Joseph Wright

Described by the art historian F.D. Klingender as ‘the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution’, Joseph Wright was born in Iron Gate, Derby, on September 3, 1734. The third of five children to Hannah Brookes (1700–1764) and John Wright (1697–1767), Joseph moved to London in 1751 after he decided to be a painter and studied under the English portrait painter, Thomas Hudson.

The works of Joseph Wright have been noted for his use of the tenebrism effect, which emphasises the contrasts of light and dark in figurative compositions to increase their dramatic effect and for his paintings of candlelit subjects.

Many of Wright’s paintings are on display at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery and include famous works such as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus and A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.

Wright married Ann Swift, the daughter of a lead miner, on July 28, 1773 and had six children, three of whom died in infancy.

In 1773 Wright travelled to Italy, arriving in February 1774, together with his wife; the Welsh subject and portrait painter John Downman and the portrait painter and pupil of Joseph Wright – Richard Hurleston. On his return from Italy, he established himself as a portrait painter in Bath but ultimately returned to Derby in 1777.

He spent the rest of his life in Derby where on August 29, 1797 he died at his new home at No. 28 Queen Street, Derby, where he had spent his final months with his two daughters.

Wright was buried in the grounds of St Alkmund’s Church, Derby. When the church was demolished in 1968 to make way for a major new section of the inner ring road that was to cut through the town centre, Wright’s remains were removed to Nottingham Road Cemetery. In 1997, his tombstone was placed at the side of Derby Cathedral, and five years later was brought inside and wall-mounted in a prominent place near the well-visited memorial to Bess of Hardwick.

A commemorative armillary sphere is on the nearby pavement of his birthplace at 28 Iron Gate and at 28 Queen Street he shares a blue plaque with John Flamsteed, the First Astronomer Royal, who also lived there at one point in his life.

A self-portrait of Joseph Wright c.1780.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.