AN 18TH-CENTURY ARTIST-APPLIED LINING: JOSEPH WRIGHT OF DERBY'S CUT THROUGH THE ROCK AT CROMFORD
IAN S. HODKINSON, & DEBORAH M. CHILD
Technical evidence obtained during the course of this investigation confirms that the lining of the Cromford preceded the completion of the painting presently visible, and the work has not been structurally altered since then. The methods and materials used thus predate Wright's death in 1797 and, to judge from the landscape style, probably date from about 25 years earlier. The remarkably good condition of the old lining and the success of an experimental lining carried out according to the instructions cited in Wright's Account Book demonstrate it to be a viable procedure. To obtain control of canvas tautness, Wright selected a sophisticated expandable mortise-and-tenon type stretcher frame perhaps not normally used on his own small paintings. (Only five stretchers have been identified in the literature as being original to the Wright paintings to which they are attached, so it is not possible to assess what type of stretcher the artist preferred.) Moreover, the marking left by the application of stretching pliers during lining confirm that such pliers were used by artists, at least in a restoration context, more than 100 years earlier than previously reported.
Wright's expropriation of a fragment of another artist's work raises interesting and as yet unanswered art-historical questions. Why did Wright do it? Was it a unique occurrence, specifically for Wright and indeed for artists of the period in general? Who painted the earlier fragment? In the case of Cromford, Wright was not reusing one of his own canvases, nor was he acting as a restorer. As he was financially comfortable and had no economic need to recycle old canvases, the most likely motivation was that the saw an otherwise unusable fragment he admired and could not bear to see it consigned to oblivion. This impulse could perhaps explain why he would embark on the time-consuming task of lining a fragile, brittle, and damaged canvas, carefully preserving the portion that was salvageable.
From the fine rendition of the horses, wagon, and dog, and especially the expert fore-shortening in the anomalous figure group, it is apparent that the earlier artist was a considerable master. Further connoisseurial inquiry identifying the style of execution, the costume, and the type of horses and wagon might assist with identification of this artist. Cross-section studies reveal that different working methods and palette were used in the execution of the underlying work. Further comparative instrumental analysis might yield more information to help determine when, where, and by whom it was executed. Recent identification of the blue pigment in the undisturbed area of the canvas as Prussian blue at least confirms the earlier work was not created before 1704 (Moffat and Miller 1991).
The origin of the earlier painting could be interesting with regard to Wright studies, as his artistic influences continue to be the subject of scholarly debate. Although Wright openly acknowledged his admiration for Richard Wilson's classical landscapes, both verbally and in copies, the prototypes he utilized in the execution of his rustic landscapes remain uncertain. Nicolson (1968) suggested that he was influenced by Dutch art of the previous century, a thesis that has not been supported by later Wright scholars. Nicolson cites the Utrecht school as Wright's favorite school of painting and repeatedly refers to the impact of the Dutch Romanists and the Dutch Caravaggists on Wright's work. Egerton (1990) apparently considers this conclusion to be a weakness in Nicolson's text, especially as the problem of what Dutch paintings Wright actually saw has not been addressed. Yet given Wright's oeuvre, the possible influence of the candlelight settings of Terrbrugghen, the moonlight paintings of such artists as Van de Velde, Asselijn, and Berchem, and perhaps even Rembrandt's Flight into Egypt (National Gallery of Ireland) has to be further explored. In Wright's paintings of horses and wagons, another possible Dutch influence could be Philips Wouwerman (1619–68). His works, especially his horse paintings, enjoyed great popularity in 18th-century Britain. For example, the foreshortening of the white horse on the right in his Pistol-Shot (Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace) is strikingly similar to the white horse of the Cromford. However, the presence of Prussian blue pigment, a pigment not in use until 1704, in the staffage figures precludes Wouwerman or a member of his circle as possible candidates for the artist of the earlier painting. But it is still possible that the work could have been executed by one of his many 18th-century followers. Identification of this artist would at least be a tangible means of approaching the problem of Wright's artistic influences. Since other contemporary English painters, such as Thomas Gainsborough, are acknowledged to have been inspired by the 17th-century Dutch masters, such an influence would not be unique.
With regard to restoration and conservation treatment of these two paintings, it has been recommended to the Agnes Etherington Art Center that they be stabilized but given minimal treatment to preserve all the features that are of such importance to the study of the history of art and conservation technology.
The authors would like to thank Alfred and Isabel Bader and the Government of Canada for their generous assistance in acquiring the group of Wright paintings; the Queen's University Advisory Research Committee for providing the funding to make technical examination of the eight paintings possible; Ron Irvine for his assistance with the illustrations, Elizabeth Moffat and David Miller of the Analytical Research Service, Canadian Conservation Institute, for pigment and media analysis; the National Portrait Gallery, London, for permission to publish pages from Wright's Account Book; and Rica Jones of the Tate Gallery for her generous cooperation.