Review of Matthew Craske's Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Darkness
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2020
Paintings of the night, particularly those in which the all-encroaching darkness is temporarily dispelled by human activity or natural phenomena, have proved perennially beguiling. Whether a mediaeval nativity scene in which the Christ Child glows like a new-born lightbulb in the manger, Rembrandt’s mis-named Night Watch (it takes place during the day), the odd nocturne by Whistler, Van Gogh’s livid Starry Night or Edward Hopper’s hypnotically enervated Night Hawks, there is something in each which chimes with Dylan Thomas’s directive to rage against the dying of the light.
Joseph Wright of Derby is another artist who might spring to mind as one of those who have notably succeeded in summoning up night’s equivocal ambience. Wright’s best-known work is probably An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump from 1768 which, along with similar canvases such as The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone and A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, exemplifies his flair for composing scenes suffused with dramatic chiaroscuro. Wright’s art has traditionally been considered against the background of the Enlightenment-informed world of the early Industrial Revolution, in which the wonders of innovative mechanisation demarcated the route to new vistas of human knowledge and capitalist opportunity. Despite his undoubted artistic prowess, equal to that of any English artist active during his lifetime, Wright’s being forever known as ‘of Derby’ has tended to frame his achievements in terms of a provincial prodigy beavering away in East Midlands obscurity, whilst the likes of Gainsborough and Reynolds were the toast of the London cognoscenti. In Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Darkness, Matthew Craske is here to put the record straight.
As his starting point, Craske portrays Wright’s artistic mission as re-appropriating night as a source of meditative reverie rather than the raucous playground that it had become in the work of eighteenth-century precursors such as William Hogarth. However, he is all too aware that “the description of Wright as one of those who reclaimed the night for contemplative souls is not conventional and will not be familiar”. Craske’s other foundational tenet is a departure in certain crucial respects from what had hitherto been the standard work on Wright’s life and career, namely Benedict Nicolson’s two-volume monograph published in 1968. Whereas Nicolson’s work is entitled Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, Craske pointedly maintains that ‘his’ Joseph Wright was, on the contrary, a “painter of darkness,” the difference being that when the earlier book was published in the 1960s, the artist was claimed as a figure whose interest in scientific innovation foreshadowed the post-war movement to embrace the “white heat of technology.” Conversely, Craske sees in Wright a much more complex and multifaceted character than previously portrayed. Whilst on the one hand Wright may have used his natural bent for melancholic rumination on “death, loss of innocence, decay and old age” to summon up his most heartfelt artistic statements, such tenebrous tendencies also proved highly profitable, in that he knew how to “merchandise morbidity and misery” by producing work filled with the kind of emotionally heightened doom and gloom that many customers found curiously pleasurable.
Craske divides up his substantial survey into two sections: one devoted to the artist’s identity, and the other providing an overview of some of his most significant pictures. The idea of Wright as an unorthodox figure in terms of both his art and personal outlook is given prominence at the outset. In his own lifetime the artist was referred to as “bold, eccentric Wright, that hates the day,” a hermit-like figure who sought solace and inspiration within night’s enfolding shade. Such inclinations also explain why, commercial considerations permitting, he repudiated the lure of the metropolis in favour of Derbyshire’s semi-rural landscape. This repudiation and the way it was publicised, mainly by William Hayley, poet, biographer, and one of the artist’s most steadfast champions, did much to effectively ‘sell’ Wright’s ascetic image to several important patrons. In his depictions of Derbyshire’s uncompromising scenery Wright tapped into a mid-eighteenth-century taste for contrasting the natural world in all its unspoilt authenticity with the debased attractions of city life. His Dovedale by Moonlight is a case in point: with its looming heights and silvery water, it offers a forbidding prospect to any frivolous sightseers who might have stumbled across its nocturnal grandeur. When he wasn’t turning out such sombre epics, Wright practised portrait painting as a lucrative parallel venture. This also provided him with an entrée into the social circles of several prominent businessmen and wealthy factory owners, such as Richard Arkwright, whose likeness he produced in 1789. In pointing out these contrasting artistic aims, Craske once again shows that Wright’s predisposition to melancholia was never so all-encompassing as to swamp his commercial instincts.
Had Wright attracted an audience for his work purely on the basis of being a reclusive enigma, the chances are that public and patrons alike would soon have moved on to the next artistic outlier to tickle their fancy. As it was, however, his sublime gift for juxtaposing night’s gloom with sudden luminescence kept his audiences enthralled. Wright’s working assumption in this regard was that “certain types of nocturnal spectacle…had a proven capacity to draw a crowd and generate strong impulsive responses within it.” To his admirers the artist became, in effect, something of a conjuror able to summon up bewitching, magical effects. These were derived from sustained, studious cogitation allied to the practical employment of some sort of camera obscura —it being, according to his niece, the artist’s “mechanical genius which enabled him to construct an apparatus for painting candlelight pieces and effects of firelight”. Added to this, Wright seems to have developed an acute understanding of how “dark adaptation” works, this being the process by which the eye adjusts its sensitivity in response to moving from a brightly-lit area to a dark one, so much so that the artist was able to “mimic in paint the distress it caused the senses”. Such skilfulness and heightened observational faculties were presented to his contemporaries as the fruits of Wright’s self-imposed brooding exile from society at large. Here was someone who, again according to his niece’s recollection, “ceased to walk the street by daylight,” opting instead to burn the midnight oil in pursuit of an ever-greater refinement of his artistry. In this respect, Wright can be imagined as not unlike the ecstatically obsessional figure depicted in The Alchymist of 1771, shown kneeling before a vessel filled with phosphorous which illuminates his workshop. Wright’s rendering of this scene with such fashionably gothic overtones testifies to his naturally lugubrious inclinations as much as to his ability to tap into the latest cultural trends.
Fuelling Wright’s desire to absent himself from a world in which the harsh light of day displayed his fellow humans in all their frailties and foibles was a significant streak of arrogance in his character, which Craske pinpoints. In essence, there was “a prevailing understanding that he was exceptional and superior, and that others were bound to be jealous of his gifts,” added to which he was “afflicted by a species of crabbed individualism which prevented him from understanding the culture of fraternity that was so important to the visual arts in the late eighteenth century”. Wright had at one time been a member of the Society of Artists, a precursor of the Royal Academy (RA), and had hobnobbed with the art world’s great and good, as well as attending an audience with George III. However, his departure for Italy in 1773 effectively saw him cut his ties with the Society and, on his return to England, he retired for all intents and purposes to Derby. Hayley, his ever-devoted promoter, made much of Wright’s decision to foreswear his metropolitan existence in Ode to Mr Wright of Derby, which condemned London’s artistic circles as little more than a series of “dark cabals” that had caused the artist to suffer a nervous collapse and seek solace in his native county. Even so, Wright continued to exhibit in London from time to time and kept a workshop there while also, in the guise of ‘associate elect,’ maintaining a fractious relationship with the RA. (He had made it known that he attributed his ‘marginal status’ in the organisation to institutionalised snobbery which manifested itself in disdain for non-Home County geniuses such as himself.) Although the outsize chip on Wright’s shoulder was undoubtedly genuine, his adoption of the role of romantic outsider also earned him a useful amount of cachet amongst a cross-section of potential buyers, and gained him the outraged sympathy of rich local patrons. Following his death in 1797, Wright’s reputation was well served by his biographers, John Leigh Philips and Thomas Moss Tate, who successfully promulgated his reputation as a sensitive creature whose melancholic fragility raised his art above that of his contemporaries, whilst at the same time forcing him into solitary contemplation of nature’s sublime beauty. If, from this distance, the efforts of Wright and his admirers to elevate a somewhat curmudgeonly capriciousness into rarefied genius can seem somewhat dubious, nevertheless his surviving work remains a testament to his undeniable artistic skills.
Having painstakingly investigated Wright’s character, Craske goes on to discuss some of the finest pictures on which his reputation largely rests. Naturally, this overview begins with a consideration of the nocturnal scenes already referred to, along with such other examples as Three Men Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight and An Academy by Lamplight, in both of which the artist’s ability to imbue each scene with a silken, shadowy patina is dramatically displayed. Returning to An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, Craske presents an analysis which traces the various interpretations that have been made of its imagery, particularly in terms of whether this work shows the artist to have been an “ardent protagonist of a scientific revolution” or, conversely, expresses his “gothic angst” at the excesses of science.
Turning to Wright’s several depictions of elderly men, whether the cowering old-timer startled by the skeletal figure of death in The Old Man and Death or, in A Philosopher by Lamplight, the hermit discovered in his rough-hewn cave, Craske notes that such examples were in keeping with the artist’s predilection for gloomy musings, one of the few signature subjects that he often revisited. Another favoured motif was that of artisans and labourers going about their tasks. In works such as The Farrier’s Shop, Dale Abbey, The Blacksmith’s Shop and The Iron Forge Viewed from Within, Wright the social conservative conveys his admiration for skilled men fulfilling their God-given station in life by toiling away before a roaring furnace in some smoke-blackened workshop or —as in Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent— ensuring that foxholes are blocked in a moonlit landscape in time for the next day’s hunt, so that the local gentry can revel in their bloodsports. These same bigwigs would have been amongst the admirers of the many landscapes replete with classical references which stemmed from Wright’s time in Italy, and which would have conferred a measure of cultural kudos on the wealthy Midlands businessmen who displayed them in their palatial homes. Wright’s sense of the grandiose, particularly in scenes inspired by historical or literary subject matter, takes on something akin to a sculptural dimension when employing human figures to convey dramatic emotions. His Indian Widow and Penelope Unravelling Her Web by Moonlight, both painted in 1785, show their central female figures epitomising pensive, resilient melancholy, whilst Dead Soldier transposes that same sense of monumental gravitas to a contemporary subject, a rank-and-file warrior dead on an eighteenth-century battlefield. Unlike the protagonists of celebrated contemporary works as Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe, Wright’s soldier is not a prominent, inspirational leader. In this way, as Craske points out, Wright once again placed himself outside the academy’s ethos —which promoted the memorialisation of national heroes— by opting instead to evoke the pity of war in this pathetic commemoration of an ordinary foot soldier.
In concluding this insightfully comprehensive study of Wright as the “painter of darkness,” Craske locates the artist within “a wider Protestant culture in which there was a growing need to confront the deepest concerns of mankind’s mortal condition.” In a post-Reformation society that had abjured Catholic imagery as a focus of spiritual cathexis, there remained a need to release human emotion in its most passionately transfigurative manifestations. The “culture of feeling” as it arose in the eighteenth century was one to which Wright both subscribed in his art, and adapted for his own individualistic purposes in order to play the part of cloistered tragedian. He remains a somewhat ambivalent, even elusive character— a virtuoso, in more ways than one, of artistic legerdemain and shadow-play. --Mark Jones