Derby Guide - Famous Derbeians - Joseph Wright
Joseph Wright, Derbyshire painter, was born at number 28 Irongate, Derby on September 3rd 1734, son of John Wright, a well established attorney in the town. His mother was Hannah, daughter of another attorney, Edward Brookes.
He attended the Derby Free Grammar School then at the age of 16 or 17 went to London to study in the studio of the fashionable portrait painter Thomas Hudson whose pupils had previously included Joshua Reynolds. His training lasted from 1751-53 with a second spell in 1756-57 and returning to Derby he began his own career by taking portrait commissions from the landed gentry and middle classes in the area.
Portrait painting gave him the finance to be able to be able do works of his own artistic interest, namely on scientific subjects and landscapes.
Wright had several important scientists and thinkers as his personal friends, includind Erasmus Darwin, John Whitehurst, the Derby clock and instrument maker and Peter Burdett, a surveyor and mathmetician. Darwin had formed a group, later known as the Lunar Society because they met at around the time of a full moon in order to be able to ride home by moonlight. Wright's connections allowed him to meet other members of the society and his interest in science and technology grew resulting in his 3 major scientific paintings, 'A philospher lecturing upon an Orrery' (1765), 'An experiment with an air-pump' (1768) and 'The Alchymist discovering phosphorus' (1771). These were probably inspired by scientific lectures he had attended. He was particularly stimulated by the impact of the light in these experiments and by the colours of combustion which inspired him, between 1771 and 1773 to paint works depicting workmen in smithies and forges, dramatised by nightime sttings, figures illuminated by the glow of hot metal.
He visited Italy between 1773 and 1775 which inspired his paintings Girandola or night by the Tiber and Vesuvius.
He returned to Derby and spent much time painting portraits of the industrialists and mill owners of Derbyshire and their families, including Richard Arkwright and Jedediah Strutt. He also painted some industrial scenes including one of Cromford Mill, where the windows are lit up as the night shift works.
Joseph Wright married Anne, daughter of Joseph Swift of Staveley, at Ault Hucknall in Derbyshire in 1773. They had 2 sons and 3 daughters. They lived at old St Helen's House from 1772 to 1793, on lease from William Fitzherbert, one of his patrons, and brother of Lord St Helens.
When his wife died, Wright moved into John Whitehurst's former home at 26/27 Queen St, Derby, which had also been the childhood home of John Flamstead. He died there in 1797, attended by his friend Erasmus Darwin.
Many of Wrights works can be found at the Derby Art Gallery.
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