2 February 2014

Wright of Derby at the Holburne Bath

Joseph Wright (1734 – 1797), often known as Wright of Derby, ought to be the techies’ favourite painter, if only because of one of the masterpieces of British painting, his An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1778 (below left), now in the National Gallery in London. In the 40 years or so of Wright’s life as an artist, a mere 18 months was spent in the city of Bath. It is this brief period which the exhibition, Joseph Wright of Derby, Bath and Beyond, at the Holburne Museum in Bath seeks to illuminate.

Wright had spent nearly 20 years in Liverpool and two years in Europe before arriving in Bath at the start of the season in the winter of 1775. His intention was to take advantage of the fashionable spa’s demand for portraiture after the departure for London of Gainsborough, whose landscape work around Bath was the subject of an exhibition at the Holburne in 2011. It has to be said that many of the exhibits in this show provide context for Wright’s time in Bath rather than stem directly from it. So on entry we see the The Alchymist 1771/1795 (above right) and later Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples 1776/80 (poster) and the fine The Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome 1775–1776 (below).

The Italian pictures were finished in Bath and put on view for a fee before Wright left for good in June 1777, but obviously had no direct local connection. The exhibition does, however, include some portraits of prominent locals like the Rev Dr Wilson and Miss Catherine Macaulay 1776, “painted for reputation” (left) and Agnes Witts, nee Travell, 1776 (below right), but Wright, who produced many portraits of Derbyshire’s pioneers of the industrial revolution, seemed to have found his Bath clients difficult: “fantastical and whimmy”. The oval grisailles of William Hayley and Eliza Hayley 1776 (below left) are well worth seeing and overall the exhibition provides an opportunity to view a body of Wright’s work, something normally only possible at Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

The Holburne has two Wrights of its own, which a visitor might miss on the landings: The Dead Soldier, 1789 (below left) and a recent gift, Elizabeth Balguy née Gould c1783 (below right).

Joseph Wright of Derby, Bath and Beyond will be at the Holburne until 5 May and at Derby Museum and Art Gallery later in the year.

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