The newly opened Joseph Wright Institute at Derby Museum and Art Gallery provides an excellent example of the continuing efforts by the Museum and its staff to promote the life and work of Wright and to take advantage of the fact that they have the pre-eminent global collection of the artist’s material. The Joseph Wright Institute was officially opened on 23rd May by Estelle Morris, Baroness Morris of Yardley, the former Labour Cabinet Minister, who was invited to speak at the ceremony. In her speech Morris, a former teacher and Secretary of State for Education, spoke passionately about the impact local museums could have on the future education and interests of school children as well as providing opportunities for local tourism. She identified the value of the Museum and Art Gallery in providing a space for children to get out from behind a desk and discover Wright, art and history in general on their own terms and to enable young and old alike to come to a better appreciation of Derby’s rich history and central role in the Midlands Enlightenment. Morris rightly paid tribute to the efforts of all those responsible for the exhibition and Institute and ended by imagining – ‘Night in a Museum’ style – what conversations might be overheard if the paintings were to talk to each other after the doors had been closed for the day.
There has been significant newspaper and television interest in the opening of the Institute and the exhibition. Press coverage has included articles in The Independent and Financial Times as well as coverage in local newspaper the Derby Telegraph. Articles have focussed on the importance of promoting Wright with Lucy Bamford, Senior Curator of Fine Art for Derby Museums Trust emphasising how it was all ‘about bringing Wright back to the people of Derby and the nation’ and mentioning Wright’s name alongside those of John Constable, Joseph Mallord William Turner and Thomas Gainsborough. The national press appears to be on board with the plan to emphasise Wright’s significance, although the Institute’s usefulness as a centre for the study of the Enlightenment more generally is underemphasised in some of this coverage. The attention to Wright has not been limited to print media as BBC television cameras were present at the press preview event to interview those involved, and the launch was covered in local news for BBC in the East Midlands.
Various dedicated and determined staff past and present at Derby Museum have realised the importance of the Wright collection and how it can be utilised to help secure the Museum’s future in a time of short-termism and major cuts to social and cultural institutions nurtured and bequeathed by previous, more far-sighted, generations. The Wright collection was obtained and supported by Derby City Council and the people of the town who kept the faith whilst the artist’s national and international reputation declined during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or became limited to a very small number of ‘candlelight’ studies. Special initiatives were launched to buy particular paintings as they came up for auction to augment the collection for the general good, as part of a civic vision, with campaigns in local newspapers encouraging numerous public subscriptions. It is therefore fitting that Derby Museums Trust has been able to take this forward so successfully and build upon the success of securing national recognition for the Wright collection from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in 2011 and the major improvement of the Wright gallery. With the nature, success and content of public history a hotly debated issue, the new Institute seeks to engage and lead the public as well as provide a rich resource for scholarly research. These multifaceted aims are facilitated by three distinct areas in the Museum building; the study room, another multi-functional room and the Wright gallery itself. Within the new study room, visitors can view hundreds of rarely seen letters and hand-drawn sketches and the largest collection of Wright paintings ever on display in Derby is currently housed in the wider gallery space, with four national museums being represented. Over 550 items relating directly to Wright are available to view and the exhibition is part of a long-term plan to promote the importance of Wright with a new large scale touring exhibition of his work planned by curators.
The much augmented collection of Wright paintings on display and opportunities to view numerous manuscript materials, will all but dispel the lingering notion that Wright’s oeuvre was dominated by candlelight paintings, and encourage the general public and scholars alike to situate Wright within a much broader international Enlightenment context. This underpins Wright’s importance locally, nationally and internationally and helps to demonstrate precisely why the Derby Museum collection was elevated to the same level as those of the Royal Academy of Arts, the National Football Museum in Manchester and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Wright Institute is a significant addition to the promotion and preservation of history and heritage in Derby and the Midlands, and also for studies of the Enlightenment and the practice and history of art. The purpose built study room houses personal letters and original sketches in climate controlled storage and a small but growing library of related literature that can be freely accessed for dedicated research or on a more casual basis. Through these facilities, the Institute will attract students and scholars from the locality, region and beyond, and reinforce the growing awareness of other aspects of the city’s industrial Enlightenment past, including the activities of the Derby Philosophical Society and the Derwent Valley World Heritage Site.
The multi-functional room aims to engage the public, particularly the younger generations, as well as provide a space for lectures and conferences. The entertaining ‘Not Quite Wright’ exhibit challenges people to identify the genuine Wright paintings from others that are copies, imitations or work heavily inspired by Wright’s style. This hopes to highlight the importance and influence of Wright both at the time and in later years. In the same space there is the opportunity to try on period costumes and place oneself inside a Wright painting and the work of local students that was inspired by the artist is projected onto the wall. The message here is that Wright continues to influence and inspire. In its other guise the room will serve as a venue for talks, lectures and conferences the first of which was the British Art Network hosted jointly with the Tate Gallery in June.
The gallery room plays host to the already well acclaimed ‘Bath and Beyond’ exhibition which examines the effect of time spent by the Wright in the south-west had on his career and was formerly at the Holburne Museum in Bath. Wright’s Bath period is of great interest and a useful starting point for the exhibition which has evidently been partly inspired by the successful Joseph Wright in Liverpool exhibition at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool between 2007 and 2008. Although Wright only spent a brief period of his career living and working in Bath between November 1775 and June 1777, this period is still of great interest and Wright’s failure to become established in the Georgian capital of sickness and pleasure illustrates how difficult it was, even for the most talented artists to forge enough of a reputation to secure their future. In fact, Wright’s eighteen months in Bath helped to convince him that he needed to return to the Midlands and his home town of Derby, where he remained for the rest of his life, yet the Bath period has not been given much attention, precisely because it was perceived as a transitory episode. ‘Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond’ places Wright in the context of the many literary, artistic and philosophical figures working in the celebrated and notorious town, and examines the impact of this episode upon his life and art. Wright intended to make a living in Bath from painting portraits hoping to take advantage of Gainsborough’s move from Bath to London, and some examples of these are included such as his study of Rev. Thomas Wilson with the daughter of Catharine Macaulay, the radical historian. However, he spent much of his time working on ideas developed from his Italian tour and making studies inspired by contemporary sentimental ideas and literary characters.
Generally, the launch of the new Joseph Wright Institute and Wright in Bath exhibition wonderfully demonstrate the significance of the artist’s work to the City of Derby and the region, and also provide a major opportunity for those interested in the period to learn something new about the artist and his midlands Enlightenment mileau.
Thomas Debaere and Paul Elliott, School of Humanities, University of Derby, firstname.lastname@example.org.
With thanks to Jonathan Wallis, Head of Museums, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, for help with information.
Read more on the Derby Museum & Art Gallery website.