Joseph Wright of Derby (Derby 1734-1797)
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Joseph Wright of Derby (Derby 1734-1797)

A Blacksmith's Shop

Joseph Wright of Derby (Derby 1734-1797)
A Blacksmith's Shop
oil on canvas
30¼ x 25 3/8 in. (76.8 x 64.4 cm.)
Edward Parker of Brigg, Lincolnshire (who also owned two 'candlelights' and a 'conversation' of two girls with their servant, now on loan to the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), bought at or soon after the 1771 exhibition of the Society of Artists, for 40 gns.; his sale (+), Christie's, London, 2 March 1782, lot 87 (10 gns. to Stears).
Anonymous sale; Thomas Brearey, Brookside, Derby, 4 December 1816.
A. Buchanan, by 1910.
Private collection, USA.
B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light, London, 1968, I, pp. 50, 107 and 237, under no. 199.
B. Nicolson, 'Wright of Derby: Addenda & corrigenda', The Burlington Magazine, CXXX, no. 1027, 1988, pp. 757-8.
J. Egerton, ed., Wright of Derby, exhibition catalogue, London, 1990, pp. 98-9, under nos. 47-50, and p. 240, under no. 158.
B. Allen, L. Dukelskaya, eds. British Art Treasures from Russian Imperial Collections in the Hermitage, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Toledo, Saint Louis and St. Petersburg, 1997, pp. 180-1, under no. 19.
D. Solkin, 'Joseph Wright of Derby and the Sublime Art of Labor, Representations, 83, Summer 2003, p. 176.
E.E. Barker, A. Kidson, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, exhibition catalogue, London, 2007, p. 171, under no. 45.
London, Society of Artists, 1771, no. 202, as 'A Small Ditto [i.e. Blacksmith's Shop] viewed from without'.
London, 6 Pall Mall, Henry Graves & Co. Ltd., Loan Exhibition of Works by Joseph Wright ARA of Derby, 1910, no. 72, as 'The Farrier's Shop (Scene, Dale Abbey)' (lent by A. Buchanan).
W. Pether, as 'Farrier's Shop', 1 December 1771.
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Lot Essay

Wright's dramatic portrayal of a lowly Blacksmith's Shop is a highly significant re-discovery, having been untraced since it was exhibited at the Graves Galleries in 1910. Known only through an engraving executed by William Pether in 1771 (fig. 1), Benedict Nicolson, in his complete catalogue of Wright's works published in 1968, lamented: 'We have lost a fine invention' (op. cit., p. 50). One of a group of five Blacksmith's Shops and Iron Forges executed between 1771 and 1773, and the only one to remain in private hands, this painting is both an expression of Wright's close engagement in the spirit of the Industrial Revolution and a sophisticated example of his mastery of chiaroscuro effects.

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. He was, however, the first artist of his generation to explore its full potential as a subject for serious, academic art.

Wright jotted down some ideas for 'Night Pieces' in his Account Book in the late 1760s - 'Two men forming a bar of iron into a horse shoe from whence the light must proceed' (cited in ibid., p. 51). This initial idea developed into three paintings of Blacksmith's Shops, being this painting and two larger, distinct treatments of the subject now respectively in the Yale Center for British Art (fig. 2) and the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, all executed in 1771; and two of Iron Forges, in a Tate Britain, London and the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (fig. 3), painted in 1772 and 1773 respectively. Each painting was exhibited at the Society of Artists, where Wright's two modern scientific subjects - A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery (Derby, Derby Museum and Art Gallery) and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (London, National Gallery) - had been exhibited to great acclaim in 1766 and 1768, and quickly found buyers. Wright's interest in modern scientific and industrial subjects, linked in Wright's mind as part of a general pattern of change, was strongly influenced by his close acquaintance with members of an important provincial group of doctors, scientists, philosophers and industrialists, including his own doctor and friend, Erasmus Darwin, his friend and patron, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt and Joseph Priestley, known as the Lunar Society (see R.F. Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birmingham, Oxford, 1963). Established in the mid-1760s, the Society met monthly on the Monday nearest the full moon to conduct experiments and discuss current developments in areas such as chemistry, electricity, medicine, gases and other topical subjects of scientific and industrial investigation. Through his close contact with the Society, which David Fraser describes as a microcosm of the Enlightenment, Wright was able to draw from the mainstream of current thinking despite his provincial location (D. Fraser, 'Joseph Wright of Derby and the Lunar Society: An essay on the artist's connections with science and industry', in J. Egerton, op. cit., p. 15).

In progressing from the depiction of traditional Blacksmith's Shops such as this, with their emphasis on hard, manual labour, to the representation of Iron Forges, with water-powered tilt-hammers, and finally to the portrayal of Arkwright's Cotton Mills by Night in circa 1782-3, Wright charted the progression of modernity in both its technological and sociological aspects. This painting is unusual within the group in both its small scale and in the exclusion of any peripheral figures. The plethora of characters in the other paintings from this series adds a further social dimension to the scene. The inclusion for example of a young apprentice, possibly the son of one of the blacksmiths, and a retired, patriarchal figure in the Yale Blacksmith's Shop introduces a sense of the hereditary nature of this trade, as knowledge and manual skills are passed from one generation to the next. In the Iron Forge of 1772, the iron-founder's wife and children have been introduced to the scene, thus linking hard, honest labour with social responsibility and family fulfilment. While in the Iron Forge of 1773, the main protagonist has shifted from the labourer to an elegantly dressed man who surveys the iron-founder's work, most probably the entrepreneur who has invested in this small enterprise. By distilling the scene to two blacksmiths and a horse in this painting, Wright focuses the viewer's attention on their noble labour. In their ennoblement of labour and emphasis on its personal and social benefits, and in their vision of industrial organisation, Wright's Blacksmith's Shops and Iron Forges embodied the values of the rising middle classes who were investing in the Industrial Revolution. This vision was also clearly acceptable to the aristocracy, since Wright sold one Blacksmith's Shop to Lord Melbourne, the first Iron Forge to Lord Palmerston and the second to the Empress of Russia.

The Blacksmith's Shops and Iron Forges in turn provided Wright with the ideal material for exploring and developing his extraordinary talent for capturing complex chiaroscuro effects, from the cold play of moonlight on the night sky and exterior of the dilapidated building, to the exploding impact of the light emanating from the furnace and the heated iron element on the bodies of the labourers and the ramshackle interior. Wright had already established a reputation as a master of dramatically-lit scenes, in which the light radiates from a single source; most notably in his Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candle Light (private collection; Society of Artists exhibition, 1765, no. 163) and An Academy by Lamplight (New Haven, Yale Center for British Art; Society of Artists, 1769, no. 197), and in his Orrery and Air Pump paintings. In these paintings Wright was again breaking new ground, for while some of his contemporaries had used chiaroscuro in their works, including Reynolds in A candlelight study made at the Adacemy in St. Martin's Lane of circa 1755 and Thomas Frye in his mezzotint Heads published between 1760 and 1762, none had rendered it as skilfully or used it to as powerful an effect as Wright. On seeing his An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump in 1768, a Gazeteer reviewer proclaimed Wright to be 'a very great and uncommon genius, in a peculiar way' (cited in ibid., p. 15).

Klingender, in Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947), suggested that Wright would have been inspired in his portrayal of smithies and forges by 17th century depictions of the classical subject of Vulcan's Forge by the Le Nain brothers. Nicolson maintained however that 'they [the Le Nain compositions] did no more than stimulate his imagination which was already ripe for attack on such themes ... there is nothing in the forge pictures that has not been anticipated in embryo in the scientific scenes'. Nicolson did concede however, that a close precursor could be found in a painting of an Iron Forge 'Attributed to Jan Molenaer', now in the Ponce Art Museum, Puerto Rico. Regardless of any putative formal influences, Wright approached his subjects with a new and innovative manner, facilitated by his extraordinary grasp of the complexities of light effects. As the compiler of the 1816 sale catalogue explained when describing this painting:
'Honthorst, Schalken, and their various Dutch and Flemish imitators, instead of faithfully copying the yellow and reddish reflections of torch or fire-light from a chamber-hearth, or forge, painted those interior illuminations with a flare of almost pure, unmitigated red, opposed to black shadows; an effect, which is only to be seen in conflagrations. Wright exploded this error. In his candle, torch, and chamber fire-lights, he has represented the rich yellow gleams of that effect, with pre-eminent truth and brilliancy' (cited in E. Barker, op. cit., p. 69).

Turning to the complexities of Wright's technique, Rica Jones makes it clear that: 'No matter how many candle light pictures by other artists he might have seen, he would have had to start from guesswork, hearsay and experiment when it came to producing similar effects himself' ('Wright of Derby's Technique of Painting', in J. Egerton, op. cit., p. 267). Jones goes on to explain how Wright achieved the blinding white glare of the newly-forged iron bar in the Yale and Derby Blacksmith's Shops: in the former he employed a complex layering system of thick lead white applied on top of dead-colouring, followed by a layer of gold leaf, which in turn he covered with an opaque layer of Naples yellow paint; while in the latter he used an opaque layer of yellowish-white directly on top of a white ground. In this painting the direct glare of the iron bar is obscured by one of the labourers. Although executed less than a year apart, the colouring of the Derby painting is bolder and the handling looser than in the earlier Yale picture: whereas in the first painting Wright had reserved the boldest impasto for the figures, in the second he extended its use to the broken, crumbling architecture. These changes highlight the rapid development of Wright's technique at this date. The handling of this painting is closer to the Derby picture, suggesting that it dates between the two. As in the Derby painting, which Barker describes as 'a manifesto of the power of painting', contrasting splashes of pigments, including yellows, greens and pinks, are applied in thick impasto brushstrokes and in some instances directly with a palette knife, to create an effect of moss-encrusted mortar and brick (E. Barker, op. cit., p. 167). This bold manipulation of the oil medium would become a hallmark of Wright's mature style.

Led by Klingender, some scholars have noted that the seemingly makeshift settings of the three Blacksmith's Shops, the present with its gothic arch and broken tracery window, and the Yale and Derby pictures with carved angels over arches, combined with a powerful, central light source, are intended to evoke scenes of the Nativity and Adoration. When this painting was exhibited in 1910 the building was identified as Dale Abbey, Derbyshire's best-known ruined Abbey. This link remains tenuous, however. Nicolson rejected such romantic notions, claiming that Wright was simply presenting the scenes as they existed, and as demonstrated in Wright's in situ pen and ink studies of glass-blowing factories and iron forges in similarly makeshift settings. While it was indeed common practice to house workshops in disused buildings, the contemporary viewer, steeped in 16th and 17th century depictions of the Nativity, would in all likelihood have made this association for themselves. Fraser explains that this illusion to religious art, whether overt or otherwise, not only functioned to elevate the subject-matter by presenting it in the imagery of an established pictorial tradition, but that it also related to the way that the natural world and its laws were perceived by Wright and his contemporaries. The scientists and philosophers of the day, notably John Whitehurst, clockmaker, scientist and member of the Lunar Society, believed that they were revealing 'those laws by which the Creator chose to form the World' (J. Whitehurst, Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth, London, 1778, cited in D. Fraser, 'Joseph Wright of Derby and the Lunar Society', in Egerton, op. cit., p. 20).

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