Self portrait by British painter Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Painting in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo by The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

England’s Caravaggio

Matthew Craske’s book challenges the prevailing idea of Joseph Wright as product and servant of rationalism and Enlightenment


“Long seen as a quintessentially modern and progressive figure – one of the artistic icons of the English Enlightenment – [Matthew] Craske overturns this traditional view of [Wright of Derby].” So states the publicity for a new study of England’s greatest realist artist, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), the painter who has a claim to be called England’s Caravaggio. But Matthew Craske demonstrates “the extent to which Wright, rather than being a spokesman for scientific progress, was actually a melancholic and sceptical outsider, who increasingly retreated into a solitary, rural world of philosophical and poetic reflection, and whose artistic vision was correspondingly dark and meditative.”

Matthew Craske, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Darkness, Paul Mellon Centre for British Art (distr. Yale University Press), 24 November 2020 £45.

The standard view is that Wright lacks Caravaggio’s terribilità. While the Italian was a firebrand set on shocking society and overturning decorum with his blend of gory sensationalism and uncanny precision, Wright’s art has been seen as the embodiment of rationalism, the English polar opposite to the Italian trailblazer.

However, Matthew Craske, of Oxford Brookes University, begs to differ. His thesis is that Wright was prey to dark psychological forces that drove him to depict the darkness in his famous scenes of science and industry in nocturnal settings. Wright’s astonishing A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766, Derby Museum) and Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump (1768, National Gallery) are masterpieces of clarity, composition and human insight.

Wright’s unique attributes give ample reason to describe Wright as Britain’s first world-class artist

In Experiment, we see the master of ceremonies (part scientist, part magician) about to demonstrate the qualities of a vacuum by activating new apparatus that will kill the bird in the glass bulb. A soft-hearted girl hides her eyes while her younger sister gazes on with apprehensive curiosity; all the while, a young couple take advantage of darkness and proximity to flirt. Although one can cite Caravaggio’s Baroque naturalism and Georges de la Tour’s candlelight scenes as obvious precursors, Wright’s unique attributes give ample reason to describe Wright as Great Britain’s first world-class artist.

Craske sets his book in competition with – though not outright opposition to – Benedict Nicolson’s esteemed two-volume monograph Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light (1968), which established Wright as an essential figure in the canon of British art. Craske suggests that the image of Wright as the epitome of scientific rationalism and indicative of the rise of bourgeois culture was a product of 1960s Marxist art historiography and that there are alternative interpretations that were overlooked.

Joseph Wright was born in Derby into a prosperous family. He trained as a portraitist in London and became a journeyman portraitist, travelling the Midlands, based for a time in Liverpool. Wright created a sensation in the 1760s with his two aforementioned nocturnal scenes of science when they were exhibited in London (at the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy). The fame of these pictures was sustained and disseminated through reproduction prints.

He married in 1773. From 1774 to 1775 he undertook a Grand Tour of Italy (with his wife), where he saw the antiquities of Rome and the art of the Renaissance. He recorded the dormant Vesuvius while in Naples and his paintings of an erupting Vesuvius – a touch of artistic licence – became popular when they were displayed upon his return to England. His portraiture business in Bath failed and he relocated to Derby, preferring to paint landscapes. Marked as a dissident, all the time becoming more and more reclusive (especially after the death of his wife), Wright wrestled with depression.

During his lifetime, Wright was portrayed as a sensitive artist who had retreated from the ugliness and vulgarity of modern life, a proto-Romantic figure. Located in a provincial city, Wright realised that his art was to liable to neglect and dismissal by the intelligentsia and patrons of the capital. The soubriquet “of Derby” was a marker of both Joseph Wright’s integrity and his marginality, albeit self-imposed:

Wright owed his living beyond portrait painting not just to exhibiting in London but to his capacity to maintain his commercial appeal among groups of landed and wealthy Midlanders, initially in that order of precedence. The vision of Derbyshire he sold to Midlanders was mainly of moonlit ruins, gloomy woods and deserted crags, the opposite to any part of the region that was undergoing revolutionary change.

Wright had the skill to translate the Peak District into the sublime Romantic visions equivalent to vedutti of the Roman campagna that the British nobility so prized.

Wright thrilled people with scenes that stimulated their sensations and allowed them to toy with danger

Like the director of blockbuster disaster movies, Wright stirred his audience with visions of forges, volcanoes and fireworks, mounting pyrotechnic displays that outshone other pictures at public exhibitions. As John Martin would do a century later with his apocalyptic tableaux, Wright thrilled people with scenes that stimulated their sensations and allowed them to toy with danger. Wright used an optical device called a camera obscura, which projected an accurate image of a scene, the outlines of which could then be traced on paper or canvas.

Craske mines historic biographies of the artist, which present him as proud, melancholic and dedicated to his craft. Wright was known to be introspective and anti-social, preferring to work at night whilst others slept. The artist described a pathological lassitude that haunted him:

A series of ill-health [sic] for sixteen years past (the core of my life) has subjected me to many idle days, and bowed down my attempts toward fame and fortune. I have laboured under an annual malady some years, four or five months at a time; under the influence of which I have dragged over four months without feeling a wish to take up my pencil.

This seems like a description of clinical depression.

Craske believes Wright’s art is more deeply driven by sentiment than rationality and that the painter worked parallel to early Gothic writers, such as Thomas Gray, author of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751). It is hard to disagree when one considers Wright’s painting of a cottage burning on a hillside under a night sky and his portrayal of a Native American widow absorbed by grief. Craske attributes two paintings of beggars to Wright, both of which seem reasonable. In a stark and brilliant painting, Wright depicted an old man confronted by Death in the form of a skeleton carrying an arrow. The man stares in horror at Death, blinded by the low sun, raising a hand uselessly to ward off his fate.

Craske assesses key works, interpreting with insight and diligently weighing historical records. He is amply conversant in the art of the period and the processes of patronage and printmaking. The illustrations in the book are good – crisp and not too dark, retaining legibility. Included are many of the superb mezzotint reproduction prints made by master printers authorised by Wright. Although Craske concedes that he has no unified overarching theory about Wright, he gives us a series of connected plausible insights that tease out the artist’s dark side and challenge the prevailing idea of Wright as product and servant of rationalism and Enlightenment.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover