In 2009 Derby Museums celebrates two birthdays; the 130th anniversary of the founding of the first of its three museums, the Museum and Art Gallery, and rather fittingly, the 275th year since the birth of Derby’s first son, the artist Joseph Wright (1734–1797). It is therefore with great pride that we introduce Derby Museum’s chapter within this catalogue on this inaugural date.
As with many regional museums, Derby Museums’ collecting focus has inevitably been led with an interest in art and artists having a connection with the City and county. Far from being provincial in any negative sense of that word, it has come to broadly encompass works by artists who have been defined by the history and development of the City, but whose vision has stretched far beyond its boundaries. Joseph Wright, having been nicknamed ‘Wright of Derby’ during his own lifetime, chose not to shun the tag despite the limitations that it may have placed on his career. Instead, he accepted the brand, setting himself apart from the dictate of the Royal Academy and, in a suitably rebellious turn, aligning himself with the wild and romantic image of his native county. It is in this spirit that we may view Derby Museums’ contribution to this catalogue; as a peculiarly unique and diverse collection of art whose subject matter is far from limited, and which continues to evolve and push new boundaries.
In 1884, the new Museum and Art Gallery purchased with the aid of public subscription, Joseph Wright’s A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery in Which a Lamp Is Put in Place of the Sun. Few could have imagined then, that this awe-inspiring image of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment would mark the beginning for what has become the world’s largest collection of Joseph Wright’s art. Despite encompassing items as numerous as watercolour studies, early student drawings, eighteenth-century prints, letters, oil paintings, and even Wright’s palette, the heart of the Collection and the public favourite remains The Orrery. As one of a series of early subject paintings, The Orrery represents some of Wright’s earliest excursions into the realm of the ‘candlelight piece’ and the dramatic style for which his name would later become synonymous. An orrery, as an early form of planetarium, is depicted at the centre of Wright’s painting, captivating adults and children alike as they study the workings of the solar system. The people represented in this image demonstrate the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in action: they are being made aware of a world far beyond any provincial confines. This broad world view is reflected in many of Wright’s paintings, but perhaps with most clarity in his striking painting of The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband. British eighteenth-century colonial expansion had led to encounters with new world cultures, such as that of the Native Americans, and interest in them flourished. Yet, even as Wright developed this painting, the face of these cultures was changing and it is with some anxiety and sadness that he depicts his widow, solemnly contemplating the bitter conflict of elements that rage around her: a striking metaphor for the contemporary split between Britain and America and the War of Independence.
Over the years, the dedication that the Museum has placed in the collecting of Wright’s art has taken some erroneous, yet fascinating turns. Many eighteenth-century paintings seemingly deploying Wright’s trademark treatment of light have been taken in and mistakenly attributed; items that the Museum fondly describes as the ‘not-quite-Wrights’. In recent times, research into these mysterious wannabes has discovered works including Marine Scene, Louisburg, USA,attributed to Richard Paton, and Philip James de Loutherbourg’s River with Cattle. Many of these are receiving a much-needed reappraisal, and may finally be placed alongside the other stars of the eighteenth-century Collection; namely Benjamin West’s General Johnson Saving a Wounded French Officer from a North American Indian, to create a more complete view of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and Derby’s prominent place within it.
Though the scope of the Collection at Derby broadly encompasses a timescale which runs from the sixteenth century to the present day, it is seemingly impossible to escape the influence of Joseph Wright. The Alfred E. Goodey collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art is no exception. Given to the Museum in 1936, with additions in 1945, this superb record of Derby’s gradual development numbers over 500 items, including watercolours, maps and drawings alongside the oils reproduced here. While artists of note include the Gresley and Keene families, some of the most stunning pieces are undoubtedly those of Derby artist Ernest Townsend. Like the other artists represented in the Goodey collection, Townsend recorded the changing face of Derby, but he also produced portraits and genre pieces, such as Balloons and Summer Morning Interior. Whilst these do not share so much of the stark dramaticism of Wright’s paintings, they nevertheless display a keen interest in the effects of light and its subtle changing qualities, alongside a lively and sympathetic understanding of the human subject.
Throughout the duration of the twentieth century, the Museum’s collection has been slowly modernised with the help of gifts from the Contemporary Art Society. During this time, items not necessarily connected to Derby have been taken in, providing the interesting story of British art’s wider developments. Items of particular note include Derek Jarman’s Avebury, Series II, 1973, and Imogen by Frank Graham Bell. Alongside these gifts, the Museum began to acquire a body of works representing the only major female Derby artist in the Collection, the surrealist painter Marion Adnams. The mysterious nature of her landscapes, through her gnarled trees with hints of human limbs (‘For lo, winter is past’), and folded paper figures (Alter Ego), has been compared to that of famous Surrealist artists such as René Magritte and Salvador Dali.
Connections with Derby’s current artistic developments have been maintained, with Nick Hedderly’s Morning in the City, depicting the construction of Derby’s new art centre, QUAD. At the same time, the Museum’s most recent acquisition, Michael Porter’s Highlight through Trees, purchased with the aid of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the National Art Collections Fund, demonstrates strong continuities with the work of Joseph Wright. Its scrutinising observance of surfaces and details within the Derbyshire undergrowth is coupled with a wider, abstracted view of the landscape as a whole, and the dramatic contrast of light and shadow upon it. Like Wright’s Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent, Porter’s mysterious dancing woodland light makes some surfaces shimmer, demonstrating light’s fascinating tendency to both reveal, and conceal, through its absence and in its blinding excess. For the artist, whose key concern is sight, light is an essential and integral element. It seems only fitting, and a just tribute, that a Collection that was begun with works by a ‘painter of light’ should be brought up-to-date with a contemporary piece that seeks to explore similar interests.
Lucy Salt, Keeper of Art
Text source: PCF / Derby Museums and Art Gallery
This description was originally written for a catalogue.