Joseph Wright of Derby, A.R.A (Derby 1734-1797)
Joseph Wright of Derby, A.R.A (Derby 1734-1797)

Portrait of Colonel Charles Heathcote (1730-1803), full-length, in the uniform of the 35th Foot, in a wooded landscape

Joseph Wright of Derby, A.R.A (Derby 1734-1797)
Portrait of Colonel Charles Heathcote (1730-1803), full-length, in the uniform of the 35th Foot, in a wooded landscape
oil on canvas
50 x 40 in. (127 x 100 cm.)
By descent from the sitter until sold; Christie's, 26 April 1985, lot 113.
Private collection, U.S.A. Private collection, U.K.
Listed in the artist's account books for the early 1770s (Col. Heathcote small full length, £31.10').
W. Bemrose, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, A.R.A., London, 1885, p. 120.
B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, London, 1968, I, pp. 17, 36, and 203, no. 79; II, pl. 115.
J. Egerton, Wright of Derby, exhibition catalogue, London, 1990, p. 75, under no. 31.
London, Society of Artists, 1772, no. 369 or 370.

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Lot Essay

Executed in the early 1770s, this painting of Colonel Heathcote demonstrates clearly Wright's powers of rendering the human form and physiognomy, his skill at meticulously observing details of costume, and his exceptional dexterity as a landscape painter. The portrait would either have been painted in Liverpool, where Wright enjoyed a thriving career between 1768 and 1771, or in his native Derby, where the artist worked until his departure for Italy in October 1773. Wright exhibited a substantial number of paintings at the Society of Artists 1772, the year the Society moved from its old premises at Spring Gardens to a more prestigious address on the Strand and the year that Wright exhibited this portrait of Colonel Heathcote. The range of his exhibits in 1772, including two portraits, both described as 'Portrait of an Officer, a small whole length' (this portrait and a portrait of Captain Robert Shore Milnes, Sotheby's, New York, 25 January 2007, lot 69, $7,208,000), A Landscape, a Blacksmith's Shop (Derby Museum and Art Gallery), An Iron Forge (private collection) and An History: Miravan Opening the Tomb of his Ancestors (Derby Museum and Art Gallery), demonstrated Wright's extraordinary versatility as an artist.

A reviewer of the 1772 Society of Artists exhibition in the Morning Chronicle commented, 'The Officer is a good bold figure; but the tree near which he is supposed to stand, as well as the Shrubbery, is by much too glaring [sic]'. It is not clear whether the reviewer was referring to the portrait of Colonel Heathcote, or Captain Milnes, since both are painted in a similar format, with the figure set in a commanding pose against an oak tree. The foliage of the tree that silhouettes Heathcote's head and extended right arm has been executed in thick, staccato brushstrokes, and the pigment that describes parts of the gnarly bark, which includes dashes of orange, pink and blue, has been applied and manipulated with a palate knife. The vivacious brushwork of the landscape contrasts with the relatively smooth execution of the figure of Heathcote and the carefully observed details of the uniform, including the silver loops on the zigzag pattern buttonholes and the lapels, the fringe of the single epaulette, and the silver hilted sword and spurs. The towering oak echoes and adds force to Heathcote's imposing stance, while its execution infuses the portrait with a dynamism befitting a man of action. This virtuoso technique, which was so shocking at the time, but is celebrated today, is also evident in Wright's atmospheric painting of the Earthstopper of 1773 (Derby Museum and Art Gallery).

Wright and Reynolds painted a number of portraits of heroic military figures in the 1760s and 1770s, which collectively celebrate British military prowess and supremacy, following the end of the Seven Years' War and the establishment of British rule in India. More specifically, this portrait of Colonel Heathcote commemorates a twenty-two year career in the army; having been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 5th Foot (Northumberland Fusiliers) in October 1745, Heathcote retired in the same year that this portrait was exhibited at the Society of Artists, in 1772.

The sixth and youngest son of Samuel Heathcote, a Derby solicitor, and Hannah, daughter of John Thornhill of Bakewell, Heathcote was fifteen when he joined the army in 1745. He rose rapidly through the ranks, to Lieutenant in 1746 and Captain in 1754. Heathcote was captured during raids on the coast of France at St. Malo and St. Cas in 1758, and was subsequently promoted to Major in the 94th Foot (Royal Welsh Volunteers) in 1760. He served as military Governor of Dominica, an island in the West Indies that was put under British jurisdiction as part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years' War. Heathcote appears again as a Major in the 4th Foot (the King's Own) in 1768, with a final promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel in the 35th Foot (Royal Sussex) in December 1769, before retiring in 1772. According to the family history, he eventually commanded the Hereford militia, and was paymaster of the Hereford recruiting district in 1798 (E. Heathcote, The Family of Heathcote, Winchester, 1899). In 1768, Heathcote married Dorothea Anne Sole (1738-1796), the widow of Robert Nowel, a Derby surgeon. Dorothea and her first husband, Robert Nowel of Derby, were painted by Wright in circa 1760. A 'Captain Heathcote' is listed amongst Wright's sitters in Derby in circa 1760, presumably a relative of the present sitter, possibly a brother. Wright clearly knew the Heathcotes well by the mid-1770s, since he mentions them in a letter to his brother from Rome dated 12 February 1774: 'Make my Compts to Col. Heathcote, his Lady'.

The portraits of Colonel Heathcote and Captain Milnes are rare examples of Wright's mastery of the small full-length portrait, or conversation piece, a genre which Hogarth and Devis had pioneered earlier in the century and which Zoffany was soon to become a master. They can be compared with Wright's Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Coltman, exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771 (Christie's, London, 23 November 1984, lot 94; London, National Gallery), which is executed on a similarly small scale and shows the figures set in a landscape. The only later small full-length portrait is that of John Milnes (Paris, Musée du Louvre), which, executed in 1776, was likely painted in a format and on a scale that would complement the 1772 portrait of his older brother, Captain Milnes. Benedict Nicolson, in his catalogue raisonné of Wright's works, describes the three paintings of Heathcote, Milnes and the Coltmans as among Wright's most successful portraits and expresses surprise that Wright did not develop this series of 'appealing conversations which bring Devis alive and up-to-date' (op. cit., p. 36).

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