Ten quarto publications from the library of painter, Joseph Wright of Derby

Item date: 18th century
Grant Value: £6,550
Item cost: £8,550
Item date acquired: 2021
Item institution: Derby Museums
Town/City: Derby
County: Derbyshire

Lucy Bamford, Senior Curator of Art and the Joseph Wright Collection, writes: Derby Museums is deeply grateful to FNL for its generous assistance in the purchase of ten quarto publications from the library of the painter, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797). Though best known for his series of dramatic candle-lit interiors, including A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on an Orrery in which a Lamp is put in the Place of the Sun of 1766 (Derby Museums), and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768 (National Gallery, London), Wright’s work was remarkably varied, encompassing subjects as diverse as portraiture, landscape, and contemporary events, as well as literature. It is to this latter interest that the publications in this collection speak, the majority being poems and epistles by a range of authors, including William Hayley (1745 – 1820), John Sargent (1750 – 1831), William Mason (1724 – 1797), and Thomas Gisborne (1758 – 1846).

Derby Museums already holds the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of work by Wright, Designated by the then Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) as a collection of outstanding national significance in 2011. Totalling just over 600 items, the collection comprises works on paper and oil paintings, with a small selection of archival material including some correspondence. This latter group, along with a Wright family mourning ring, comprises the few items that Derby Museums hold that reflect the more personal aspects of Wright’s life and career. The collection of ten publications enhances and complements these holdings, providing as they do a window into Wright’s friendships with numerous poets and writers of the late 18th century, many of whose works in turn influenced some of the choice and treatment of the artist’s paintings.

Each of the publications and their authors can be connected either directly or indirectly with Wright and his work. Wright’s interests in landscape, natural philosophy, and literary subjects can all be glimpsed to some extent in this collection. Indeed, in some cases, the subjects covered by these publications would directly influence the subject matter of his paintings. John Sargent’s The Mine, for example, was to be the subject of a painting planned for Sir Robert Wilmot of Derby (now untraced). Another example is William Hayley’s Ode to John Howard, Esq. F.R.S. author of "The State of English and Foreign Prisons", which may have been the inspiration behind a series of paintings of prisoners and prison interiors that Wright produced towards the end of the 1780s.   

Wright’s wide-ranging interest in literature and literary subjects is represented in the collection at Derby Museums which features subjects from the work Laurence Sterne and William Shakespeare, among others. In many of these works, Hayley’s influence looms large. Conversely, the influence of Wright’s other literary connections and interests are arguably less well understood. Therefore, these publications have the potential to open new avenues of research and increase our understanding of this aspect of Wright’s later life and work.

Access to the acquisition is available via Derby Museums’ dedicated public study room, where it sits alongside Wright’s works on paper as well as archival items, such as a collection of letters written by Wright to William Hayley (an acquisition that was itself funded by the Friends of the National Libraries in 2009). In time, the publications will also be digitised and added to the museums’ forthcoming online catalogue of the Wright collection, where they will be freely accessible to a world-wide audience.

Item Provenance
Bought from Peter Harrington Rare Books and Manuscripts