Thence by direct descent to the present owner.
London, Graves’ Galleries, Loan Exhibition of Works by Joseph Wright, A.R.A. of Derby, 1910, no. 17;
Derby, Corporation Art Gallery, Wright of Derby. Bi-Centenary Exhibition, 3 September – 18 November 1934, no. 144 (lent by Captain Richard A. Arkwright);
London, Tate Britain, on long term loan, 1998–2017.
B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby. An exhibition of paintings and drawings, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1958, p. 33;
B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby. Painter of Light, 2 vols, London and New York 1968, vol. I, pp. 17, 71, 162, 168–69 and 177, cat. no. 5, vol. II, reproduced p. 208, pl. 329;
J. Egerton, Wright of Derby, Tate exhibition catalogue, London 1990, p. 198;
Citizens and Kings. Portraits in the Age of Revolution 1760 – 1830, Royal Academy exhibition catalogue, London 2007, p. 396.
In coloured mezzotint by Louis Busière, 1912.
This magnificent and sensitively handled group portrait is one of the finest the artist ever painted and has long been recognised as one of his masterpieces of group portraiture. Depicting the three eldest sons of the cotton manufacturer and landowner Richard Arkwright – Robert, Richard and Peter Arkwright, grandchildren of Sir Richard ‘the father of the Industrial Revolution’ – it is one of a set of four paintings of members of the Arkwright family which are the culmination of a seminal body of conversation-pieces Wright painted in the 1780s and early 1790s, that represent the high point of his art in portraiture.
The three children – Robert in blue on the left, the eldest brother Richard leaning on the kite in the centre, and Peter kneeling to rub down the tail of the kite with a fist full of weeds on the right – were the eldest of eleven children – six sons and five daughters – of Richard Arkwright (1755–1843) and his wife Mary (d. 1827), daughter of Adam Simpson of Bonsall, Derbyshire. Their grandfather, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732–1792), was the inventor of the cotton spinning water-frame (the fundamental piece of machinery which ‘contributed more than any other to the transformation of the industrial face of England’) and architect of the modern factory system, who is widely credited as the ‘father of the Industrial Revolution’. A remarkable, self-made man – the original entrepreneur – Arkwright Senior rose from the poverty of his early life in Preston to become one of the richest commoners in England. As the Gentleman’s Magazine recorded after his death in 1792, he ‘died immensely rich’ leaving behind him ‘manufactories the income of which is greater than that of most German principalities’. Their father, Richard Junior, was brought up in the business, for which he displayed a considerable talent himself, adding significantly to the elder’s commercial enterprises and purchasing both land and great houses in Derbyshire, Essex, Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Yorkshire, income from the estates of which further augmented the family’s fortunes. In 1801 Richard Arkwright Junior was elected High Sheriff of Derbyshire and in 1804 he became a partner in the bank that John Toplis had founded in Wirksworth, which helped finance important industrial infrastructure projects. In 1829 the firm of Arkwright, Toplis & Co. became Richard Arkwright & Co., before eventually merging into Lloyds Bank. By the time of his death in 1843 Arkrwight was, like his father before him, the wealthiest commoner in Britain, with an estimated fortune of £3 million.
Commissioned by their father, who was one of Wright’s most important patrons, the group of four paintings, to which this belongs, were originally hung in the family home at Bakewell in Derbyshire. In addition to the present painting they include a portrait of their grandfather Sir Richard Arkwright (on loan to Derby Museum and Art Gallery; fig. 1); a group portrait of their parents, together with their sister Anne (Derby Museum and Art Gallery, fig. 2); and a corresponding group portrait of their three other siblings, Elizabeth, Charles, and John Arkwright with a goat (on loan to Tate Britain, London; fig. 3), which forms a pendant to the present work. In 1796 Arkwright and his family moved to Willersley Castle, in Cromford (fig. 4), the magnificent gothic mansion which his father had built but never occupied having died before its completion in 1792, and there the paintings were relocated and hung in the dining room until 1922 when the estate was sold. As well as this magnificent set of dynastic portraits Richard Arkwright Junior owned a number of works by Wright; including his View of Ullswater Lake, one of the most famous of the artist’s late landscapes, which he acquired at Wright’s studio sale in 1801 (untraced); A Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, with the figure of Julia banished from Rome (Private collection), one of Wright’s famous Italian coastal scenes; and two of his Northern Caravaggesque inspired exercises in exploring strong effects of chiaroscuro: a Boy blowing up a bladder and a Girl looking though a bladder (both private collection). Wright also painted a view of Willersley Castle (Derby Museum and Art Gallery; fig. 4), presumably commissioned by Arkwright (although its early provenance is unknown), and several views of Arkwright’s Cotton Mills at Cromford – the only known case in the eighteenth century, as Nicolson pointed out, when an artist of Wright’s calibre deigned to document the factory system in operation.1
The Arkwrights were typical of the closely bound and interconnected group of leading industrial families in Derbyshire that made up Wright’s intimate circle of principal patrons. All of these were members of the commercial and intellectual elite of the Midlands who were the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution; the activities of which Wright was to capture in some of his most famous paintings. The activities of many of them, including men like Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and James Watt, centred around the Lunar Society – with which both Joseph Wright and Sir Richard Arkwright were closely associated. For an artist who was keenly inspired by the industrial activity of his time, their friendship and patronage inspired many of Wright’s most dramatic images of that industry, and the scientific developments and understanding that lay behind it; such as the National Gallery’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, painted in 1768, and A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun (Derby Museum and Art Gallery), painted in 1766.
In 1783 Erasmus Darwin founded an offshoot of the Lunar Society, the Derby Philosophical Society, when the former’s activities became increasingly focused on Birmingham. The membership of the new club included several close acquaintances of Wright’s, such as Brooke Boothby of Ashbourne Hall, botanist and confidant of the French philosopher Rousseau, Josiah Wedgwood of the original Lunar Society, and Jedediah Strutt, Sir Richard Arkwright’s long time business partner and an industrialist and inventor in his own right, who also sat to Wright circa 1790. Though neither Arkwright Senior or Junior were fully subscribed members of either society, they were intimately bound up in that world of intellectual, scientific and commercial enterprise which drew succour from its links to the mainstream of Enlightenment knowledge and transformed it through practical application into the technical innovations that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. Wright was also at the centre of this world, and its enterprise forms the spiritual core of his art.
1. Nicolson 1968.
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