Joseph Wright of Derby

Portrait of Joseph Wright of Derby

Joseph Wright of Derby was an English landscape and portrait painter.  He is famed for his expressive landscapes and figure painting and was the first to depict aspects of the Industrial Revolution on canvas. He was born not surpassingly in Derby on 3rd September 1734 and died in there on 29th August 1797 aged 62.

Major Works

“Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight” (1765) 
“A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery” 
“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”
“Old Man and Death” (1774)

Biography Timeline

Joseph Wright of Derby was born on 3rd September 1734 in Irongate, Derby, England. His father was John Wright, a lawyer and Town Clerk of Derby and his mother was Hannah Brookes. He was the third of five children.

1751: Aged seventeen he decides to go to London to study painting and is trained under the portraitist Thomas Hudson, the teacher of Joshua Reynolds.

1753: He returns to, Derby painting portraits.

1756: He again goes to London to be Hudson’s assistant.

1757: He returns to Derby once more.

1760: He begins to paint candlelit scenes of various types, showing a delight in unusual lighting effects as he had seen in Dutch paintings. He uses tenebrism, i.e. an exaggerated form Chiaroscuro dark and light effects.

1763: He begins work paint “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery”.

1764: His mother dies.

1765: He paints “Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight”.

1766: He completes “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery”.

1767: His father dies.

1768: He lives in Liverpool for the next three years painting portraits. His reputation is finally made with “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”.

1771: He paints “The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone” which depicts the discovery of phosphorous in Germany during the previous century.

1773: Now making some money he marries Ann Swift, the daughter of a Derbyshire lead miner. He and his new wife set of for Italy with the painter John Downman. They arrive in Livorno in February.

1774: He paints “Old Man and Death”, “Cave at Evening” and “Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight”. The party had spent a considerable amount of time in Naples but apparently Wright never witnessed a major eruption of Mount Vesuvius but probably did see lesser episodes.

1775: Downman returns to Britain.

1776: He returns to England to set up as a portrait painter in Bath but is not successful there.

1777: He returns to Derby where he will spend the rest of his life. He becomes asthmatic and is treated by his friend Erasmus Darwin who in turn introduces him to other members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham. Two of his most important patrons are the potter Josiah Wedgewood and the industrialist Richard Arkwright.

1778: He paints “Grotto by the Seaside in the Kingdom of Naples with Banditti, Sunset”.

1779: He paints the first of his three versions of “Virgil’s Tomb”.

1780: He paints a portrait of “Peter Labilliere”.

1781: He frequently exhibits at the Society of Artists and he Royal Academy in London where he is elected an Associate.

1784: He is elected a Full Member of the Royal Academy but declines the offer believing he had been slighted in the past and breaks off all connections with them, although he does continue to exhibit there until 1794. He paints “Dovedale by “Moonlight”, “Dovedale by Sunlight” and “Indian Window”.

1790: His wife Ann dies on 17th August. He paints “Romeo and Juliet: The Tomb Scene”.

1794: Joseph Priestley leaves Britain after his house is burned down by rioters after his outspoken support of the French Revolution.

1795: He tours the English Lake District and paints “Rydal Waterfall”.

Joseph Wright of Derby died on 29th August 1797 at his home at 25 Queen Street in Derby. He was buried in the grounds of St Alkmund’s Church in Derby but this was demolished in 1968 to make way for a new ring road. His remains were taken to Nottingham Road Cemetery. In 1997 his tombstone was placed outside Derby Cathedral and then moved indoors in 2002.

Further Information

Examples of the paintings of Wright of Derby.