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Light on Wright

John Leonard takes a look at Derby's most famous artist on his bi-centenary

Joseph Wright's work seems "absolutely designed to meet the needs of the national curriculum" says Jane Wallis, assistant keeper of fine art at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, her tongue not entirely in cheek.

"Where else can you get such material from one source? Wonderful portraits such as his picture of the industrialist Arkwright - its great if you have a school group looking at people of the past. And then there's the science, Wright is giving us the art of the English Enlightenment, the engine house of the new industrial society. After that we can move on to his narrative paintings and his landscape work."

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 - 1797) is the subject of a new bi-centenary exhibition curated by Wallis at the city gallery.

The core of the show is the permanent collection which includes works from all of the artist's periods, as well as drawings and a newly acquired set of the popular mezzotints which were produced from Wright's paintings.

Dominating this display is "A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery", which, along with Wright's second, similar picture "An Experiment on a Bird in the Pump", is to be found at the National Gallery. For today's viewer, Wright, otherwise obscure in the canon of English art, suddenly becomes a familiar friend, the producer of the most memorable illustrations from a dozen half-remembered history texts.

"The Orrery" is a popular motif for middle England in the mid-18th century. A red-robed philosopher (with a likeness to Sir Issac Newton) is giving a lecture on the planets using an orrery - a mechanical model of the solar system with a candle as its sun. To the left, a businesslike figure takes detailed notes - industry and commerce benefit from scientific advancement - while in the foreground, children and adults are enraptured by the revelations offered by the display.

Such scenes were painted from the life that Wright saw around him. He spent most of his career working in and around Derby as a portraitist and was part of the new rising middle-class which profited from the technological advances of science and industry, popularised in the Midlands by the influential Lunar Society.

Not a Turner, a Constable, a Reynolds or a Hogarth - but this exhibition shows that Wright deserves his own place in the table of elements of English art.

Joseph Wright of Derby Bi-centenary exhibition, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, The Strand, Derby. June 21- September 28. Tel: 01332 255586. For other events, contact Derby Tourist Information Centre 01332 255802

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