Although identified by Nicolson with the entry in Wright's account Book: 'A Kitcat of old John Stavely for Mr. Holland, £18.18', the present work was intended as a character study (possibly in this case that of an apostle) and not a portrait. Stavely, a model about whom nothing is known, appears in a number of Wright's subject pictures from the 1770s, including 'The Captive, from Sterne' (Vancouver Art Gallery; on permanent loan to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and 'The Old Man and the Ass, from Sterne' (whereabouts unknown). If indeed the work does represent an apostle, it is an interesting example of the artist using a familiar religious form as a pretext to depict a sitter of highly individualized character. In common with Reynolds, who used beggars and street urchins as models for his subject pictures, Wright was able in these works to depict individuals from a lower social level than that allowed by conventional portraiture. These character studies have their roots in a Northern tradition; as Nicolson writes of the present picture: 'In the last of the series dating from about 1780, when memories of Rome were fading and the art of the Netherlands was creeping back to take its place, we find ourselves once more in the world of Gerrit Dou, for whom Wright had the impudence to express admiration when on sacred Italian soil; even though in the interval since his youth he may have gained, through contact with the South, a greater breadth of vision'.
The present work was painted for John Holland of Ford Hall, Derbyshire, who was a close friend and important patron of the artist. He amassed a large collection of Wright's work and as one of Wright's executors, was involved with the sale of the artist's pictures at Christie's in 1801.
The painting retains its original Neo-classical frame of a pattern designed by the artist and used exclusively by him. By devising this unique type of frame, particularly for exhibition works, Wright was advertising the individuality of his pictures.