Depicting the world’s first water-powered cotton mill at Cromford and Sir Richard Arkwright’s adjacent home, Willersley Castle, these paintings are key records of the changes that the early Industrial Revolution wrought on the landscape of Derbyshire. They were presumably commissioned by Arkwright, who is generally considered to be the father of the modern industrial factory system; and were executed by Joseph Wright, who was the first artist of his generation to explore the full potential of contemporary industrial scenes as a subject for serious academic art.
In the early years of Arkwright’s career, spinning was a cottage industry, time-consuming with only a small output, and Arkwright joined the race to perfect a practical spinning machine which would revolutionize the textile industry. With John Kay, a local clockmaker, Arkwright built a spinning machine and with the financial backing of Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Needs, opened a mill, powered by horses, in the Hockley district of Nottingham. However, finding this method too expensive as well as incapable of application on a sufficiently large scale, he adapted his spinning frame to use the power of water. In 1771, again with the financial support of Strutt and Needs, Arkwright opened the world's first water-powered cotton mill at Cromford, Derbyshire, harnessing the streams running down to the Derwent. The first mill (shown in the first of the present pictures) was five-stories high with an attic floor. The simple, functional design of a long narrow building with relatively unbroken interior space was without counterpart in English architecture, a form which was the basis for industrial design for the remainder of the 18th and throughout the 19th centuries. In 1776, they built a second and very much larger mill (120 feet long and seven stories high), using the same water supply. The training and division of the workforce was unprecedented. At Cromford, the mills operated on a twenty-four hour basis with workers, housed in Arkwright's purpose-built village, divided into two shifts. The factory workers were trained to operate specific machinery and had the benefits of pensions, sick pay and an on-site canteen. Such was the success of the Cromford Mills, that Arkwright was able to build factory mills across Derbyshire and Lancashire. With their powered machinery, large workforce and factory village, the Cromford Mills became models for others throughout Britain and the world. Indeed, in 1783, a former Cromford factory worker, Johann Gottfried Brügelmann, installed identical machinery in a water-powered mill at a site he named 'Kromford', near Ratingen, east of Düsseldorf.
In Wright's imposing portrait of Arkwright (fig. 1), prominently displayed on the polished table beside the sitter is a set of cotton-spinning rollers, which 'contributed more than any other to the transformation of the industrial face of England' (R. Fitton, The Arkwrights, Spinners of Fortune, Oxford, 1996, p. 202). Whether or not Arkwright actually invented the machine is an unresolved question. Earlier inventors such as Thomas Highs, James Hargreaves and John Wyatt had produced spinning machines, and in 1785 Arkwright's patents were declared void, largely as a result of the testimony of John Kay. Arkwright's genius, however, lay not in the invention of machinery but in the invention of the factory system. Through the establishment of cotton mills, the organization and regimentation of labor in one specialized workplace giving the employer direct control over the product, the means and cost of production, and in the development of markets, he was immensely successful. The textile industry thereafter expanded with amazing rapidity until it became the leading industry in the north of England.
In 1786, Arkwright was knighted by King George III and the following year he was appointed High Sheriff of Derbyshire. On his death in 1792, the Gentleman's Magazine recorded that he 'died immensely rich, as he has left manufactories the income of which is greater than that of most German principalities … His real and personal property is estimated at a little short of half a million' (LXII ii, pp. 770-71). Richard Arkwright, Arkwright's only son and heir by his first wife, Patience Holt, inherited his father's business concerns and lived at Willersley Castle until his death. He too was an important patron of Wright.
The first of these pictures is a detailed depiction of the 1771 mill at Cromford. On the right of the main building is the aqueduct transporting water across the road to power the factory (the overshot mill-wheel is on the rear face of the building) and the factory manager's house is visible further down the road. The second shows Willersley Castle, the neoclassical seven-bay mansion looking down to Cromford town and the Derwent River valley. It was built for Arkwright by William Thomas between 1782 and 1788. St. Mary's Church on the facing bank was built by Arkwright in 1797 and the mill buildings are just visible further down the valley. The bridge was built in the 15th century and the small square building at one end was an early 18th century fishing pavilion. Nicolson pointed out that it is unlikely that this picture was painted before Willersley was completed in 1790 (op. cit., p. 265).
Joseph Wright was not the first British painter to depict contemporary industrial scenes; Thomas Smith had executed two detailed topographical views of a Shropshire industrial site as early as 1758, Edward Penny exhibited The Gossiping Blacksmith at the Royal Academy's inaugural exhibition in 1769; and Sandby and Ibbetson made numerous sketches of mines, coal-pits and factories in the North of England. Wright was, however, the first artist of his generation to explore its full potential as a subject for serious, academic art. His friends and patrons included Josiah Wedgewood, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, as well as Arkwright. Arkwright also commissioned family portraits from Wright. The famous full-length of him was completed in c. 1790, although the commission was discussed as early as 1783 and may have prompted Wright to paint his only other view of the Cromford Mills, which can be dated to 1783 by his account book and was sold for £51.10 to David Parker Coke, a Nottingham M.P. (fig. 2). This view is taken from the other side and shows both mills at night with the windows dramatically lit although, as a consequence of this lighting, it lacks the detail of the present picture.