The eighteenth-century artist Joseph Wright of Derby had, in the words of one eminent critic, “an almost preternatural ability to render the effects of artificial light in darkened spaces.” Influenced by Caravaggio and de la Tour, he demonstrated this ability in such works as The Orrery and Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Yet a working stay in the fashionable spa town of Bath, unsuccessful as it was financially, seems to have set him on a different and much more rewarding artistic path, as a new exhibition in the town demonstrates.
Joseph Wright came to stay in Bath in November 1775 having spent the previous two years painting in Italy. He was well known and respected in art circles for his ‘candlelights’, paintings where different sources of light illuminated an otherwise dark interior and had also had a successful spell in Liverpool as a portrait painter. Indeed, so well had he done there that a rival complained he “swallows up all the business…a portrait painter of the first class.”
Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by a fine example of one of Wright’s ‘candlelights’ in the shape of The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (exhibited 1771, reworked 1795), which portrays the accidental discovery of phosphorous, the bright stream of gas shooting out of a hole in the alembic. It is ironic since the alchemist, who is attempting the forlorn act of turning base metal into gold, has actually made a true scientific discovery yet does not realise it.
However, despite his flourishing career in England, according to Wright’s niece Hannah, the artist “determined to go to Italy” at the end of 1773 because he was “not satisfied with his own performances, & anxious to acquire all information in his power respecting his profession.” When there, Wright buried himself in the country’s classical culture, a professional’s grand tour as he worked constantly, sketching the ancient sites and attempting detailed landscapes for the first time in his career.
Wright had taken his new wife with him to Italy and, although the two years there had been mostly enjoyable and productive, they were also costly and his absence from England meant his name had already faded among the artistic cognoscenti. So, armed with a letter of introduction from Erasmus Darwin, his physician and the grandfather of Charles, he left Derbyshire with his wife, daughter Anna Romana, and sister Anna Elizabeth, known as Nancy, to settle in Bath for the season, with the aim of earning portrait commissions.
Portraiture was a lucrative but highly competitive business in Georgian England and Bath had been the preserve of Thomas Gainsborough since 1758. He was in high demand and the quality of his work and personal connections saw him become an RA and then decamp to London in 1774. Therefore, as Hannah was to write in 1850, “it was thought there was a good opening for a Portrait Painter.” It is also possible that Wright had chosen Bath for its health benefits. His wife had suffered two miscarriages while in Italy and he himself was always complaining of physical ailments.
The family took up residence at 30 Brock Street, a busy thoroughfare between The Circus and the recently built Royal Crescent. Visitors to the town would promenade along the road and it was fashionable to view the work in artists’ studios en route, so Wright’s position should have been advantageous. Yet within months he was complaining in a letter about a lack of commissions: “You’ll scarce believe I have not had one Portrait bespoke, they one and all say it is a pity I should paint Portraits [rather than landscapes]. Should they continue in that way of thinking, they will either pity me or starve me to death.” (January 1776.)
His frustration only increased when he was commissioned to paint what he hoped would be a full-length portrait of the duchess of Cumberland, sister-in-law to the King. But the painting shrank from a full-length to a head only which, as Wright said, “has cost me much anxiety…. the great people are so fantastical & whimmy [i.e. capricious], they create a word of trouble.” (February 1776.) It seems that even the head portrait was not completed and Wright discovered from speaking to one of the Duchess’s servants that word had spread about him in Bath to the effect that he was a fine painter of ‘fire’ – his astonishing scientific subject paintings which displayed his brilliant mastery of light and shade, but was viewed as a risk as a portraitist, and this despite his earlier success in Liverpool.
Wright decided upon a different course and had by now made the acquaintance of Dr Thomas Wilson, a wealthy Bath resident, noted for his charitable works, and very well connected. “The D.r is a very popular Man & is fighting in my Cause stoutly,” wrote Wright in a letter of April 1776 where he states that he is painting “a half length of D.r Wilson & his adopted Daughter Miss Macaulay, this is for reputation only, but you must not say so.” In other words, Wright was not being paid for the work but he hoped it would act as an artistic calling card to advertise his skill. Given a place of prominence in the Reverend Wilson’s house in Alfred Street, it would be seen by the most fashionable – and wealthiest – of Bath society who might then be inspired to commission the artist themselves.
Wilson was a clergyman who had been visiting Bath to take the waters since 1743 and settled there permanently on the death of his wife in 1772. The adopted girl in the work is Catherine Sophia Macaulay, daughter of the eminent historian, Mrs. Catherine Macaulay. She was a radical and early feminist who, between 1763 and 1783 wrote, in eight volumes, The History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line, four volumes of which had appeared by the time she moved to Bath in 1774 with the aim, as for so many others, of improving her health at the spa. Wilson was then 71 years of age, but the couple began co-habiting the following year at his house in Alfred Street along with Catherine Sophia, who was only 18 months’ old when her father, a physician, died. Wilson is said to have adopted the young girl in April 1775 when she was ten years old and the family were living in Alfred House by the autumn of 1776.
Wilson was himself childless and had lost his own mother at 18 months of age so the portrait of the two has a particular poignancy, the old man having found a family for the first time at what was then a very advanced age and the young girl, looking expectantly at the kind gentleman who had given her and her mother a home. However, Wilson’s domestic arrangement with Mrs Macaulay was seen as scandalous at the time and the London satirists mocked them remorselessly.Wilson was besotted, however, with his much younger lover, so much so that he handed over the deeds of Alfred House to her and left her an annuity in his will of £400.
Yet he was stunned in December 1778 when he wrote that: “To the great surprise of the world Mrs Macaulay without giving me the slightest notice at the age of 52 [she was then actually 47] married a YOUNG SCOTCH LOON of 21.” William Graham was mate to a ship’s surgeon of the East India Company and younger brother of Catharine Macaulay’s quack doctor James. There followed an unseemly episode in which Mrs Macaulay refused to hand back the deeds to the property which Wilson had transferred to her and rejected his demands to forego the annuity. The Reverend Doctor then threatened Mrs Macaulay with blackmail as he had in his possession letters between her and Graham which “would have blasted her honour for ever.” A pamphlet was being prepared to publish the correspondence and it had already been advertised for sale. Edmund Rack, a Quaker and writer, acted as intermediary between Mrs Macaulay and Wilson with her brother representing her interests. A deal was eventually made whereby Wilson agreed to pay Mrs Macaulay £800 and she would “deliver up all the securities that Dr Wilson had given her, and the manuscript of the narrative, with all the letters and papers relative hereto, should be burnt.” Amusingly Rack adds: “I am sure [Dr Wilson] ought to give me 100£ in his will for it is a very good bargain for him – the house alone being worth 1400£ – but I don’t expect anything.”
The portrait of John Milnes came about through Wright’s Derby connections, the artist having painted his brother some years earlier. John Milnes came from a wealthy West Yorkshire merchant family, dealers in woollen cloth, silk and cotton, and he was everything Wright could wish for, struggling as he was at this time to gain commissions in Bath. Milnes was, as exhibition curator Amina Wright (no relation) says, “a young bachelor with money to spend, contacts to make and polite tastes to cultivate.” His portrait shows a finely dressed young man, gesturing, long cane in hand, towards a sailing ship in the bay behind, a possible allusion to the family trade in importing raw cotton from the colonies for production in the mills. It is a fine work in Wright’s ‘small full length’ format as he described it, first seen in 1771 with the painting of Mr & Mrs Thomas Coltman (NG). Milnes bought it on completion and it is estimated that he spent more than £1,000 on landscapes and subject paintings by Wright until his money began to run out in the late 1780s.
However, as Amina Wright points out in the exhibition catalogue, “as a slow meticulous worker, Wright would have been hard pressed to satisfy those passing through Bath for a month or two. The ability to produce impressive results quickly was a speciality of the spa’s portrait-makers…. As an artist whose particular gifts were for perceptive character and beautiful effects of light, [he] was not suited to quick-draw commerce.” Wright was also blunt with his subjects and would not tolerate flighty clients such as the woman who turned up for four sittings wearing a different dress each time. But while he may have lacked Gainsborough’s effortless charm with his subjects, he was considerably cheaper, charging 20 guineas for a three-quarter-length portrait for which Gainsborough would have demanded three times as much.
Whilst Wright may have struggled as a portraitist in Bath, he made money by exhibiting other paintings in Brock Street such as The Annual Girandola at the Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome (1775-6) and Vesuvius in Eruption (1776-80), both works from his Italian sojourn. Yet this must have been a bittersweet achievement for him as he was only able to work on such pieces due to the fact that he had not succeeded in gaining portrait commissions. And Wright himself knew early in his stay in Bath that he had made a mistake in moving there. Writing in January 1776 he states, “I believe I am come to the wrong place” and the following month he was complaining: “I much repent coming here.”
Wright’s wife was pregnant with their second child in the spring of 1776 and the cost of hiring a doctor in Bath would have been far higher than the care his surgeon brother could provide back home in Derbyshire. In addition, Wright was himself suffering from a variety of ailments including “rheumatism in my head & bowels”, “trembling & great weakness in my Knees” and poor vision, possibly from applying himself too assiduously to his work in overly dark, candle-lit rooms.
After the birth of the child, a son also named Joseph, the artist returned to Bath in the autumn of 1776, moving to cheaper premises next door in Brock Street. His second stay in Bath was even worse than the first from a financial view. The American War of Independence had badly affected the British economy. With less money available to spend, art suffered disproportionately as a luxury item. It was even rumoured that Gainsborough had himself left for London due to a lack of commissions, so perhaps Wright was pursuing a lost cause form the start. He was, nevertheless, not a poor man. His family was well-off and, as Amina Wright states he “had enjoyed a private landlord’s income since the death of his father in 1767, and…was already earning good interest on loans and mortgages.” But none of this was sufficient to maintain Wright in the lifestyle required of a gentleman in Bath and it is also interesting to note that whereas Wright had only one sister, Nancy, in tow with his wife and daughter on first coming to the town, he now had his wife, two children, Nancy and her older sibling Hannah with him. He presumably also employed servants in Brock Street and all this in a smaller property. Given his precarious financial situation there, it seems a triumph of hope over experience on his part.
Wright himself was not a political operator when in Bath, or by nature. Unlike his more successful contemporaries or near-contemporaries such as Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, he failed to mix in polite society, probably not finding it to his liking, was unable to ‘sell’ himself sufficiently to the wealthy clientele who frequented the town, and never found a wealthy local patron to support him when he was residing there. Lack of commissions in Bath finally forced Wright and his family to leave Bath for good and they returned to Derbyshire on 13th June 1777. Yet, as Amina Wright succinctly puts in it her catalogue “the fallow months in Bath after the exhausting Italian tour enabled him to review and assimilate what he had seen abroad, to become aware of his social, commercial and physical weaknesses and explore his artistic and creative strengths.” It was as if Wright needed to be back in the healthy Derbyshire air to refresh his artistic palette. Bath may have proved a salutary lesson for Wright, yet, as Amina Wright says, the artist “built a new identity for himself as a landscapist that gradually gave his career and income a new lease of life. Thirty or more views of Vesuvius contributed to the comfort of the growing Wright family well into the 1790s, and Derbyshire’s landscape, so rich in minerals, also became a source of wealth for the artist [which] assured him regular commissions.” Indeed, Wright had become increasingly tired of portraiture in later life as had his Bath predecessor Gainsborough, who had himself written that he was “sick of portraits, and wish very much to….walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.”
On occasion, Wright would combine an element of portraiture within a landscape, such as his majestic Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of her Deceased Husband of 1785. The idea is probably based on a contemporary non-fiction account by James Adair (1775) in History of the American Indians where he states that the widow of a “war-leader” is “obliged for the first moon, to sit…under his mourning war-pole, which is decked with all his martial trophies.” Her calm, mournful pose is in contrast to the furious reaction of nature itself in the background with an erupting volcano, forked lightning and fiery cloud formations. It is an extraordinary work which was exhibited at a one-man exhibition in Covent Garden in 1785 and as Wright himself wrote: “I never painted a picture so universally liked.”
Although Amina Wright does not agree with the perceived view that Wright’s Bath episode was “a disaster, a mismatch of ‘solid’ provincialism bewildered by the expectations of an intellectually shallow elite,” it is difficult to see it in any other light. If anything, the exhibition and his letters back to friends and family while in Bath indicate this very clearly. However, perhaps it is true that without this experience Wright would not have become the highly successful artist who found peace during the last two decades of his life in his home county, among the friends and family members who had always supported him. For Wright, this was his natural state rather than trying to establish himself in the often meretricious and impermanent world of Georgian Bath.
The exhibition continues at The Holburne Museum, Bath, until May 5 and then moves to Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Links: