One of a small group of portrait heads in black and white chalks: the medium has also been identified as charcoal or pastel (for other works executed in chalk, see exhibition catalogue, Wright of Derby, London, Tate Gallery, 1990, nos. 43, 71 and 72, all illustrated in colour; for charcoal works, see B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, London and New York, 1968, nos. 42-3, 155, 165-6, 168, all illustrated; for works in pastel, Grundy, loc.cit.). They include a group of self-portraits (fig. 1), ranging in date from circa 1765 to circa 1770 (Tate, op.cit., no. 43; Nicolson, op.cit., nos. 165, 166, 168, pls. 69-71), Study of a Boy Reading, of circa 1766 (sold Sotheby's, London, 30 November 2000, lot 1, illustrated), two studies of young girls of circa 1768 (Tate, op.cit., nos. 71 and 72, illustrated in colour), portraits of Thomas Coltman and his wife of circa 1772-3 (Nicolson, op.cit., nos. 42 and 43, pls. 118 and 119), and Young Man in a Fur Cap (fig. 2), circa 1772-3 in the J.P. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky (Nicolson, op.cit., no. 155, pl. 121). All these works measure roughly the same, from about 15 x 11½ in. to 21½ x 14½ in.
The present sitter, with her piled-up, powdered hair typical of the fashion in the 1770s, seems to be the same as in the oil painting of An Old Woman reading a letter in the Company of a Young Girl, one of four overdoors, one of which is dated 1772, at Radbourne Hall (Nicolson, op.cit., no. 203, pl. 94). Although the sitter looks somewhat older in our drawing, nevertheless it would have to have been executed before Wright left England for Rome in October 1773, returning in September 1775.
Wright's distinctive use of chalks in this group of works seems to have been based in general on his interest in Dutch candle-light pictures (see Nicolson, op.cit., pp. 46-8) and in particular on the mezzotints of Thomas Frye (1710-1762) and Wallerant Vaillant (1623-1677) (see Nicolson, op. cit., pp. 31, 42-9; examples of Frye's mezzotints are illustrated figs. 31, 46-8, 57; for an example by Vaillant see Tate, op.cit., p. 64, fig. 11, and for Frye in general, M.Wynne, 'Thomas Frye (1710-1762)', Burlington Magazine, 114, February 1972, pp. 79-84).
William Bemrose, who lent this drawing to the 1883 Wright of Derby exhibition, was the son of a direct descendant of the artist, Margaret Romana Simpson, who married his father, also called William, in 1858. He wrote the first monograph on the artist, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, commonly called 'Wright of Derby', London and Derby, 1885, and owned a large collection of his works as well as a number of documents by and relating to the artist, including the account book, now in the National Portrait Gallery (see Nicolson, op.cit., pp. 22-3, 285). As well as pictures inherited through direct succession from the artist he also purchased a number of works by Wright, but a label on the back confirms that he lent our drawing to the 1883 Derby Exhibition.