One of Derby’s Favorite Son’s
The latest in the long line of Derby’s blue plaque is being awarded to Joseph Wright, in a joint celebration with the astronomer John Flamsteed, at the site of the old clockworks at 28 Queen Street, where they both lived at one point during their lives. In the case of Wright, this address is also where he died, making it the ideal place for a tribute to a man that many residents will have expected to be on the council’s list of recipients given his status, output and alternative title of Wright of Derby.
Joseph Wright the painter
Joseph, who was born in Iron Gate, Derby, on September 3rd 1734 , committed himself to the arts from an early age and left Derby between 1751 and 1753 to go and train with Thomas Hudson. He returned to Derby as a portraitist, later working across the Midlands and in Liverpool to make his trade, but it was his period in the 1760s that helped to make him famous and separated him from other artists. During this time he switched to his “candlelight” pictures, with a scientific leaning on the subject, in a style better known as the Chiaroscuro effect of using light and dark contrast. The most famous of these is A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery. Wright eventually abandoned this in the 1770s for landscapes, after an inspirational trip to Italy. During his career he exhibited at the Incorporated Society of Artists, from 1765-1776, and at the Royal Academy. The only real downturn in his career was his brief time in Bath where he tried, rather unsuccessfully, to take the place of the recently departed Gainsborough.
Wright made his name through his influence, connections and reputation as much as his paintings.
Stories about Joseph from across his career suggest that he was a bit of a perfectionist that always wanted to improve himself. Soon after coming back to Derby to try his hand as a portraitist, he returned to Hudson for another year to improve his craft. Many years later, when he was up for election as an associate of the Royal Society – for another year running – he removed himself from consideration because he had grown increasingly annoyed with the way the society hung his paintings. Following his departure, he made the decision to hold private exhibitions in Covant Garden, a move seen by some as radical for the time.
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Another apparent trait was his love of the provincial middle class and the opportunities that they provided for learning and studies. He is seen as one of the first artists to “express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution” thanks to his close contacts in the industry like Wedgewood and Arkwright; however, a large number of his contacts and friends came from the Lunar Society, such as the highly influential Erasmus Darwin. Some have questioned his choice of bride – Hannah Swift, also known as Ann – because, as a lead miner’s daughter, some believed her to be beneath him, but he had a happy marriage with her until her death in 1970 and three surviving children, to whom he is said to have been devoted. Darwin’s connections with Wright also had a medical nature and he began treating him for his asthma and nervous disposition, a complaint that included the paranoia that would eventually lead to his decision to move to Queen Street.
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Joseph Wright’s work and influences are widely celebrated and nowhere more so than in his home of Derby.
He died in his Derby home with his daughters by his side. The poor health that had been treated in middle age only worsened with age and he died on August 29th 1797, still under Darwin’s care. Wright was originally buried in St Alkmund’s church but was moved to the cemetery in Nottingham Road while it was being demolished in the 1960s. His tombstone, meanwhile, can be found at Derby cathedral. Examples of Wright’s work can be viewed all over the world, with Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump having a place in the collection of the National Gallery, but his more infamous work featuring the philosopher and the orrery remains in Derby at the city’s gallery and a replica of the orrery was erected in tribute outside his birthplace. Wright of Derby belongs to the city as much in death as during his life and they proudly remember him as one of their sons.