable. In his landscape paintings the emotional content is nearly always heightened by some natural phenomenon – from the mild pink glow of sunset, or the glimmer of moonlight, through the stronger effects of a rainbow to the violence of volcanic eruptions. The only pictures I know which match these in feeling are those by later American painters – Church and Head, for example – who dealt more frankly with symbolic landscape.
That Wright was a painter of premonition, a provincial who saw what change in the provinces would bring, is only one possibility: there are others. The exhibition presents him impartially, and I can think of few recent shows in which the detailed catalogue entries add so much to one’s understanding of the pictures. Seen together, the Wright exhibition and the magisterially re-hung British rooms in the Tate refresh and enlarge one’s idea of what British painting achieved. In the rehanging, another English provincial, Stanley Spencer, is rescued from shamefaced presentation on the tea-room staircase and given the space he deserves. In a vaulted red-walled gallery, dominated at first glance by Ward’s Goredale Scar, Frith’s Derby Day hangs on the line – larger and lusher Victorian paintings mount the wall above it. The emulation of 19th-century gallery arrangements gets a lot of pictures into a scrum. It is the kind of scrum they were painted for and to see them displayed in this way is the gallery equivalent of an ‘authentical’ musical performance. The levelling effect of reproduction tends to make one forget the variation in scale which vertical hangings encouraged. Painters like Frith (and Alma Tadema and Meissonnier) built great reputations on brilliantly painted, detailed (sometimes very small) pictures. To find the Frith, as one does here, in something like the environment of its first Academy exhibition, in which a rail had to be set up to hold back the crowd, suggests not only the competitive advantages smaller pictures might have had but also makes one consider the extend to which other genres evolved to fill niches on the Academy wall.