Joseph Wright's Derby homecoming: dazzling, daring – and still in danger
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2016-06-21 Size:
Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1766 masterpiece, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery……

Lucy Bamford, senior curator at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, stands in front of Joseph Wright’s masterpiece A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1766 masterpiece, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, is a painting that shoots you into outer space. So intense is the light glowing on its circle of 18th-century faces from an illuminated model of the solar system, it’s as if we are all orbiting this star of science.

Wright is England’s answer to Caravaggio, a master of light and shadow and the man behind one of the most celebrated images of science ever created. This painting has appeared in countless books and TV documentaries. How, then, can it belong to one of the most endangered public galleries in Britain?

Derby Museum and Art Gallery is high on the list of museums outside London and the affluent south threatened by cuts. It faces a total loss of council funding by 2018. As the home of the world’s greatest collection of Wrights – hung in a beautifully lit gallery where The Orrery dazzles amid a galaxy of powerful portraits, moving landscapes and sublime experimental paintings – it ought to be a tourist asset and source of cultural regeneration. Yet in 2012, after a valuation of £64m, the Derby Telegraph proposed selling off the entire Wright collection.

How does a museum fight back when its very purpose is questioned? In the case of Derby Museum, it has taken the battle as far as a New York auction room where, in a bold act of confidence in its star artist and a belief that Wright’s paintings belong in the city where he was born, it has bought what may be his last two landscapes.

‘Joseph Wright and the Lure of Italy’, Derby Museum Derby Museums.

These two lyrical views of the Derwent Valley sit freshly unwrapped in the museum’s Wright study room. Outside the windows, rain pours down on Derby city centre. The building we stand in has not had the investment it deserves, looking from the outside more like an unloved council office than the outstanding gallery it is. Yet these two elegiac paintings have come directly from the more glamorous setting of Christie’s auction house in Manhattan, where they were bought in a daring operation involving an anonymous agent, a secret bid and a nail-biting finale in which museum staff in Derby watched the auction live online.

The team who spearheaded this secret raid on the global art market can’t quite believe it has all worked so well.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Self Portrait.

“We had a tipoff from the Duke of Devonshire, our patron and all-round good egg,” says Tony Butler, executive director of Derby Museums. The Duke, whose Chatsworth House home holds Derbyshire’s other great art collection, heard that two late Wright works were to be sold by Christie’s after sitting unseen for more than 30 years in a private art collection. “He asked: ‘Shall we start a campaign?’” They had only 10 days until the sale.

“Our team worked really quickly,” says Butler. “We had a good conversation with the Yale Center for British Art, who sent their conservators to go and have a look in secret.” The Yale team confirmed the paintings were in good condition – but the Center, despite boasting an outstanding collection of Wright at its museum in New Haven, Connecticut, agreed not to bid on its own behalf. Instead, the Art Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the museum’s own Friends organisation put up the funds for Derby to attempt an audacious coup and snatch these two romantic vistas from under the noses of American collectors.

“We’ve been advised before that we need to remain anonymous in sales,” says Lucy Bamford, senior curator at the museum. “We also needed someone who knew the ropes.” Derby appointed a London art dealer (who has chosen to remain anonymous) as their confidential agent in New York. His instructions were not to bid unless he absolutely had to: if the paintings were not sold in the auction, the museum would be able to make a lesser offer afterwards.

“He knew to sit on his hands,” says Bamford of the online sale – although in the event, the agent did have to bid, purchasing the paintings for a combined price of £233,107. “Christie’s didn’t know it was us until after the sale.”

Now the two paintings are to be hung alongside Wright’s other works, what will they add to Derby’s already stunning collection? Both paintings pay homage to Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the modern factory. One depicts Arkwright’s mill at Cromford in Derbyshire, the other shows the vast house he built nearby. It is thought Arkwright died either just before these landscapes were painted or during their execution. Wright himself died in 1797, soon after painting them.

Joseph Wright’s paintings of Richard Arkwright’s mills are testaments to a great friendship between an artist and an industrial pioneer.

Romantic rocks loom over Arkwright’s mill and trees are reflected melancholically in the river Derwent. These are sombre, philosophical landscapes – Wright’s last testimony to the Lunar Society, a brilliant group of Midlands pioneers, atheists and intellectuals that included Arkwright as well as the ceramics visionary Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and himself an evolutionary theorist.

The paintings are moving testaments not only to Wright’s love of the landscapes that made him but to a great friendship between an artist and an industrial pioneer. Wright’s work belongs in Derby not only because it is a glowing beacon of British art but also because it preserves the radical spirit of the Lunar Society and reminds us that the Midlands was at the heart of the European Enlightenment.

“Wright changed my life,” says Bamford, who remembers gazing into Wright’s wondrous universe long before she came to work at the museum. “I was a Derby lass and one of my first experiences of art was to come here with my grandparents,” she says. “I was overcome with the fact that he came from Derby.”

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern