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Vesuvius in eruption, viewed from Posillipo

Vesuvius in eruption, viewed from Posillipo
signed and dated 'IW. P.I 1789 [?]' (lower right)
oil on canvas
40 7/8 x 50 ½ in. (103.8 x 128.4 cm.)
Acquired from the artist by Edward Mundy (1750-1822), circa 1789, and by descent at Markeaton Hall, Derby, and elsewhere, through Major Peter Miller Mundy, until sold to the present owner through Agnew's, London, in 1992.
Wright's Account Book, unpublished manuscript, Derby Public Library, as 'A distant view of Vesuvius from the shore of Posillipo bigger than 1/2 length. to Mr Edward Mundy', among pictures of the late 1780s.
W. Bemrose, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright A.R.A., commonly called 'Wright of Derby', London, 1885, p. 123.
B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light, London and New York, 1968, I, pp. 78-79, 84, 88, 92, 97, 254, 283, no. 267, fig. 99, appendix B, no. 30; II, pl. 291.
Winchester, Winchester College; Southampton, Southampton Art Gallery, Pictures from Hampshire Houses, 2 July-17 August 1955, no. 80.
London, Tate Gallery; and Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-1797, 11 April-21 June 1958, no. 20.
London, Tate Gallery, The Romantic Movement, 10 July-27 September 1959, no. 379.

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Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Director, Head of Department

Lot Essay

‘Volcanoes, Wright shows, are many things – primordial events, firework displays, historical landmarks, foci of religious ritual – complex cultural landscapes with many layers of meanings’ (S. Daniels, British Artists: Joseph Wright, London, 2002, p. 65).
It was during his visit to Naples between October and November 1774 that Wright witnessed the volcanic activity of Mount Vesuvius, which he later described in a letter to his brother as: ‘the most wonderful sight in nature’ (letter dated 11 November 1774). With his scientific and industrial knowledge, and his supreme skill at depicting dramatic light effects, Wright was uniquely qualified to capture what he had witnessed. Indeed, the majestic mountain would become one of Wright’s most enduring subjects: he executed over thirty views of the volcano, from different viewpoints and distances over the next two decades. While his early works tended to focus on the physical manifestations of volcanic activity, the channels of molten lava and billowing smoke, observed at close quarters, his later paintings became increasingly reflective and picturesque, culminating in this painting, which Nicolson considered Wright’s most lyrical rendition of the subject (op. cit., p. 79). This painting is in excellent state, having remained in the same Derbyshire family for over two hundred years, and it is one of only two large scale views of Vesuvius to remain in private hands.
Wright set sail for Italy in November 1773 with his pregnant wife Hannah, his pupil Richard Hurleston, and the artist John Downman, and for the last part of his journey was joined by the architect James Paine junior. The party reached Nice in December and went on to Genoa and Leghorn, before travelling to Rome in February 1774, where Wright met George Romney, Ozias Humphry and Jacob More. It was Wright’s visit to Naples from Rome, between October and November 1774, however, that had arguably the greatest impact on the artist during his Italian sojourn. In his later pairing of a painting of Vesuvius with a view of the Girandola fireworks in Rome, Wright declared that: ‘the one is the greatest effect of Nature … the other of Art’. He left Rome in June 1775, journeying via Florence, Bologna, Venice, Parma and Turin, before finally arriving back in Derby in September that year.
Very few of Wright’s Italian subjects were actually painted in Italy. Most of his paintings were worked up when he returned to England from drawings or gouache sketches he made on the spot, and later developed from a variety of other visual and literary sources, for exhibition and sale. Wright’s Italian sketches of Vesuvius can be divided into two groups: studies of the mountain done for their own sake with no composition in mind and studies for paintings. His en plein air sketches vary in execution, from a rapidly worked gouache of the exploding lava to a meticulously detailed pencil study of the volcano’s surface structure (figs. 1 and 2; both Derby Museum and Art Gallery; Nicolson, plates 163 and 164 respectively). Only one compositional drawing is known, which shows Vesuvius from the Mole looking out towards Portici (Derby Museum and Art Gallery; Nicolson, op. cit., I, p. 78, fig. 95). The same view is repeated, only further south-westwards towards Posillipo, in a small painting (16 ¾ x 28 in.; Sanderson collection; Nicolson, plate 167), which was done as a pair to a Firework Display at the Castel Saint’Angelo now in the Birmingham City Art Gallery (Nicolson, plate 166), and was therefore probably executed on his return to Rome. A painting of larger dimensions (40 x 50 in.; Aberystwyth, University College of Wales; Nicolson, plate 169), which shows the same angle as the compositional sketch and Sanderson picture, but is taken from Portici, was dated by Nicolson to either late on the Italian trip or soon after Wright’s return to England ‘while the force of the mountain was still upon him’ (Nicolson, op. cit., I, p. 78), while Judy Egerton believed it must have been painted while Wright was still in Italy (Joseph Wright of Derby, exhibition catalogue, London, Paris, New York, 1990, p. 110). A monumental canvas focussing on the summit of Vesuvius (47 ½ x 67 in.; Derby Museum and Art Gallery; Nicolson, plate 168) may also have been executed while Wright was still in Italy.
Following his return to England, Wright’s paintings of Vesuvius became increasingly evocative, slowly distancing the viewer from the central motif. During the 1770s, Wright introduced a narrative element into two of his paintings of the volcano: the first incorporating the procession of the relic of the head of San Gennaro in the middle ground (Moscow, Pushkin Museum; Nicolson, plate 214); and the second a group of figures carrying a corpse (London, Tate Britain; J. Egerton, op. cit., p. 168, no. 102), which Duncan Bull suggested may represent the death of Pliny the Elder, who was killed in the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius, although Egerton pointed out that the figures appear to be in contemporary rather than classical dress (ibid.). Nicolson dated the present painting and a smaller canvas formerly in the collection of George Anson (25 x 33 in.; Nicolson, plate 294) to the late 1780s, commenting: ‘in the last of all…Wright has retreated almost as far as the Capo di Posillipo, so that Vesuvius is reduced to a low hillock in the distance, lost in a pink haze…in the end he allows distance to add enchantment to the view, and all that remains of the awfulness of the spectacle is an exquisite reverie of pink and green’ (Nicolson, op. cit., I, p. 78).
A third of the sky in this painting is dramatically lit up pink by the volcano’s activity in the right distance, which is then reflected in the still waters below. The smoke billowing from Vesuvius mingles with the clouds above, absorbing the warm glow from the molten lava, which is picked out in impastoed highlights on the mountainside. The warmth of these pink hues and the molten lava is contrasted with the cool light of the moon appearing from behind the clouds on the left of the composition. Wright was expert at depicting different light sources within a single picture, having experimented with the contrasting effects of the cool light of the moon and the warm light of a heated element in his paintings of Blacksmith Shops and Iron Forges of the early 1770s. Nocturnal views of Vesuvius offered further opportunity to explore the dramatic potential of such scenes. Wright also employed his signature technique of scratching into the wet paint to indicate the gentle ripples in the water near the shore in this painting.
While no full eruption of Vesuvius is recorded during Wright’s time in Naples the connoisseur Sir William Hamilton, who was then British Ambassador to the Court of Naples, did report that since 1767: ‘Vesuvius has never been free from smoke, nor ever many months without throwing up red-hot SCORIA … usually follow’d by a current of liquid Lava’; and that: ‘at Naples, when lava appears, and not till then, it is styled an eruption’ (Hamilton, Campi Phlegraei, Observations of the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies, 1779, Supplement, p. 2; and Hamilton, Observations on Mount Vesuvius, 1772, p. 20). Wright thus may have seen lava pouring down the mountain, but he cannot have witnessed the white-hot jet of molten liquid hurled upwards from the heart of the volcano that he depicted in the painting now in Aberystwyth (cited above). These images must rather have relied on the powers of his imagination, as well as on paintings by other artists working in Naples, notably Pierre-Jacques Volaire, who after working in Claude-Joseph Vernet’s studio in Rome had settled in Naples and by 1771 had established himself as a specialist in volcanic eruptions. Wright must also have been familiar with the images of volcanoes which Hamilton commissioned from Pietro Fabris to illustrate his Campi Phlegraei.
Although Vesuvius had been a popular subject in art since the middle of the eighteenth century, Nicolson emphasised that Wright: ‘came to it fresh from the wild Derbyshire hills, and imposed his own wild vision upon it’, since: ‘He alone of all visitors to Naples had witnessed and recorded blast furnaces in operation, had watched scientific experiments conducted by the light of the moon’ (op. cit., p. 78). Indeed, Wright had lamented the absence of his friend John Whitehurst, clockmaker, geologist and fellow member of the Lunar Society (who was studying the formation of rock by volcanic action), in a letter to his brother: ‘I wished for his company when on Mount Vesuvius, his thoughts would have center’d in the bowels of the mountain, mine skimmed over the surface only' (11 November 1774). However, as Stephen Daniels pointed out, while some of Wright’s images of Vesuvius sought to convey an impression of the volcano’s inner power, geology was only one of a number of concerns which informed his views of the volcano and its surrounds, and in the end ‘Pictorial effect was primary’ (op. cit., pp. 64-5), as exemplified in the beautifully balanced composition of this painting.
The Mundys, who owned the picture for over two hundred years, were one of the most important families in Derbyshire. Earlier in his career, between 1762 and 1763, Wright had been commissioned to paint portraits of some of the members of the Markheaton Hunt (Nicolson, plates 34-38). This painting of Vesuvius was commissioned by Edward Mundy, the son of Gilbert Mundy and his wife Ellen. Edward married Hester, daughter and heiress of Colonel Humphrey Miller, who had inherited an estate at Shipley through her mother Hester Leche. Their son, Edward Miller Mundy of Shipley Hall, was a Member of Parliament for Derby between 1784 and 1822. Edward Mundy may have been introduced to Wright through the literary and artistic circle that gravitated around Erasmus Darwin in Lichfield. He also owned a view of Cicero’s Villa and two views of Dovedale by Wright.

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