LAST CHANCE TO SEE
Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool – ends 24 February
The show gives a fascinating insight into a previously little-known period of the artist’s life.
Today Wright is known for his stunning candlelight paintings such as Experiment with Bird in an Air Pump and The Orrery. However, Wright came to Liverpool at the urging of a friend who recognised that there was a growing market for portrait painting among the town’s burgeoning merchant class.
During his time in Liverpool between 1768 and 1771, Wright was remarkably busy painting not only portraits but his trademark candlelight works. His account book, on display at the exhibition, lists many of the paintings he produced. In 1769, for example, he was completing a portrait on average every nine or 10 days.
Alex Kidson, the Walker’s curator of British art, says: “This exhibition looks purely at Wright’s Liverpool period. He came here because he realised his career was faltering and wanted a change of direction.
“Wright had just painted his extraordinary Air Pump masterpiece which had been exhibited in London in 1768. To his disappointment, although the painting was well-received it did not sell. I think Wright felt like getting over his disappointment with a change of air.”
Wright’s close friend Peter Perez Burdett was a cartographer who had worked in Derby before his map-making work brought him to Liverpool. Burdett encouraged Wright to come to Liverpool, telling him there were many people wanting to have their portraits painted.
Burdett may also have indicated that he wanted to set up an art organisation to reflect Liverpool’s growing cultural awareness.
The Liverpool Society of Artists was set up in 1769 with Burdett as the first president – he was also a very advanced and inventive print-maker. Wright tapped into Liverpool’s growing groundswell of interest in the visual arts.
The main theme of the exhibition is that Wright’s visit transformed Liverpool from an artistic backwater into a place where art patrons felt confident and proud of their taste. Wright’s visit spurred Liverpool’s ‘dawn of taste’, bringing artistic life to the growing town.
Alex Kidson adds: “Not many people have paid much attention to Wright’s Liverpool years. Nobody has really studied the precise relationship between this three-year visit and what local artists were doing.
“George Stubbs, who was 10 years older than Wright, was from Liverpool. He painted portraits in the town but found the atmosphere stultifying and not conducive to his ambitions. Richard Wright (no relation) was another Liverpool contemporary of Stubbs who went to London where his career took off.
“It seemed major artists could not wait to get out of Liverpool. Wright’s visit changed all that – local artists were given the confidence to create their own cultural community.
“This exhibition is highly appropriate in Charter and Capital of Culture years because it shows where Liverpool’s cultural pride started 240 years ago.”
The exhibition features more than 80 works and exhibits. They include the riveting portrait of Richard Gildart painted when the slave trading former Liverpool mayor was 95 years old. It was probably the first portrait Wright did in Liverpool as it is the only one dated 1768.
Other portraits include those of Sarah Clayton, John Tarleton, Fleetwood and Frances Hesketh and Susannah Leigh.
During this period Wright was also painting more typical groups of people by candlelight. They included The Philosopher (known as The Hermit), An Academy by Lamplight, Two Boys Blowing a Bladder, Two Girls Decorating a Cat, A Blacksmith’s Shop and The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus.
These well-known historical pictures were not painted for Liverpool patrons but to be sold in London exhibitions.
Also featured is Wright’s first candlelight painting, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator, painted before he came to Liverpool. Another earlier painting is a stunning portrait of Peter Perez Burdett and his wife Hannah.