fig. 1
Joseph Wright of Derby

In late 2009 Mrs Alina Cade generously gave two extraordinary portraits by the renowned eighteenth-century British artist Joseph Wright of Derby: Self-portrait (fig. 1) and Anna Romana Wright (reading by candlelight) (fig. 2) to the National Gallery of Victoria. These gifts in honour of the donor’s late husband, Joseph Wright Cade, the artist’s great-great-great grandson, join two other works by Wright in the NGV collection: The Synnot children, 1781, and Lake Nemi, sunset, c.1790.

The two recent gifts came to Australia when the artist’s 63-year-old daughter, Harriet, bravely emigrated in late 1841, along with three of her relatives. Harriet’s elder sister, Anna (born Rome 24 June 1774), died in 1837 and, three years later, Anna’s husband, James Cade, also died. Harriet, in the company of Anna’s 43-year-old son, John Edward Cade (born 1798), and his two daughters, Anna, and her younger sister, Harriet, left London on the small cargo ship Widgeon for Australia.1The brig Widgeon departed London on 27 August 1841 bound for Melbourne via Hobart. It carried cargo and only nine passengers (Colonial Times, Hobart, Tuesday 18 January 1842, p. 2). I thank Julia Jackson for sourcing this shipping notice. It is likely that the two paintings were among an unknown number of works by Wright in the possession of either Harriet Wright or John Edward Cade. It is well known that both Harriet and Anna were given and inherited family portraits by their father.2See Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light [2 vols], Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, London, 1968, vol. I, p. 22. Nicolson also listed thirteen works owned by the Cade family in 1968 (Nicolson, vol. II, pp. xi, xii). They also independently acquired more than a dozen of his paintings, mostly from two posthumous sales of the contents of Wright’s studio.3See Pictures, Being a Selection of the Most Capital Performances of that Esteemed Artist, Mr. Joseph Wright, Christie’s, London, 6 May 1801 (Lugt 6254), annotated copy lodged at the Frick Art Reference Library, ‘2nd Wright sale’, Derby, 11 October 1810. Both sale catalogues are reprinted in William Bemrose, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, ARA, Commonly Called ‘Wright of Derby’, Bemrose & Sons, London, 1885, pp. 107–14. Harriet did not have any children and, over the years, the works of art that came on that journey have been dispersed among generations of Anna’s descendants.4Harriet Wright’s ‘Last will and testament plus codicil’ mentions ‘pictures’ but does not record specific works (see Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), VPRS 7591, consignment P0001, unit 11).

A masterpiece revealed

The gift to the NGV of the Self-portrait marks the public re-emergence of a masterpiece that was only widely known from a poor black and white reproduction in Benedict Nicolson’s 1968 monograph on Wright.5See Nicolson, cat. no. 169, pl. 120. Nicholson was aware that the current Self-portrait had been in Australia for a number of years, but did not realise that it had arrived here with Harriet, John Cade and his two daughters.6ibid., as collection of Mrs Beryl E. Cade (aunt of the donor’s husband). Nicolson tentatively identified it as part of the exhibition of Wright’s works held in Derby in 1870; however, it has been in Australia since 1842.7ibid., vol. I, p. 229, annotated with a question mark. Nicolson notes that a copy of the current work was made by John Holland, a close friend of the artist, in the Turbutt Collection in 1968. The Self-portrait had been publicly displayed in Australia only once, at the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888, where it was among the paintings in the section titled ‘Victorian loans’, comprising works from private collections of the Colony of Victoria.8See J. Lake (ed.), ‘Victorian loans’, no. 54, in Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, Official Guide to the Picture Galleries and Catalogue of Fine Arts, Melbourne, 1888, p. 60. Although shown among two hundred and sixty-six paintings and watercolours in a section intended to highlight the sophisticated taste of those in the young colony, Wright’s Self-portrait stood out and was the subject of high praise in a lengthy column in the Argus.9See Argus, 12 July 1888, p. 9.

The Melbourne Self-portrait is part of an extraordinary series of six known painted self-portraits by Wright.10See Nicolson, cat. nos 164, 167, 169, 170, 171 (untraced), 172. He also made a series of highly finished drawn self-portraits (see Judy Edgerton, ‘Joseph Wright of Derby: “Self-Portrait in a Fur Cap”’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1992, pp. 112–23, 183–4). He portrayed himself in oils at approximately ten-year intervals, leaving an insightful visual legacy of his development as an artist and a person. He did not sell any of his self-portraits and only one was exhibited in his lifetime,11Robin’s Rooms, Great Piazza, Covent Garden, 1785. A self-portrait was listed as number twenty of twenty-four works exhibited. One can only speculate as to which of the five self-portraits painted by that time was shown. proving that he painted these works for his own or his family’s and friends’ pleasure.12Wright painted two copies of a self-portrait, one for his friend the ceramicist Josiah Wedgwood, the other for Mr More of Rome (Nicolson, cat. no. 171). Both copies and the primary version are untraced. We first see him at the age of twenty, shortly after leaving the studio of his master, Thomas Hudson, where he proudly styled himself after Anthony van Dyck (c.1754, Derby Museum and Art Gallery; Nicolson, cat. no. 164), and the group concludes with a work painted when he was sixty (1793, National Portrait Gallery, London; Nicolson, cat. no. 172).

Establishing a chronology

Nicolson dated the current work to the early 1770s, when Wright would have been in his forties. From the photograph of the painting he gleaned that Wright was ‘a man bordering on middle age who is already ruffled by the gusts of ill health’.13Nicolson, vol. 1, p. 22. This description seems inexplicable when the work is encountered today, as Wright seems hardly ravished by time or poor health. Indeed, he seems to be in his prime and he holds himself with great assurance, but is devoid of the misplaced arrogance of his earliest self-portrait.14Wright’s lack of early success must have convinced him of some technical shortcomings and he wisely returned to the tutelage of Thomas Howard (also the master of Joshua Reynolds) for a further fifteen months (see Nicolson, vol. I, p. 2). In terms of age, style and how Wright has presented himself, it is close to the very fine chalk drawing in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (Nicolson, cat. no. 165), that Nicolson dates to c.1765–68 and Judy Edgerton to c.1765–70.15See Edgerton, p. 112. In fact, Wright looks slightly younger in the Melbourne Self-portrait than in the Chicago drawing, which places him in his early thirties, dating it to around or just after 1765. If correct, it would be the second in the group of painted self-portraits, prior to the most sumptuous, painted around 1775, where he is dressed in fine golden clothes and wears an elaborate turban (private collection, Nicolson, cat. no. 167). The latter work was characterised by Nicolson as Wright styling himself as ‘the Midlands Rembrandt’, which is more accurate than his reading of the current work.16See Nicolson, vol. 1, p. 22. It is most likely that Nicolson was misled by the poor quality of the black and white photograph of the Melbourne Self-portrait.

By the time Wright painted the Melbourne work he was a successful artist.17See Jane Wallis, Joseph Wright of Derby: 1734–97, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, 1997, p. 66. He was able to practise his craft in Liverpool and his hometown of Derby rather than the growing metropolis of London. Nicolson noted that 1764 and 1765 were critical years for Wright as he began to achieve financial success and was confident enough to publicly exhibit his work in London for the first time.18See Nicolson, vol. I, p. 3. Wright sent two works to the fledgling Society of Artists of Great Britain, London, exhibition in 1765. See also Matthew Hargraves, ‘Joseph Wright of Derby and the Society of Artists of Great Britain’, The British Art Journal, vol. xi, no. 1, 2010, pp. 53–61. Moreover, he began to create his highly original ‘candlelight’ compositions that ultimately brought him fame.19Wright exhibited Three persons viewing The Gladiator by candle light at the Society of Artists in 1765. He referred to his ‘candlelight’ works in numerous letters and in his journal made during his Italian journey in 1773 (see Elizabeth E. Barker, ‘Documents relating to Joseph Wright “of Derby” (1734–97)’, in The Seventy-first Volume of the Walpole Society, London, 2009, pp. 64–216. This self-portrait is the work of a mature artist with great technical skill. Wright sports a scarf wrapped fashionably around his head, a manner of dress inspired most directly by Rembrandt’s fancy self-portraits.20See Edgerton, p. 113. Exotic headwear was already something of a cliché among Wright’s profession, symbolic of a Romantic culture of artists, musicians and intellectuals of the Enlightenment. The fur collar Wright wears is superbly treated, as is his gold-trimmed housecoat that is painted in a rich green. The flesh is modelled with soft chiaroscuro and Wright here emerges from the dark background into a warm light that defines his form and touches highlights in his clothing, nose, lips, eyes and hand. Wright has so skilfully manipulated light that it contextualises the work among his candlelight paintings of the mid 1760s. And, unlike his earliest self-portrait in which the brazen figure is somewhat off-putting, this work is psychologically engaging. The gesture of his chin resting on his right hand is endearing, not confronting, and his demeanour is welcoming and warm. His gaze in particular is rivetingly hypnotic.

The intimate glow of candlelight

Although Wright was a gifted portraitist, his enduring legacy and status in the pantheon of art history was accomplished through his paintings of scientific experiments depicting the machines and laboratories of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Wright bathed these scenes in evocative golden light, illusionistically sourced from within his compositions by glowing fires, lamps and candles. Although Wright is well represented in Australian public collections, Anna Romana Wright (reading by candlelight) (fig. 2) is the first candlelight work to enter an Australian art museum. However, what is most appealing about Anna Romana is its sense of intimacy. The teenage Anna is clearly absorbed by the letter she reads, and Wright has perfectly conveyed the rapturous solitude in which she pores over the page. This sense of privacy is expressed through the hovering darkness, the gentle glow of the single candle that illuminates her face, and the subtle way it describes highlights in the painting. Wright has used a wooden shaft or architectural support that cuts through the left of the composition and further separates the sitter from the viewer; a device that reinforces the viewer’s role as voyeur. She also clutches a fashionable choker, which may once have been contained in the elaborate box at her left elbow. It is tempting to believe that she has received these gifts and a letter from her neighbour, John Cade, surgeon of Spondon, Derbyshire; the man Anna would eventually marry and whose son, John Edward Cade, came to Australia in 1842. If correct, this is a poignant portrait of a daughter who is soon to leave the shelter of a loving father’s care.

As with his Self-portrait, Wright never intended to sell this intimate painting of Anna and must have given it to one of his daughters.21No paintings are specifically referred to in Joseph Wright’s will, published in Barker, p. 157. It was not recorded by Nicolson, nor has it been noted in other studies on Wright, and it has not been shown publicly until now.

Arriving before the gold rush of the 1850s, Harriet Wright and the family of her late sister were true pioneers of Melbourne.22John Edward Cade’s younger brother, Frederic, also emigrated to Australia and established one of the first pharmacies in Melbourne. Therefore, it is fitting that, through the generosity of the Melbourne descendants of Joseph Wright of Derby, these two great paintings are to be shared with visitors to the National Gallery of Victoria.

Laurie Benson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).

Notes

 The author wishes to thank Julia Jackson, NGV Curator of Cataloguing, for sharing her research into the Wright and Cade families.

1      The brig Widgeon departed London on 27 August 1841 bound for Melbourne via Hobart. It carried cargo and only nine passengers (Colonial Times, Hobart, Tuesday 18 January 1842, p. 2). I thank Julia Jackson for sourcing this shipping notice.

2      See Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light [2 vols], Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, London, 1968, vol. I, p. 22. Nicolson also listed thirteen works owned by the Cade family in 1968 (Nicolson, vol. II, pp. xi, xii).

3      See Pictures, Being a Selection of the Most Capital Performances of that Esteemed Artist, Mr. Joseph Wright, Christie’s, London, 6 May 1801 (Lugt 6254), annotated copy lodged at the Frick Art Reference Library, ‘2nd Wright sale’, Derby, 11 October 1810. Both sale catalogues are reprinted in William Bemrose, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, ARA, Commonly Called ‘Wright of Derby’, Bemrose & Sons, London, 1885, pp. 107–14.

4      Harriet Wright’s ‘Last will and testament plus codicil’ mentions ‘pictures’ but does not record specific works (see Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), VPRS 7591, consignment P0001, unit 11).

5      See Nicolson, cat. no. 169, pl. 120.

6      ibid., as collection of Mrs Beryl E. Cade (aunt of the donor’s husband).

7      ibid., vol. I, p. 229, annotated with a question mark. Nicolson notes that a copy of the current work was made by John Holland, a close friend of the artist, in the Turbutt Collection in 1968.

8      See J. Lake (ed.), ‘Victorian loans’, no. 54, in Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, Official Guide to the Picture Galleries and Catalogue of Fine Arts, Melbourne, 1888, p. 60.

9      See Argus, 12 July 1888, p. 9.

10      See Nicolson, cat. nos 164, 167, 169, 170, 171 (untraced), 172. He also made a series of highly finished drawn self-portraits (see Judy Edgerton, ‘Joseph Wright of Derby: “Self-Portrait in a Fur Cap”’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1992, pp. 112–23, 183–4).

11      Robin’s Rooms, Great Piazza, Covent Garden, 1785. A self-portrait was listed as number twenty of twenty-four works exhibited. One can only speculate as to which of the five self-portraits painted by that time was shown.

12      Wright painted two copies of a self-portrait, one for his friend the ceramicist Josiah Wedgwood, the other for Mr More of Rome (Nicolson, cat. no. 171). Both copies and the primary version are untraced.

13      Nicolson, vol. 1, p. 22.

14      Wright’s lack of early success must have convinced him of some technical shortcomings and he wisely returned to the tutelage of Thomas Howard (also the master of Joshua Reynolds) for a further fifteen months (see Nicolson, vol. I, p. 2).

15      See Edgerton, p. 112.

16      See Nicolson, vol. 1, p. 22.

17      See Jane Wallis, Joseph Wright of Derby: 1734–97, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, 1997, p. 66.

18      See Nicolson, vol. I, p. 3. Wright sent two works to the fledgling Society of Artists of Great Britain, London, exhibition in 1765. See also Matthew Hargraves, ‘Joseph Wright of Derby and the Society of Artists of Great Britain’, The British Art Journal, vol. xi, no. 1, 2010, pp. 53–61.

19      Wright exhibited Three persons viewing The Gladiator by candle light at the Society of Artists in 1765. He referred to his ‘candlelight’ works in numerous letters and in his journal made during his Italian journey in 1773 (see Elizabeth E. Barker, ‘Documents relating to Joseph Wright “of Derby” (1734–97)’, in The Seventy-first Volume of the Walpole Society, London, 2009, pp. 64–216.

20      See Edgerton, p. 113.

21      No paintings are specifically referred to in Joseph Wright’s will, published in Barker, p. 157.

22      John Edward Cade’s younger brother, Frederic, also emigrated to Australia and established one of the first pharmacies in Melbourne.