This portrait of the magnificently dressed John Whetham, of Kirklington was executed in the early 1780s, after Wright's enlightening two years in Italy, between late 1773 and late 1775, and close to the time of his election as an Associate Royal Academician, in 1781. Wright's portraits from this period are celebrated for their increasingly penetrating characterisation of the sitter.
John Whetham was probably born in London in 1732, the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Whetham of St. James's, Westminster and Turnham Green, Middlesex, who purchased the Manor at Kirklington, Nottinghamshire in 1736-7. He went up to Trinity College, Oxford in 1750, and on his father's death in the early 1750s inherited the Kirklington estate, serving as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire between 1759 and 1760. In 1769 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Colonel Evelyn Chadwick of West Leake, Nottinghamshire. The following year, his sister Georgina married Thomas Willoughby, later 4th Lord Middleton (1728-1781), of Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire.
Whetham and Middleton forged a strong friendship, and with a third mutual friend, Robert Holden (1722-1808) of Darley Abbey, Derbyshire, decided to have their portraits painted and each commission a version of the others. Lord Middleton sat to George Romney in 1779 for a full-length portrait in peer's robes (see H. Ward and W. Roberts, Romney, 1904, II, p. 103), while Holden and Whetham sat to Wright in circa 1780. Holden was depicted seated in an interior (Nicolson, op. cit., I, pp. 204-5, no. 84; II, pl.193), whereas Whetham opted for a more swagger costume and pose, and a more dynamic, landscape setting. In accordance with the agreement, Romney painted a second, smaller version of his portrait of Middleton for Holden; and Wright executed a second, full-size version of that of Whetham for Holden (being the present portrait), and a reduced version, described as a 'small oval' in Wright's Account Book, for Middleton (untraced); however no further version of the portrait of Holden by Wright is known.
The first version of Wright's portrait of Whetham, in which he is shown with one arm around a dog and set against a rocky backdrop, remained in the sitter's widow's possession and passed by descent until it was sold in these Rooms on 19 July 1985, lot 98, when it was bought for The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (Nicolson, op. cit., I, pp. 224-5, no. 139; II, pl. 195). In the present portrait, the dog is omitted, the hunting spear that cast a strong diagonal across the sky is laid horizontally, and the setting is transformed into a romantic, cave-like opening, likely inspired by the numerous sketches that Wright had made of the grottoes in the Gulf of Salerno in 1774. However, as Nicolson comments, 'there is nothing to choose in grandeur between the two' (op. cit., p. 72). The resplendent and meticulously observed costume is unchanged. When the Getty portrait was exhibited at Graves' Galleries in 1910 (no. 52) the catalogue described the splendid ensemble as an 'otter-hunting costume', however, as Egerton asserts 'his attire is surely too exotic for that wet and beastly sport' (op. cit., p. 77). Hussey stated that Whetham is in fact shown in the fancy dress that he wore at a ball at Clumber in 1778-9 (op. cit.). Taking this idea up, Egerton suggests that he is perhaps masquerading as an Armenian.
In Wright's Account Book this portrait is recorded as 'Half length copy of Mr. Whetham £25.4.0'. Whetham died in August 1781 and Holden recorded in his diary on 19 April 1782, 'Went down to Mr. Wright to settle about poor W's picture', which as Holden later notes was paid for by the sitter's widow; 'Mrs. Whetham has quite out-manoeuvr'd us by paying for ye picture'. Holden saw the portrait again on 8 May, and on 29 July reported that 'Mr. Wright breakfasted and fix'd poor Whetham's picture'. Hussey reproduced a photograph showing the portraits of the three friends as they hung together at Nuthall Temple, where a later branch of the Holdens lived.