Wright left England on his first and only visit to Italy in October 1773. He arrived in Rome in February 1774 and visited Naples and its surroundings, including the Gulf of Salerno from early October, returning to Rome by 11 November. He returned to England via North Italy and France in 1775, arriving in Derby on 26 September. The actual grottos depicted by Wright have not been traced but were similar to the Grotto di Smeralda on the Amalfi coast, west of Salerno. As well as its scenic interest, the whole area was full of associations with Antiquity, an association not missed by Wright.
These two drawings are the fruit of a whole series of pairs of works contrasting times of day and different effects of light, usually with boats and figures; in this case, however, the only human element is the group of two tiny figures on the shelf of rock in the centre of the morning scene.
Wright retained the two drawings in his own possession until his death, at which time his friend and patron, John Leigh Philips, asked if he might buy them. In the event they were given to him in 1792 by Wright's executors in token of Philips' devotion to the artist's interests; Philips had written a Memoir of Joseph Wright, published in the Monthly Magazine, October 1797.
In the catalogue of the Philips sale at Manchester on 31 October 1814 these two drawings were described as follows:
'Two caverns on the shores of Italy. Fine and highly finished Drawings made on the spot, and are the Originals from which the two celebrated Pictures in the Collection of the late William Hardman, Esq. were painted'. At the sale the drawings were acquired for the Hardman collection, from which they were sold in 1838. Old labels attached to the backs of each (new) back board confirm that J.M. Wayne gave the drawings to his son, Henry, apparently in January 1893.
The two drawings, although described as having been done on the spot, are highly finished and have been framed as a pair of works of art in their own right. Moreover, they were developed in at least six finished large oil paintings, measuring about 40 x 50 in., or larger. The pair of paintings for William Hardman of Manchester were listed in Wright's Account Book among works of the early 1780s as 'Grotto in the Gulf of Salernum moon light/Do. [ditto] its Companion/Sunset' and were sold to him for £84 (Nicolson, op.cit., p. 257, nos. 279 and 280); these are now untraced, unless the Sunset is the work with a small boat in the foreground now in the Yale Center for British Art (illustrated M. Cormack, A Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 1985, p. 263).
Wright had already painted 'Two Grottos by the sea side in the Gulf of Salerno for Mr. [Thomas Hallett] Hodges, £105'; these, signed and dated 1774, and therefore painted in Italy, are the works formerly in the Askew collection (the morning scene) and the Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts (the evening scene; see Nicolson, op. cit., p. 257, nos. 281, 222, illustrated, and J. Egerton, op. cit., nos. 97 and 98, illustrated in colour). More extraordinarily, Wright used the two grotto settings for subject pictures, 'A Grotto with Banditti sold to Mr. Cockshott, £157. 10' and 'A Grotto in the Gulf of Salernum with the figure of Julia [probably Julia who was the daughter of the Roman Emperor Augustus, banished by her father for adultery to the island of Pandateria]. Companion to that with Banditti sold to Mr. Cockshott, £105'; these paintings, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778 and 1780 respectively, are now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (see fig. 1) and a private collection (see Nicolson, op. cit., p. 256, nos. 277 and 278, illustrated, and J. Egerton, op. cit., nos. 99 and 100, illustrated in colour). There are also a number of smaller variants.
These two drawings can therefore be seen as an important stage in a long series of paintings, paired in subject matter or effects of light and colour, that reached their apogée in the later works of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).