Lot 11
  • 11

Joseph Wright of Derby, A.R.A.

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 GBP
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  • Joseph Wright of Derby, A.R.A.
  • An Academy by Lamplight
  • oil on canvas


Probably Sir Francis Crossley, 1st Bt of Halifax (1817–1872), Belle Vue, Halifax, West Yorkshire;

Probably by inheritance to his widow Martha Eliza Crossley (c. 1821–1891), who, following her husband’s death, moved the contents of Belle Vue to Somerleyton Hall, Lowestoft, Suffolk;

By descent to her son, Sir Savile Crossley, 2nd Bt and 1st Lord Somerleyton (1857–1935), at Somerleyton Hall;

Thence by direct descent. 


London, Society of Artists, 1769, no. 197;

Munich, The Residenz, Europaisches Rokoko: Kunst und Kultur des 18 Jahrhunderts, 15 June – 15 September 1958, no. 119;

London, Sotheby’s, Childhood. A Loan Exhibition of Works of Art, 2 January 1988 – 27 January 1988, no. 92;

Nottingham University and Iveagh Bequest Kenwood, The Artist’s Model in British Art from Lely to Etty, 1991;

Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, In the Public Eye: Treasures from the East of England, 1999, no. 111;

Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, Light! – The Industrial Age: 1750–1900 Art and Science, Technology and Society, 20 October 2000 – 11 February 2001, no. 6;

Pittsberg, Carnegie Museum of Art, Light! – The Industrial Age: 1750–1900 Art and Science, Technology and Society, 7 April – 29 July 2001, no. 6;

Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, 17 November 2007 – 24 February 2008, no. 31.


Anon. Inventory of the Contents of Somerleyton Hall, 1939, p. 19 (as hanging in the Dining Room);

B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, exh. cat., Arts Council, London 1958, p. 13;

V.H. Rinn, Europaisches Rokoko: Kunst und Kultur des 18 Jahrhunderts, exh. cat., Munich 1958, no. 119, p. 109;

J. Egerton, Wright of Derby, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1990, p. 64;

Anon., In the Public Eye: Treasures from the East of England, exh. cat., Cambridge 1999, checklist 111;

A. Blühm and L. Lippincott, Light! The Industrial Age 1750–1900. Art & Science, Technology & Society, exh. cat., London, Pittsburgh and Amsterdam 2000, pp. 70 and 244, reproduced in colour p. 70;

E. Barker and A. Kidson et al., Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, exh. cat., New Haven and London 2007, no. 31, p. 159, reproduced in colour p. 160 and on the front jacket (detail);

M. Postle, ‘Joseph Wright of Derby. Liverpool and New Haven’, in The Burlington Magazine, vol. CL, April 2008, pp. 277-78, reproduced in colour fig. 90;

S. Leach, ‘‘The little foibles of children’. An Academy by lamplight (1769) by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797)’, in The British Art Journal, vol. XVII, no. 3, Spring 2017, pp. 40-43.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Joseph Wright of Derby. An Academy by Lamplight. This painting has benefited from the immense advantage of having apparently remained in the same collection virtually throughout its existence, and this is visible in its exquisite condition. It is even possible that it has scarcely ever been cleaned. There is some slight trace of the varnish being skimmed over the figures and over individual highlights, but the continuity of the varnish across the surface has been retained throughout. There has been a careful relining probably when the picture was first exhibited in the mid twentieth century. At this time the canvas seems to have slackened slightly in the upper right background area, with a faint crease on the left on the top edge. This minor looseness in tension near the top of the canvas was secured by the lining without any disruption to the paint surface elsewhere. There has been simply a slightly more evident craquelure in the upper right background and one little old crease on the left of the top edge. Elsewhere throughout the painting has been secured without any disturbance apparent at all of the paint surface. The stretcher is original. The exceptionally rare state of preservation of this painting has meant that under ultra violet light the only trace of retouching is two little lines along the horizontal craquelure in the upper right background. The strength of the original brushwork in the individual figures caught in the vivid light of the lamp, with their drawings, has remained pure and utterly intact, with all the subtlety of the shadows. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

The greatest masterpiece by Wright of Derby left in private hands, this picture is one of the most iconic images of the British Romantic movement. An Academy by Lamplight is one of a small number of important early candlelit subject paintings, all of which were painted in the late 1760s and early 1770s before he travelled to Italy, which both established the artist’s contemporary celebrity and for which he is most famous today.

Joseph Wright of Derby is one of a small and select group of British eighteenth-century artists whose work transcends national boundaries and speaks to a wider global sensibility. His greatest paintings, such as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (National Gallery, London, fig. 1); The Orrery (Derby Museums and Art Gallery); The Old Man and Death (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford Connecticut); and A Grotto in the Kingdom of Naples with Banditti (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), have become icons of British art the world over.

An Academy by Lamplight is such a masterpiece, and one of the artist’s most celebrated works. Painted in 1769 and exhibited at the Society of Artists of Great Britain that year, this is the first of two versions of the subject painted by Wright. The second version, painted circa 1770/71, which has a number of significant changes to the composition, most notably the vaulted gothic architecture in the background and the inclusion of a cast of the Borghese Gladiator on the right, was acquired by Paul Mellon in 1964 and is now part of the celebrated Mellon Collection at the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven (fig. 2). The year 1769 was a seminal moment in the development of the British art world and Wright's seemingly tranquil scene was in fact an incendiary contribution to contemporary artistic discourse, as well as being a powerful statement on the erotic allure of antiquity and the transformative power of art.

The painting depicts six young draughtsmen, in various stages of adolescence, the youngest possibly about five, the eldest perhaps eighteen or nineteen, grouped around an antique marble statue known as the Borghese Nymph with a Shell, which dominates the composition. A first century Roman marble that was rediscovered during the Renaissance, it was much admired in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Wright’s day the original was housed at the Villa Borghese, in Rome, and it is now in the Louvre, Paris, having been bought by the Emperor Napoleon from his brother-in-law, Prince Camillo Borghese, in 1807. In the early 1730s a marble copy of the statue was brought to England from Rome by the sculptor Peter Scheemakers, and it may be this that served as the model for Wright’s painting. A symbol of carefree childhood and a model of idealised beauty, it was heavily influential on artists across Europe, from great painters like Velázquez to the Sèvres porcelain factory.

The scene is dramatically lit by a single oil lamp, hidden from view behind the red drape that hangs down in the upper left of the composition. Its warm glow illuminates the statue, lending an almost warm fleshiness and a soft sensuality to the cold marble, whilst also picking out the ruddy features of the students themselves and throwing them into high relief. The soft light dances on their exquisitely modelled collars, contrasting strongly with the rich blackness beyond. Unlike in his second version of the picture, which includes a complex architectural space beyond, here Wright uses the figures to structure the space, directing the focus of attention towards the sensual Nymph at the centre, around whose exposed nipple the composition pivots. Three of the boys diligently focus upon their work, studiously drawing from the model in black and white chalks on blue paper, whilst the youngest, obviously too juvenile for such serious study, gazes out at the viewer. The boy in the foreground with his back to us, closest to the picture plain, is posed like the near-contemporary Liverpool portrait of Fleetwood Hesketh (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), though seen from behind. To the left of the statue the eldest of the boys, a born lecturer, one proprietorial hand on the plinth the other clutching a portfolio of drawings, stands square to the picture plain staring wistfully into the distance, looking like he might hold forth at any moment. Beside him, with obvious references to the classical legend of Pygmalion – the sculptor who fell so in love with his own statue that she came alive – the youth on the far left gazes adoringly up at the face of the Nymph, enraptured by her beauty. The picture is a powerful statement on the transformative power of art, charged with the latent eroticism of classical antiquity.

As Nicolson pointed out, though the design of this painting is unquestionably original the subject of artist’s academies is a theme with a long and distinguished history, beginning with engravings of Baccio Bandinelli’s ‘Academy’ in the Belvedere Court at the Vatican in the 1530s showing men and boys drawing by artificial light (fig. 3).1 Wright may well have been familiar with these early engravings, as well as with seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish examples of such subject matter. Though not Wright’s immediate source there are obvious analogies between An Academy by Lamplight and The Drawing Lesson by Michael Sweerts (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, fig. 4), or Wallerant Vaillant’s study of a seated boy reading in front of a statue of a cupid (Musée du Louvre, Paris), mezzotint engravings of which were in circulation during the eighteenth century. These Dutch and Flemish examples are particularly relevant given that Wright’s early candlelit paintings were so strongly influenced by the northern Tenebrists: artists like Adam de Coster, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst (fig. 5). As Nicolson commented, Wright transports their 'Netherlandish world of intimacy into his own day and place, and makes it his own’.2 Of all these earlier Dutch masters Gotfried Shalcken is the one to whom Wright would most naturally have been drawn. A number of Schalcken’s night pieces remained in England as a result of his time spent in the country from 1692 to 1697 and would have been accessible. Moreover, in 1762, a description of the method which Schalcken was supposed to have used to seal off his studio from daylight and create these candlelit scenes was published in Antoine-Nicolas Dezallier d’Argenville’s Abrégé de la vie des plus fameux peintres. The description of Wright’s own practise, as given to us by William Bemrose, the artist’s biographer, is so similar, though more complicated, that it is hard to conceive that he was unaware of this account and not influenced by the Dutch artist’s work. Certainly there are obvious parallels, both in subject and composition, between this painting and a work like Schalcken’s Pygmalion and Galatea (Uffizi Gallery, Florence) or his Portrait of the artist and his wife contemplating a statue of Venus (Private Collection, fig. 6).  

Wright’s early fascination with candlelit scenes and his dramatic use of strong chiaroscuro throughout his career – that characteristic mastery of ephemeral atmosphere that induced Nicolson to dub him the ‘Painter of Light’ – runs deeper than simply the inspiration of the seventeenth-century Dutch school, however, and is more centrally rooted in his relationship with the Lunar Society. A prominent group of Midlands intellectuals and industrialists who, by practical application of Enlightenment thought, were the driving force behind the early Industrial Revolution; the Lunar Society was a nebulous organisation whose members shared a common interest in experimentation and invention, visiting each other regularly to conduct scientific investigations into subjects such as electricity, meteorology, astronomy and geology. Centred around a group of principal members that included Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, more peripheral members consisted of much larger group of scientists, philosophers and artists; including the inventor John Wyatt; the renowned polymath Benjamin Franklin; the naturalist and botanist Sir Joseph Banks; the astronomer and composer Frederick William Herschel; and Joseph Wright of Derby himself. Wright drew succour from this world of commercial enterprise and scientific enquiry, and the activities of the Lunar Society form the spiritual core of his art. Indeed Wright’s magnificent early candlelit scenes are in many ways the artistic manifestation of those very activities: the introduction of light into darkness acting as a metaphor for the transition from religious faith to scientific understanding and enlightened rationalism.

The study of canonical classical statues had long been a corner stone of artistic training in Europe. There were a proliferation of such academies in London during the eighteenth century; from the Duke of Richmond’s sculpture gallery in Whitehall, which was opened to art students in 1758; and the drawing academies of St Martin’s Lane and the Free Society of Artists; to Townley’s Gallery in Park Street, where ‘lamps were placed to form the happiest contrast of light and shade, and the improved effect of the marble amounted by this almost to animation’ (fig. 7).3  

This, however, is no conventional drawing academy with pupils drawing in ordered rows under the instruction of a master, but rather shows a more democratic and egalitarian grouping of young artists responding freely and emotively to the example of antiquity. In depicting such an idealised assembly of young draughtsmen, the artist demonstrates a timely interest in such organisations. As an influential member of a young and precocious group of artists known as the Howdalian Society, Wright was at the centre of the crisis that shook the British art world in the late 1760s and resulted in the fracturing of the old Society of Artists of Great Britain (SABG) and the breakaway establishment of the Royal Academy (RA). As one of the principal artists who remained loyal to the old Society of Artists it is surely no coincidence that Wright exhibited this painting in 1769, the very year that the newly formed Royal Academy held its first public exhibition. The egalitarian principles espoused by his treatment of the subject are entirely contrary to the hieratic structure of the RA, under the authoritarian presidency of Sir Joshua Reynolds and the illiberal patronage of King George III.4

Indeed 1769 is a particularly significant date, for in July that year the Fellows of the Society of Artists passed a motion founding a new drawing academy of their own. Intended as a direct rival to the Royal Academy school, the rules of the new academy were to be as close as possible to those of the old St. Martin’s Lane Academy, thereby reviving the independent and egalitarian ethos of its original founder, William Hogarth. Drawing classes were to be open to all Fellows and the regulation of the academy – including the provision of two male models and one female model – was to be overseen by a committee of four Directors and three Fellows, all of whom were elected annually. Each seat in the academy was to be chosen by lottery, to ensure equal opportunity and prevent the committee abusing its authority, and all pupils of SAGB Fellows were given free admission, provided they demonstrated their ability. By contrast the drawing school at the Royal Academy was strictly regulated by the Keeper. No female models were provided and students were denied access to life classes until the Keeper deemed they were ready, on purely arbitrary grounds.  Most importantly, however, the drawing academy at the Society of Artists did not prescribe an aesthetic standard – no president of the SAGB ever attempted anything so pretentious as a Discourse. Wright’s Academy by Lamplight espouses precisely such an independent, democratic approach to artistic tuition and the timing of its exhibition can be seen as a direct attack on Reynold’s newly founded Academy and an incendiary contribution to contemporary eighteenth-century artistic discourse.

Wright’s two versions of An Academy by Lamplight are by no means the only example of the artist producing multiple versions of the same composition, with only minor changes to the detail. Among his other early candlelit scenes the most famous example is The Blacksmith’s Shop, two versions of which he exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771 (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, fig. 8) and 1772 (Derby Museum and Art Gallery, fig. 9). The composition of both paintings is essentially identical, with only minor differences in the architectural detail and general staffage, the main difference being in the artist’s treatment of light (as in the two versions of An Academy by Lamplight). It is interesting to note that the Yale versions of both The Blacksmith’s Shop and An Academy by Lamplight were both purchased from Wright by Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne (1745–1828), father of the great Whig statesman and Prime Minister, and have remained together ever since. In 1768 Melbourne inherited Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire on the death of his father, and in 1770 began work on Melbourne House in London, the building designed by William Chambers in Piccadilly now known as The Albany. As Wright exhibited the Yale version of The Blacksmith’s Shop in 1771 it is possible that both the Melbourne pictures were painted at about the same time and may have been commissioned simultaneously, intended to hang as pendants at one of these two houses.

It is also thought that there were originally two versions of The Alchemist, the subject Wright exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771; one of which the artist took with him to Italy in 1773 (now lost) and the other which remained in England (Derby Museum and Art Gallery). The latter is dated 1795 and bears a number of considerable differences to the mezzotint engraving published by Pether in 1775, though it may have been reworked at a later date. Similarly The Iron Forge (Tate Gallery, London), exhibited in 1772 and bought by Lord Palmerston, and An Iron Forge viewed from without (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), which Wright exhibited the following year and was bought by Catherine the Great of Russia, are essentially the same subject; the first being a close up view of the interior of the forge; the second a view of the same building taken from further back, with different figures. Two versions of The Old Man and Death are known, one larger (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford), the other smaller (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). Equally the artist painted at least two versions of The Captive, from Sterne (Derby Museum and Art Gallery and Vancouver Art Gallery), as well as several variants of this prison scene, all of which share the same architectural space, with only minor changes in the perspective and a different treatment of the central figure. He also painted at least two versions of The Dead Soldier (Holbourn Museum, Bath and Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, a possible third is untraced but may be the picture in the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven) and two versions of The Indian Widow (one in Derby Museum and Art Gallery, the other formerly in the McNiven Collection, destroyed by fire), as well as a number of other compositions that are known in multiple versions.

In 1773, following the example of his fellow SAGB members George Romney and Ozias Humphry, Wright left England for Italy, travelling with his wife, his pupil Richard Hurlstone, and the artist John Downman. They arrived in Rome in February 1774, where Wright stayed for seven months studying the magnificent surrounding countryside and the splendours of classical antiquity, before travelling on to Naples and the area around the gulf of Salerno in the autumn, where he visited Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Museum at Naples, as well as Virgil's tomb and the coastal grottos for which that region is famed. Wright spent nearly two years in Italy and was deeply moved by the beauty of its landscape and the purity of the light, both of which remained profound influences on his work for the rest of his life. Hitherto topography had played only a very small part in his art, but in Italy, with the warmth and serenity of the south upon him, his attitude to landscape changed dramatically. As Nicolson poetically put it ‘Alexander Cozens replaces Rosa in his heart’ and with the Roman campagna before him he sketched heavily, making more drawings during his time in Italy than he had ever done before. On his return to England in 1775 the dominant subject matter of Wright’s paintings dramatically changed and, in place of the tightly composed candlelit scenes that had characterised his early career, he seized every opportunity he had to paint landscapes; writing to a friend in 1792 'I know not how it is, tho' I am engaged in portraits... I find myself continually stealing off, and getting to Landscapes'. As a result these early candlelit scenes of industrial endeavour, scientific experimentation and artistic creativity, for which the artist is so famous, are comparatively few in number and were only really produced by the artist for a short period of time between late 1765 and 1773.

With these later landscapes Wright’s practise of producing multiple versions of the same subject becomes even more pronounced, particularly with his Italian scenes. There are numerous versions and variants of his view of Lakes Nemi and Albano, for example. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples is a subject he painted at least ten times, in a number of variations; as is true of his scenes of a Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno (see Sotheby’s, London, 9 December 2015, lot 43 for one such example) and Virgil’s Tomb, of which at least four autograph versions exist; or the Convent of S. Cosimato, of which the versions in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and the Derby Museum and Art Gallery are almost identical, whilst a third depicts the same scene from slightly further down river (Private collection).5  

Note on the Provenance
What happened to this picture after Wright exhibited it in 1769 is, at present, unknown and the early provenance of the painting remains unclear. Ellis Waterhouse recorded in his notebook seeing the painting at Somerleyton Hall in 1955, initially mistaking it for the version now at Yale,6 and it was there by the time of Sir Savile Crossley, 2nd Bt (1857–1935), who was created Baron Somerleyton in 1916. The Crossley family were leading industrialist, originally from Halifax in West Yorkshire, where John Crossley had established the Dean Clough carpet factory in 1802. Under the management of his son, Sir Francis Crossley, 1st Bt (1817–1872) and his brothers, the firm of J. Crossley & Sons became the largest carpet manufacturing company in the world. In 1852 Sir Francis was elected the Liberal Member of Parliament for Halifax, having served as Mayor of the town in 1849 and 1850. With the huge wealth generated by the success of his carpet business, in 1845 he had built a large mansion in Halifax called Belle Vue, designed by Joseph Paxton (now called Crossley House, Belle Vue Park) and in 1862 he bought Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk from Sir Samuel Morton Peto, another entrepreneur, engineer and railway developer (fig. 10). Like the Arkwrights before him, the appeal of an artist like Wright of Derby to somebody with an industrial background like Crossley is obvious, and it seems most likely that the picture was acquired by Sir Francis for Belle Vue. Unfortunately no inventory of the contents of Belle Vue survives and, following his death in 1872, his wife, Martha, closed the house down and moved the contents to Somerleyton Hall, where this painting is recorded in a household inventory of 1930. In 1889 it was sold to Halifax Corporation, who transformed the house into the town’s central library in 1890 and then the Belle Vue Museum in 1897. A number of the pictures at Somerleyton were acquired with the house when it was sold by Samuel Peto, and it was thought possible that this picture could have been among them. However a probate valuation of the contents of Somerleyton, taken at the time of Sir Francis’s death and dated 1874, does not mention any painting fitting this description,7 confirming that it was not in the house at this time and further suggesting that the picture was originally at Belle Vue, only coming to Somerleyton Hall later. Sir Francis’s son, Sir Savile Crossley, was a Liberal Unionist politician, who served as Paymaster General from 1902 to 1905 and High Sheriff of Suffolk for 1896–97. In 1916 he was created 1st Baron Somerleyton. Designed by Thomas Jones, who had worked with Charles Barry on the Houses of Parliament in London, Somerleyton Hall is widely acclaimed as one of the most beautiful stately homes in Britain.


1. B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby. Painter of Light, London and New York 1968, p. 46.

2. Nicolson 1968, p. 47.

3. From ‘Elegant Memoirs of Towneley’, in General Chronicle and Literary Magazine, 1811.

4. For a full history of the Howdalian crisis and dispute between the Society of Artists and the Royal Academy, see M. Hargraves, Candidates for Fame: The Society of Artists of Great Britain 1760–1791, New Haven and London 2005.

5. See Nicolson 1968, pp. 249–59.

6. A facsimile of Waterhouse’s notes from the visit are preserved at the Getty Research Institute.

7. Somerleyton Hall household and Suffolk estate inventory (MSL.1985/17), National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, NRA 38891 V & A Museum.