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First Look: Joseph Wright of Derby

21 January 2014

In this ongoing series, Apollo previews a range of international exhibitions, asking curators to reveal their personal highlights and curatorial impulses. Amina Wright is the curator of ‘Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond’ at the Holburne Museum

Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

This is the first exhibition to look at Joseph Wright’s short period in Bath (1775–1777) and to consider its impact on his later work and reputation.

What makes this a distinctive show?

During the 20th century, Wright of Derby became synonymous with science and the industrial revolution: this exhibition shows a less well-known side of the artist. In Bath, he reinvented himself as a painter of landscapes and contemporary literature.

How did you come to curate this exhibition?

Since coming to live in Bath 12 years ago I have wanted to learn about Wright’s life here and to find more of the paintings he made during his 18-month stay, so that we could bring them back to Bath.

What is likely to be the highlight of the exhibition?

The pairing of two early versions of Wright’s spectacular Vesuvius in Eruption and The Girandola, which he first exhibited in Bath. He wrote: ‘The town rings with commendations…one is the greatest Effect of Nature, the other of Art.’

And what’s been the most exciting personal discovery for you?

Wright always rewards you for looking closely at the details: a pair of minute pin-men gathering lava samples, the shadow of a curl on a lady’s neck, or the textures of living fire and water rendered in paint.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in preparing this exhibition?

Wright produced so little while in Bath that the exhibition had to include each of the half dozen pictures we can be sure he made there. Thankfully, our lenders and sponsors have been generous enough to enable us to show them all.

How are you using the gallery space? What challenges will the hang/installation pose?

Our exhibition gallery is relatively small, so the hang is inevitably quite compact, with 35 drawings and paintings shown side by side so that visitors can see how Wright worked up studies he made in Italy.

Which other works would you have liked to have included?

Although we are thrilled to have a major loan from the Louvre, we can’t afford to borrow from further afield. The MFA in Boston has a wonderful painting of a seaside grotto inhabited by banditti which, if not made in Bath, was probably exhibited here.

‘Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond’ is at the Holburne Museum from 25 January–5 May.

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