On Making Joseph Wright AR

Virgil's Grave
study1 Virgil's Tomb

The cultural artefacts I most value in Derby are Joseph Wright’s paintings and the early figurines produced at the Derby Porcelain Factory. Collections of both are housed behind the unprepossessing façade of the city’s Museum & Art Gallery. On the ground floor a fine collection of Derby porcelain is chronologically displayed to tell the story of the celebrated factory from its foundation (c.1750). On the next floor, having passed through Archaeology, we enter a large gallery devoted to the works of Joseph Wright.

During the decade I have worked in Derby, I’ve seldom visit one without the other, but only in a vague way did I ever connect the two – maybe it is the interceding Bronze Age log boat that breaks the thread!

Around the time I was first looking at Wright’s paintings I began to collect nineteenth-century Staffordshire flatback figures. Although influenced by Derby porcelain, they are unsophisticated by comparison. Whilst a growing appreciation of ceramic figurines helped pave the way, I did not directly connected Wright and Derby Porcelain until I began work on this project.

For eighteen months I have been collaborating with Dr. Matthew Leach on Augmented Reality (AR) projects. Matthew introduced me to the phenomena, on which he wrote his PhD and is an expert. As a montagist I found the possibility of placing images into the actual environment creatively stimulating and we completed three installations in quick succession. Our projects depended, however, on GPS readings to locate the position of the viewer and trigger the image overlay. A technical limitation we found is the instability of GPS readings, which vary depending on weather atmospherics and signal strength. It was often impossible, for example, to pick up a signal inside a building or between high buildings.

Never the less we persevered and in recognition of our work were awarded Pioneer status by Layar, the Dutch software company that developed the industry standard AR platform. We were given prior knowledge of their beta software in development, under a non-disclosure agreement. In spring 2011 Layar announced to developers their intension to launch feature tracking technology. Feature tracking does not require GPS readings to trigger the overlaid image, but works on image recognition. This makes it very suitable for working indoors with two-dimensional images, in our case paintings. Once an image is identified in Layar’s database, additional information and images are displayed in front of the painting when viewed through a smartphone. The beauty of feature tracking is that the overlay can be exactly positioned.

We wanted to explore how this technology could be applied to art gallery displays. Sure, QR codes have in the past been tried in galleries to link viewers to additional information, but it is a cumbersome, rather un-visual process, which is only as good as the sites to which viewers are directed. Feature tracking is primarily visual, and therefore all the more appropriate for engaging an art gallery audience. But what was I to do with it? How to respond to Wright’s paintings?

Well the Eureka Moment happened in that playful daydreaming space where creativity thrives. Walking around the gallery making photos on my phone, the idea started to form. On the computer I combined a few paintings and porcelains, putting a deer into a landscape and a courting couple before Virgil’s grave – and they gelled. Then began the hard work.

Derby Porcelain Figures 1750-1848 by Peter Bradshaw and Derby Porcelain by John Twitchett proved invaluable sources of information on the history of the factory and the figurines produced there. Copiously illustrated, they allowed me to make studies by placing porcelains and paintings together in a variety of combinations. Twitchett also led me to the fine collection at the Royal Crown Derby Museum, much of which he was responsible for securing during his tenure as curator.

Seemingly endless possibilities opened up before me, which needed to be narrowed down. And so I decided to set a ground rule for the series; I was only to use paintings and porcelains that could be viewed in Derby.

From the start I knew that it was not enough for images to simply look good together - their combination had to produce significant meanings that reflected not only on the past, but also on the present. Whether I achieved this aim is for the viewer to judge, but some interesting questions are raised by the speculative nature of the series, which I would like to briefly outline.

Maria from Sterne
Study2 Maria from Sterne

Joseph Wright and William Duesbury, father and son

What evidence is there to connect Joseph Wright to the porcelain factory and its owners William Duesbury I & II? Respected historians have made some tantalisingly vague statements regarding this. John Twitchett, for example, claims that ‘Joseph Wright… probably supplied Deusbury II with drawings and advice, and obviously influenced the landscape painters of the late eighteenth century.’ (Derby Porcelain p287).

Visual evidence of the later is provided by a porcelain dish depicting Arkwright’s mill at Cromford by Zachariah Boreman (c.1790), made eight years after Wright had painted the same subject. The elderly Samuel Keys, an ex-worker at the factory, offered further evidence when in 1837 he recalled that ‘Zachariah Boreman, a Chelsea painter, came from London, and may justly be called the father of China Painting. He excelled in landscape painting, and was on intimate terms with Mr. Wright, the celebrated artist.’ It is also worth considering the anonymous dessert plate (c1790-1800) on display at Derby Museum and Art Gallery showing an erupting volcano, a subject surely borrowed from Wright?

Direct proof of Wright’s contact with William Duesbury II is provided by the full-length portrait Wright made of Duesbury’s daughter Sally (c1790-5), for which he was paid £31-10s. Scholars have analysed in depth the overlapping social and professional circles and societies operating in Derby and the region at this time. Paul Elliott lists William Duesbury II as a member of the Philosophical Society alongside Wright’s friends Peter Perez Burdett and John Whitehurst, though Wright himself was not a member. I am unaware of Wright and Duesbury being recorded at the same social event, through the kind of evidence to be found, for example, in William Godwin’s diaries.

Other scraps of information I’ve come across, which are hardly conclusive in themselves, accumulatively might point to further connections between the painter and the porcelain factory; William Pether (1738-1821) an engraver of Wright’s work had at one time been the manager of the Bow porcelain factory, which was taken over by Duesbury; John Dubourg, Wright’s framer (c.1760), was a Huguenot immigrant, as was the first owner of the factory, Andrew Planché; Wright’s nephew, Richard, held an auction in Derby of blue and white porcelain imported from China; The unpopular owner of the factory after Duesbury II, Michael Kean, bought Wright’s collection of plaster casts and terracottas at an auction after the artist’s death, for the ‘instruction’ of his craftsmen; The first historian of Derby Porcelain, William Bemrose (1831-1908), also produced the first biography of Joseph Wright, though did not cross-refer the two to my knowledge. Bemrose married Joseph Wright’s great granddaughter Margaret Romana in 1858. But these instances are maybe no more than the everyday interconnections one might expect to find in a small town of only 9,000 inhabitants.

I’m sure that Wright’s relationship with the Duesburys was nowhere near as professionally important as that with Josiah Wedgewood and his factory at Etruria. But whilst the later is well documented, I would suggest the former offers scope for further research.

Tinker and Mill
Study3 Tinker and Mill

Themes Employed by Joseph Wright and the Derby China Works

A consideration of the markets for fine porcelain and Wright’s paintings would shed light on their respective professional and commercial standings. I suspect they were both aiming at a similar market comprised of aristocrats, the landed gentry, and the commercial and professional classes. We may gauge their relative value when considering Wright’s fee of £31-10s for the portrait of Sally Duesbury, against a cost of between £1 and £3 for a large porcelain figure group. In today’s terms a commissioned portrait by an established painter might cost in the region of £10,000.00, which would make the porcelain comparatively expensive at between £330.00 and £1,000. Porcelain figurines were luxury items used to decorate banquette settings or displayed in cabinets as things of beauty.

What is evident from the series of montages I have made is that whilst Duesbury & Son produced figures mostly based in classical mythology, Wright seldom used such stories, drawing his subjects instead from a range of modern literary, philosophical and cultural sources.

There are scholars more able than I to untangle this knot, but I would like to conclude with a few brief observations on the possible reasons for their respective choice of subjects.

Knowledge of the classics was a sign of a ‘good’ education, available to the upper echelons of society. Was Joseph Wright sufficiently conversant with Greek and Roman mythology to paint these subjects? He attended Derby Grammar School where he would have learnt Latin by rote. This did not mean, however, that he was ever introduced to the classics. Of more significance to Wright’s future career was the shift at this time in the school syllabus to include the more commercial subjects of history, geography, natural sciences and mathematics.

Wright would of course have seen classical themes employed by other artists. As a pupil of Thomas Hudson, Wright would have known his fine collection of Old Master drawings, which Hudson had purchased from his father-in-law, the painter John Richardson.

Always resourceful in researching his subjects, Wright often consulted knowledgeable friends on themes and technical details. After his return from Italy classical subjects appear more often, though this might have been due less to his Italian experience than the prevailing fashion for Neo-Classicism, promoted by artists associated with the ascendant Royal Academy of Arts.

David Solkin in Painting for Money compares the rival exhibitions held in 1769 by the Society of Artists and the newly founded Royal Academy of Arts. To the latter belonged Sir Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West and Angelica Kauffmann, whilst the Society of Artists could still count Johann Zoffany, George Stubbs and Joseph Wright amongst its members. Solkin points to the preponderance of classical titles in the RA catalogue, whilst at the Society of Artists classical themes were absent. Instead modern subjects in the form of genre scenes and conversation pieces predominated. Solkin comments on the high number of candle and moonlight themes in the Dutch tradition at the Society, which demonstrated high levels of technical skill considered by the Academy as artisanal and therefore to be avoided.

The Academicians were attempting to reestablish the hierarchy of genres, which placed History Painting above all else. Classical references were intelligible to a wealthy audience of educated connoisseurs, whilst the modern narratives of the Society painters appealed to a broader audience. Solkin suggests that ‘though Wright had ambitions of producing a serious form of moral painting, he also wanted to make something that would sell, that would be accessible and popular, even if it entailed ignoring the hierarchical imperatives of academic theory.’ The new audiences did not share the old hierarchy of genres, which allowed Wright to move freely between them and produce something new by mixing the social informality of the conversation piece, with the moral message of History Painting.

The idea of hybridizing genres is maybe one of the facets of Wright’s paintings that immediately appeal to today’s artists. But the depth and complexity of his work will always offer new insights to subsequent generations. The augmentations we have made in this project I hope both respect Joseph Wright’s work, and the trajectory of his ideas.

John Goto
December 2011