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Arbie's Unoriginally Titled Book Blog

It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.

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Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond - Amina Wright

Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond - Amina Wright

Joseph Wright went on an artistic tour of Italy and upon his return to Britain, took up residence in Bath, with the intention of developing fame and fortune as a portraitist. Bath, when it was the height of fashion, in the Georgian-Regency period, played host to a succession of painters who made a living doing portrait work for the the over-wintering aristocracy (come Spring they were all off back to London) and the ever expanding well-to-do mercantile class. The most famous of these was Gainsborough.


When Gainsborough left Bath, fed up of portraits and ready to become the best painter of British landscapes until Turner the following century, Wright saw a vacancy and decided to fill it. He took up residence at an expensive address that links two of Bath's most famous architectural features, the Circus and Royal Crescent and made it known he was available for oil portraits. They stayed away in droves. The reasons for this seem to be multifarious: lack of connections in the mercantile/intellectual/aristocratic/artistic societies of Bath. Lack of prior reputation in Bath. (Both of these being rather the opposite in his home of Derby.) Lack of tact (obsequiousness?) in handling his clients who would all have considered him a social inferior. Slow work rate compared to the recently departed Gainsborough who could knock off a high quality portrait after only one sitting. Ill health - which may have included mental health - and crises of confidence.


The lack of paid portrait work allowed Wright to work on landscapes and cityscapes drawing on his recent Italian experiences. These featured both fireworks and volcanoes prominently and are startlingly dramatic. They drew paying visitors in numbers that outstripped anything seen before in Bath - but no-one bought them. It was in fact an old benefactor and friend from Derby who bought them after they were exhibited in London.


A year or so later Wright left Bath, having failed commercially but developed radically as an artist, and returned to Derby, where he became reclusive but continued to paint in several genres.


Amina Wright is Chief Curator of The Holborne Museum in Bath, which among other things attempts to educate visitors about the art history of Bath through its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. This book acts as both catalogue and supporting text for an exhibition of Wright's short Bath period works. AW's text is readable and gives a comprehensive biographical and critical account, illustrated not only by the catalogued works but by figures showing comparisons with not only other works by Wright (not produced in Bath) but also with other artists' works that acted as models or inspirations.


My only criticism of the book, which fulfils its intention of plugging a gap in both Wright studies and Bath art history studies, is that the illustrations should have been bigger in many instances. The dramatic firework and volcano paintings suffer particularly from being reproduced at too small a scale. The chances are that it was considered cost prohibitive, which is a shame.