Account Book of Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797)

Scope and Content

Notebook used by the artist Joseph Wright of Derby between c1760 and 1797, most entries are in his hand although some are by his brother Richard Wright and at least one is in an unidentified hand. It records household accounts, loans, paintings and prices charged. The volume was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1957. The volume had previously descended in the artist's family. Annotations initialled J.K [John Kerslake, Gallery employee] in the relevant sales catalogue for the 1957 Sotheby's auction indicate that the volume had been purchased by its previous owner in 1952 'at the sale of W. Bemrose, Derby.' William Bemrose was married to the great granddaughter of Joseph Wright and was a leading member of Derby society and a well known printer, as well as a collector and patron of the Arts. He bequeathed the majority of his paintings, including a collection of works by Wright to the Derby Museum. According to the National Portrait Gallery's Annual Report for 1957-58 entries from the account book appear in rearranged format in W. Bemorse's 'Life and Works of Joseph Wright' (1885) [See NPG10/93].

Administrative / Biographical History

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), painter, was born at 28 Irongate, Derby, on 3 September 1734, the third of the five children of John Wright (1697–1767), attorney, and his wife, Hannah Brookes (1700–1764).

Wright was educated at Derby grammar school, teaching himself to draw by copying prints. In 1751, probably shortly after his seventeenth birthday, Wright began two years' training under Thomas Hudson, then the most highly reputed portraitist in London.

Wright returned to Derby in 1753 and made Derby his principal base throughout his career. While most of his contemporaries believed that reputations could be made only in the metropolis, Wright chose chiefly to live and work among his family and friends. He received abundant portrait commissions from midland sitters, and his understanding of the society that bred them gave his portraits an individuality lacking in much fashionable metropolitan portraiture.

The label Wright of Derby was first bestowed on him by the Gazetteer's exhibition reviewer of 1768. In an age when it would have been improper to use artists' Christian names, it was necessary to differentiate between the work of two 'Mr Wrights'—Joseph Wright, who began exhibiting in 1765, and Richard Wright, of Liverpool, an exhibitor since 1762.

From 1765 Wright exhibited in London, annually at the Society of Artists, 1765–76, and over half the thirty-five or so works he showed there were 'candlelights', in which the source of light was usually concealed but could be observed to throw powerful shadows over faces, stuffs, and objects, altering perceptions of colour itself as objects receded from light. He exhibited in 1778 and 1783 at the Free Society of Artists, and in 1784 and 1787 at the Society for Promoting the Arts in Liverpool. In addition he exhibited from 1778 to 1794 at the Royal Academy. However, in 1783 he quarrelled with the Royal Academy. Having exhibited there annually from 1778 to 1782 he was elected an associate in 1781; but when his name came up for election as a Royal Academician in February 1783, some failure in communication resulted in his being passed over. Offered full membership when a vacancy occurred the following year, he declined, and requested that his name be removed from the list of associates. Almost immediately he began planning a one-man exhibition, staged in 1785 at Mr Robins the auctioneer's rooms in Covent Garden. Wright waited until 1788 before exhibiting further work at the Royal Academy and did not seek membership again.

Wright's commissions during the early 1760s were mostly for small portraits of sitters in Derby and east midland towns (Newark, Lincoln, Boston, Retford, and Doncaster). He spent almost three years (from late 1768 to the autumn of 1771) in Liverpool, where to increase income, he worked hard at portraiture, emerging as a realistic portraitist of members of Liverpool's prosperous middle class. He also continued to invent subjects deploying candlelight and other (sometimes multiple) sources of light.

On 28 Jul 1773 Wright married Ann (or Hannah) Swift (1749–1790); the daughter of a leadminer. By 1786 they had five children. On 1 Nov 1773, with his wife, his pupil Richard Hurlestone (fl. 1763–1780), and the painter John Downman, Wright embarked for Italy, on his only journey abroad. Apart from his visit to Naples, almost all Wright's time in Italy was spent in and around Rome, where his daughter, Anna Romana, was born in August 1774. Free from the demands of portraiture, Wright found a new interest in landscape. He returned to Derby by 26 Sep 1775.
On 4 November 1775 Wright moved to Bath, hoping for the success that Gainsborough had enjoyed there, but a lack of commissions meant that by Jun 1777 he had returned to Derby. From the mid-1780s Wright found increasing pleasure in landscape painting, beginning with recollections of classic Italian scenes, but portraiture remained his chief source of income. From about 1789 new sitters in the shape of midland industrialists were eager to sit to him—and for portraits generally on a much larger scale than those commissioned by the Derbyshire middle classes.

Ann Wright died on 17 August 1790. Wright had been treated by Dr Erasmus Darwin for some years for asthma, and latterly for dropsy. He died at his home, 26 Queen Street, Derby, on 29 Aug 1797, and was buried in St Alkmund's Church, Derby.

Biographical information for this description has been taken from Judy Egerton, 'Wright, Joseph, of Derby (1734–1797)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 6 June 2012]

Access Information

Available to view by appointment in the Heinz Archive and Library Public Study Room, to make an appointment contact Archive Reception . Although records are generally available for public consultation, some information in them, such as personal data or information supplied to the Gallery in confidence, may be restricted.

Other Finding Aids

The complete catalogue for this archive can be searched via the NPG Archive Catalogue .

Alternative Form Available

The contents of the account book have been transcribed and rearranged into chronological order in the following publication, Elizabeth E. Barker, Documents Relating to Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97)', Walpole Society, Vol 71 , 2009, pp. 9-61.

Conditions Governing Use

Personal photography is permitted for research purposes only. Photocopying is not permitted.