This unpublished masterpiece is Joseph Wright of Derby’s earliest documented treatment of the subject of Two Boys with a Bladder. This painting is a remarkable rediscovery shedding valuable new information on Wright’s work at the most important moment of his career. Painted in Liverpool in 1769 and almost certainly designed to be paired with another candlelight painting, Two Girls Decorating a Cat now at Kenwood House, London, this spectacular work fits into Wright’s great sequence of nocturnal subjects including The Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump in the National Gallery, London, dated 1768 and An Academy by Lamplight at the Yale Center for British Art, exhibited in 1769. Unseen in public since the eighteenth century and unknown to scholars until now, the reappearance of this painting offers unprecedented new insights into Wright as a painter and British art at the moment of the foundation of the Royal Academy. The significance of the reappearance of Two Boys with a Bladder cannot be underestimated.
The Candlelight Paintings
Joseph Wright of Derby was born into a professional family in Derby, he was trained under Thomas Hudson as a portraitist in London. In 1753 Wright returned to Derby, in common with other painters of the period, preferring to establish a reputation as a portrait painter in his home town before attempting to compete in London. Wright was evidently ambitious, engaging with many of the mechanisms for the promotion of art in the middle of the eighteenth century; he sent paintings to the new exhibiting societies, worked with engravers to try and promote his paintings and moved to Liverpool and Bath in search of new markets. As a portraitist, Wright received continual support from the newly wealthy industrialists of the midlands. As Judy Egerton first identified, Wright had an intuition for this new commercial class giving his portraits an individuality lacking in much fashionable metropolitan portraiture. The midlands of the mid-eighteenth century was alert to scientific enquiry and Wright’s name is often linked with the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the small group of scientists, philosophers and industrialists who from about 1765 met monthly (on the Monday nearest to the full moon) to discuss the practical application of scientific knowledge. Whilst Wright was not a member, but living principally in Derby he was well placed, especially through his ‘Lunatick’ friends John Whitehurst and Dr Erasmus Darwin, to ‘draw from the mainstream of this transforming current of ideas.’
It was these ideas that fed his most important works. Wright first exhibited in London in 1765, during the next decade over half the thirty-five or so works he showed there were 'candlelights', in which the source of light—a candle, sometimes a lamp, later fire from a forge—was usually concealed but could be observed to throw powerful shadows over faces and objects, altering perceptions of colour itself as objects receded from light. The dramatic, tenebrous paintings where hugely popular and were celebrated in Wright’s own lifetime.
In 1768 when An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump was exhibited at the Society of Artists an anonymous reviewer writing in the Gazetteer noted: 'Mr. Wright, of Derby, is a very great and uncommon genius in a peculiar way nothing can be better understood or more freely represented, than the effect of candle-light diffused through his great picture.'
The peculiarity was the way in which Wright’s dramatic effects deviated from the emerging mainstream aesthetic of fashionable metropolitan painting. The leading painter in London at that moment was Joshua Reynolds, the future first President of the Royal Academy, who would go on to specifically criticise the kind of approach Wright perfected. Wright combined the tradition of Dutch Caravaggism, particularly the work of Honthorst and Terbrugghen, with the emerging conventions of group portraiture to create a new kind of fancy picture. Wright’s compositions relied for its appeal upon the painstaking record of contemporaneous details, the ‘minute particularities and accidental discriminations’ that Reynolds associated with Dutch art, and which he saw as utterly incompatible with the intellectual dignity of the Grand Style. But Wright’s great candlelight pictures reflected an alternative aesthetic, an aesthetic that was increasingly popular in Britain and which is reflected in the works of Thomas Frye, George Romney and Henry Robert Morland all of whom produced candlelight paintings in the 1760s.
Wright’s niece left a remarkable account of how he prepared one of his candlelight compositions.
‘His mechanical genius… enabled him to construct an apparatus for painting candlelight pieces and effects of fire-light. It consisted of a framework of wood resembling a large folding screen, which reached the top of the room, the two ends being placed against a wall, which formed two sides of the enclosure. Each fold was divided into compartments, forming a framework covered with black paper, and opening with hinges, so that when the object he was painting from was placed within the proper light, the artist could view it from various points from without.’
It is possible to imagine Wright engaged in this process in 1769 as he contemplated the present painting which depicts two young boys, boldly lit by a concealed candle, engaged in inflating a pig’s bladder. Wright had recently completed An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, which explored the modelling of a range of figures in a complex and controlled candlelit scene. He was in the midst of designing the complex An Academy by Lamplight, recently sold at Sotheby’s, London and now in a private collection, a painting that shares a similar palette and tonality and similar dramatic contrasts from light and dark, contrasts that Wright softened when he repeated the composition in 1770. The relationship of the two paintings is underlined by the similar costume Wright uses for the figures in both, particularly what Judy Egerton called the ‘frilled and fringed collars’ which seem to be of Wright’s own invention. We can perhaps imagine Wright posing the young model in the makeshift apparatus described by his niece and then observing him from several angles, changing the position of the light source to achieve them most dramatic effect; certainly the models to the left of An Academy by Lamp Light appear to be similar in age and physiognomy to the sitters in Two Boys with a Bladder. The upward turned face of the seated boy has no direct parallels in Wright’s other candlelight paintings, pointing to the originality of the present composition, whilst the standing boy in profile, reprises a motif that Wright included in both An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump and A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun. Where we can be certain that Wright followed the method described by his niece is in the handling of the still life on the table: the candlestick and snuffer. The same candlestick and snuffer are visible in Wright’s Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candle-light a painting exhibited in 1765 and now in a private collection and further visible in Two Girls Decorating a Cat by Candlelight executed in c.1769 but viewed each time from a different angle.
Wright’s choice of subject-matter, young boys playing with a bladder, demonstrates his awareness of a long-established theme. Animal bladders served as toys, either inflated and tossed like balloons, or filled with dried peas and shaken like rattles. In art, bladders functioned as symbolic variants on soap bubbles. All these fragile, inflated playthings signified the brevity of human life, and the transience of human achievement. Bladders appeared in numerous seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, Godfried Schalkern painted a panel of Two Children with a Bladder dated 1682 now in the Staaliches Museum, Schwerin for example. Bladders were depicted less frequently in eighteenth-century British art; indeed, it was a motif that Wright seems to have made his own. The present painting fits into a complex sequence of paintings by Wright depicting children either inflating or fighting over a bladder.
History of Two Boys with a Bladder
In Wright’s surviving Account Book preserved in the National Portrait Gallery, London, he dedicates a page to: ‘Sold Candle Light Pictures’ at the head of the list is ‘The Orrery to Ld Ferrers - £210’, the great painting now in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, next is an entry for: ‘Boys with a Bladder and its Companion to Ld Exeter £105.’ A composition of Two Boys with a Bladder has long been known by Wright; it was a composition rendered in a pioneering aquatint by Wright’s Liverpool friend and patron, Peter Perez Burdett and known in only a single impression. The composition shows a boy standing on the right in a red jacket inflating a bladder which is illuminated by the flame of a candle it is concealing; on the right is another boy watching the action intently. The composition was clearly popular in Wright’s life-time, along with Burdett’s experimental print, a copy seems to have been made by another of Wright’s Liverpool associates, Richard Tate. Recently Elizabeth Barker tentatively identified a painting in Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino as the prime version. Despite the poor state of preservation of the Huntington painting, the discovery that it contained metal leaf under the bladder prompted suggested it be considered as the prime version. As Barker observed, Wright’s use of metal leaf was: ‘an entirely new technique for rendering effects of artificial light, an important innovation of Wright’s Liverpool period. It was Rica Jones who first discovered Wright’s use of metal leaf proposing that Wright used it in an attempt to increase the light reflected through the overlaying paint layers, and thereby enhance the illusion of candlelight.
Barker made the tentative suggestion, identifying the Huntington canvas as the painting mentioned in Wright’s Account Book as having been purchased by Brownlow Cecil, 9th Earl of Exeter from Wright. Barker further suggested that the painting was identifiable with a painting by Wright that was sold at Christie’s in 1772.
The auction was advertised as: ‘A Catalogue of a Capital Collection of Pictures of A Nobleman, brought from his Lordship’s Seat in the Country’ on the 23rd and 24th January 1772. On the first day of the sale, lot.82 is listed as ‘Wright of Derby – a boy blowing a bladder by candle light.’ It was purchased for £8 8 shillings by ‘Ld Warwick.’ This was George Greville, 2nd Earl of Warwick. In the Christie’s copy of the catalogue, the vendors name is listed as: ‘Lenoue [?] Marquis’. A second painting by Joseph Wright of Derby appeared on the second day of the sale, lot.82 ‘Wright of Derby – two girls decorating a cat by candle light’ the painting was purchased by ‘Ld. Palmerston’ for £7 7 shillings. This was Henry Temple, 2nd Viscount Palmerston, Wright’s patron and a very considerable collector of contemporary British painting. The ‘two girls decorating a cat by candle light’ is identifiable as the painting now at Kenwood House.
The present painting has been unknown to scholars since the eighteenth century and has therefore never previously been considered within the context of Wright’s development. Its reappearance throws into doubt the scholarly consensus that a painting of Two Boys Blowing a Bladder by Candlelight now in the Huntington is the version that was originally paired with the Kenwood Two Girls Decorating a Cat by Candlelight. Considering the two paintings together, even when considering the poor state of preservation of the Huntington canvas, it is clear that there are visual inconsistencies. The view point of the two canvases is markedly different; in the Two Girls Decorating a Cat the viewer looks up at the action, whereas the viewer looks down on the action in the Huntington painting. The two girls in the Kenwood painting are dressed in elaborate fancy dress, whilst the boys playing with the bladder are dressed in contemporary clothes. These inconsistencies do not exist when one considers the present, rediscovered work next to the Kenwood painting. The view point is similarly from below, the boys’ costume is similarly exotic: the seated boy wears an elaborately frogged pink silk jacket, with slashed sleeves and a white turban with a gold tassel and the standing boy is show, in profile, wearing a bluey green jacket, again with elaborately slashed sleeves, yellow breeches and a white turban topped with a feather, which neatly compliments the feather of the girl seated in the Kenwood painting.
The composition is also more complementary of the Kenwood painting; with the arrangement of standing figure on the right and seated on the left, it mirrors the seated and standing girl. Closer examination also reveals that the table in both paintings is identical, so too is the candlestick; turned with its handle towards the viewer in Two Boys with a Bladder and turned away in Two Girls Decorating a Cat by Candlelight. But the most compelling similarity is the palette and tonality of the two works. Whereas the Huntington canvas is subdued with clumsy gradations from dark to light, the present painting is richly luminous in tonality with a palette of pinks and yellows that compliments the Two Girls Decorating a Cat by Candlelight. It therefore seems likely that the two paintings were designed as pendants, remaining together until the 1772 auction when the Kenwood painting can be identified for certain.
A question mark hangs over the vendor at the Christie’s sale, the mysterious marquis. The 1772 sale was advertised as: ‘a Capital Collection of Pictures of A Nobleman, brought from his Lordship’s Seat in the Country.’ This was evidently a piece of mis-leading salesmanship and the catalogue was in fact made up of diverse properties. As we know the Wright canvas on the second day of the sale was the Kenwood painting, it might be that Wright himself consigned the paintings and that the ‘marquis’ was an alias or that the ‘marquis’ was an agent for another client, possibly the Earl of Exeter. This is something that requires further investigation.
Wright returned to the theme later in his career, producing a pendant pair of paintings depicting a Boy Blowing a Bladder and a Girl Looking through a Bladder executed in 1790, the paintings show none of the grandeur, technical virtuosity or impressive intensity of his earlier candlelight subjects. Instead, as Martin Postle has observed, Wright’s later treatment of the subject betrays a certain sweetness that appealed to audiences in the nineteenth century.
Wright was constantly innovating as a painter, he was fascinated in optics and the potential for different grounds to achieve different effects in the finished painting. In a passage of his Letter to a Connoisseur published in 1809, William Carey observed that:
‘Wright, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, was fond of trying experiments in colouring. He at one time, painted a number of portraits, with flesh tints, compounded of some sort of newly invented yellow, leak, white, &c. There was a delicate warmth in the effect, when painted; but in a few months, the other colours were absorbed, and the yellow only remained. This was an extreme mortification to the Artist, as he had no mode of stopping the progress of this jaundice: and was under the necessity of painting fresh portraits for his Sitters.’
This gives a sense of Wright’s interest in exploring new techniques and new materials. Whilst developing his great sequence of candlelight paintings Wright made an even more important departure, laying gold and silver foil over the ground of passages of his painting to intensify the effects of light. Gold and silver leaf were first identified by Rica Jones under two paintings now in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art: A Blacksmith’s Shop and An Academy by Lamplight. Both executed at the moment that Wright was working on Two Boys with a Bladder.
This astonishing rediscovery fills a gap in the progression of Wright’s candlelight paintings. Made shortly after the completion of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump and whilst Wright was contemplating the first version of An Academy by Lamp Light it shows Wright’s first innovative experimentation with the use of metal foil, a technique that he would go on to exploit in several of his most successful nocturnal scenes. Made in the white heat of Wright’s most productive period, Two Boys with a Bladder embodies a sense of exploration both technical and scientific. Wright’s use of metal foil showed him pushing the boundaries of the painters’ craft, whilst his interest in optics points to the intellectual milieu of the midlands in the mid-eighteenth century. This painting is one of only four candlelight paintings to remain in private hands, the others being An Academy by Lamplight in the collection of Lord Lansdowne and A Girl reading a Letter, with an Old Man reading over her shoulder and Two Boys Fighting over a Bladder at Stanage Park.
The present painting was in the collection of a family in the midlands by at least the middle of the nineteenth century and it has remained in their collection, unrecognised until its publication in the present note.
- Judy Egerton, Wright of Derby, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 1990, p.15.
- Quoted in Benedict Nicholson, Joseph Wright of Derby, New Haven and London, 1968, vol.I, p.21.
- Quoted in Benedict Nicholson, Joseph Wright of Derby, New Haven and London, 1968, vol.I, p.48.
- For a comparison of the two versions of An Academy by Lamp Light see eds. Elizabeth Barker and Alex Kidson, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, exh. cat., Liverpool (The Walker Art Gallery), 2007, pp.149-163.
- Judy Egerton, Wright of Derby, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 1990, p.64.
- For Wright’s depictions of children with bladders see Elizabeth Barker, ‘A Very Great and Uncommon Genius in a Peculiar Way’: Joseph Wright of Derby and Candlelight Painting in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Unpublished dissertation submitted to the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2003, pp.255-344.
- Elizabeth Barker, ‘Documents Relating to Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97)’, The Walpole Society, 2009, p.19.
- See . Elizabeth Barker and Alex Kidson, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, exh. cat., Liverpool (The Walker Art Gallery), 2007, cat. no.66, p.186.
- Elizabeth Barker, ‘A Very Great and Uncommon Genius in a Peculiar Way’: Joseph Wright of Derby and Candlelight Painting in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Unpublished dissertation submitted to the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2003, p.302; Elizabeth Barker and Alex Kidson, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, exh. cat., Liverpool (The Walker Art Gallery), 2007, p.66.
- Elizabeth Barker, ‘A Very Great and Uncommon Genius in a Peculiar Way’: Joseph Wright of Derby and Candlelight Painting in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Unpublished dissertation submitted to the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2003, pp.292-293. It was an attribution first tentatively advanced in Robyn Asleson and Shelley M. Bennett, British Paintings at the Huntington, New Haven and London, 2001, pp.522-525.
- Julius Bryant, Kenwood: Paintings in the Iveagh Bequest, New Haven and London, 2012, p.412.
- Elizabeth Barker and Alex Kidson, Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool, exh. cat., Liverpool (The Walker Art Gallery), 2007, cat. no’s. 37 and 38, pp.164-165.
- In costume, the boys relate more closely to the two depicted in Two Boys Fighting Over a Bladder one of a pair of paintings acquired by Wright’s friend and patron, Thomas Coltman see Benedict Nicholson, Joseph Wright of Derby, New Haven and London, 1968, vol.II, no.206, pp.238-9.
- Martin Postle, Angels and Urchins: The Fancy Picture in 18th-century British Art, exh. cat., Nottingham (Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham), 1998, p.69.
- See Elizabeth Barker, ‘A Very Great and Uncommon Genius in a Peculiar Way’: Joseph Wright of Derby and Candlelight Painting in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Unpublished dissertation submitted to the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2003, p.286.
- Judy Egerton, Wright of Derby, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 1990, p.268.