Wright there: Derby artist’s sojourn in Bath revisited

Joseph Wright of Derby was, for a short while, Joseph Wright of Bath. A new exhibition in the Somerset city sets out to show why

It probably won’t be used on the city’s promotional material, but for one of the 18th century’s greatest English artists Bath proved an ideal place to come for a midlife crisis.

An exhibition opening this weekend will for the first time explore the little known period during which Joseph Wright of Derby was, for 18 months at least, Joseph Wright of Bath.

The show is at the city’s Holburne Museum, where the curator Amina Wright – “no relation” – said she had been intrigued by the connection since she arrived there in 2001. “Everyone has kept very quiet about it and it is not something that has been much researched,” she said. “I wanted to find out more. What happened? Why did he come? What did he do? Why he did he leave so soon afterwards?”

The exhibition argues that his time in Bath played a pivotal role in his later development as an artist. And it shows that there is more to Wright of Derby than the usual assessment: yes, he was a masterful, genius painter of the industrial revolution, but he was also more than that.

There were a number of reasons Wright came to Bath, one being his health.

In 1775 Wright, just back from Italy, was overworked, exhausted and stressed. Bath, with its relaxing waters, would have been seen as the perfect solution. How ill he really was is another question. “He’s a real moaner,” said Wright (the curator). “In his letters it’s, ‘I’ve got a headache’ and, ‘I can’t see very well’ and, ‘I’ve got rheumatism in my head and my bowels.’ What does that mean?”

But there were also professional reasons for his relocation. The pre-eminent Bath portrait painter in Bath was Thomas Gainsborough, who had just left for London. Could there have been a gap in the market?

Wright, though, proved to be a spectacular failure as a celebrity portrait painter.Among the reasons cited for his failure were his grumpiness and his terrible salesmanship. Plus, he had little reputation in Bath and he was a slow worker.

His failure did mean, however, that he could finish two important and spectacular paintings, of Vesuvius and fireworks in Rome, which proved incredibly popular.

He also met William Hayley, an encourager of lost, depressed artists who had a direct effect on his later work, in which Wright began exploring subjects in contemporary sentimental literature.

“I’m seeing his time in Bath as a midlife crisis, a time when he decides who he is,” said Wright.

During the time in Bath, Wright conceded that he would not be the leading artist of his generation; he would not be the next Gainsborough. And he went home to Derby. Today, however, his works hang in the national collections and many consider him a superstar.

Coinciding with the show is a gift of a Wright of Derby portrait from the Holburne’s former chairman David Posnett. The portrait, of Elizabeth Balguy, will be the Holburne’s first owned Wright of Derby work, and is the third work to be gifted under the new cultural gifts scheme introduced by the government last year, which allows tax relief on nationally important works gifted during owners’ lives.

The small, revelatory show in Bath will travel to Derby in the spring. The Holburne says it is not trying to claim the artist, although Wright the curator has taken a photograph of a label on the back of one portrait.

It says: “Joseph Wright of Bath, formerly Derby”.

• Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond is at the Holburne from 25 January to 5 May.

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