This striking head study was last on public display at the Bi-Centenary Exhibition of Wright's works held at the Derby Corporation Art Gallery in 1934 and appears not to be recorded in recent literature on the artist. It belongs to a small group of head studies in oil, of the same model from different angles, which Wright executed in the 1770s. The other four head studies in this group are recorded as having descended in the artist's family (B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, London, 1968, p. 233, nos. 183-186, figs. 160 and 161).
The subject of these character studies is identified through an inscription on a related pen-and-ink drawing showing the same model full-length, which states: 'Portrait of John Staveley [sic] who came from Herefordshire with Mr French & sat to Mr Wright in the character of the old man & his ass in the Sentimental Journey' (Fig. 1). Captain Richard French of the Royal Horse Guards was painted by Wright in circa 1771-72 (Nicolson, op. cit, pp. 198-9, no. 64, fig. 85). Wright refers to 'Cap.t French' as a 'good friend' in a letter to his sister from Rome, dated 13 April 1774 (W. Bemrose, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, A.R.A. commonly called 'Wright of Derby', London, 1885, p. 31). He married Millicent, daughter of Wrightson Mundy of Osbaston, Derby, and the sister of one of Wright's principal patrons, Francis Noel Clarke Mundy of Markeaton.
The precise dating of this group of studies is the subject of debate. Nicolson (1968) described the four works then known to him as 'fluent in handling, confident in design', and stated, 'So Italianate are they in feeling that we can hardly believe they were done anywhere but in Italy - not necessarily in Rome, if we are correct in guessing that he has appealed for help to Piazzetta' (op. cit, p. 64). This placed the group stylistically between works of circa 1770-73 and circa 1780-81, 'when memories of Rome were fading and the art of the Netherlands was creeping back to take its place' (ibid.). The author of the 1983 Leger exhibition catalogue, Realism through Informality, pointed out, however, that if the sitter is identifiable as John Stavely, then the studies must have been executed after Wright's return to England in 1775, since it is unlikely that Stavely would have accompanied Wright to Italy. More recently, Judy Egerton (1990) has suggested that the four studies then known to her may have been made before Wright left for Italy, in October 1773, since one of these (Nicolson, no. 186, fig. 161) was used, almost directly, for Wright's painting The Captive, from Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, which he was working on in Rome in the summer of 1774 (Vancouver Art Gallery; J. Egerton, Wright of Derby, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1990, pp. 112-3). While there is no proof that Captain French visited Italy, accompanied by Stavely, the possibility that he did and met Wright while out there should not be discounted.
The present head study and related full-length drawing were employed by Wright when he was working on the composition for The Old Man Grieving over his Ass, another subject painting from Sterne's A Sentimental Journey. The Old Man Grieving over his Ass was left unfinished at Wright's death. The landscape was added later by [?Henry] Corbould and the picture was exhibited at the Manchester Institution in 1831 (present location unknown; Nicolson, p. 247, no. 241).
Lawrence Sterne, celebrated novelist and Anglican clergyman, based A Sentimental Journey on his own experiences of travelling through France and Italy in 1765. This highly subjective and sentimental novel stood apart from earlier travel accounts, which stressed classical learning and objective judgement. The book was published shortly before Sterne's death in 1768. The Old Man Grieving over his Ass is drawn from the section of the novel when Sterne's narrator, the Rev. Mr Yorick, is travelling to the French village of Nampont, near Amiens. He passes a dead ass in the road and on reaching Nampont he sees an old man grieving over the death of the animal. Moved by 'the simplicity of his grief', Yorick recounts, 'And this, said he, putting the remains of a crust into his wallet - and this should have been thy portion, said he, hadst thou been alive to have shared it with me. The mourner was sitting upon a stone-bench at the door, with the ass's panel and its bridle on one side, which he took from time to time - then laid them down - look'd at them and shook his head.'
Wright painted other subjects from Sterne's A Sentimental Journey between 1774 and 1781, and may have used another of the head studies for a second version of The Captive, circa 1775-7 (Derby Art Gallery; Nicolson, no. 217, fig. 162). Stavely appears in Wright's account book under: 'A Kitcat of old John Stavely for M.r Holland, £18.18', which has been identified as Head of Old Man (Private Collection; Nicolson, no. 181, fig. 228). Nicolson also suggested that Stavely was the model for Wright's A Philosopher by Lamplight of circa 1778-81 (no. 194, fig. 226), however, Judy Egerton's view that that model's features are somewhat rounder is surely correct (op. cit, p. 113).
The Wrights of Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire, in whose family this picture descended, do not appear to be direct descendants of the artist. Francis Wright married Selina, eldest daughter of Sir Henry FitzHerbert, 3rd Bt., of Tissington Hall, in August 1830. Their fourth son, FitzHerbert Wright, an Honorary Colonel in the Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire Regiment), married in August 1865 Louisa Charlotte Rudolphine, daughter of Ernst Christopher Frederich von Beckmann. This painting then descended to their son, Henry FitzHerbert, of Yeldersley Hall, Barrister-at-Law, Inner Temple (from 1895), and Member of Parliament for the Leominster Division of Herefordshire (1912-1918). All three generations held the office of Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff for Nottinghamshire (Francis Wright) and Derbyshire (FitzHerbert and Henry FitzHerbert Wright).