Joseph Wright was born in Derby in 1734 and died there in 1797. His father, a lawyer, was prosperous enough to send this singular child, who would draw, make models and build contraptions for play, to train in London with the fashionable portrait painter Thomas Hudson. Wright worked and exhibited in the capital, as well as in Liverpool, Bath and as far away as Rome, but he could settle in none of these cities and always came home to Derby, an ordinary planet far from the light of London. Matthew Craske’s analysis of Wright’s life and art is clear and ample, with a combative streak that is an echo of Wright’s own demeanour. ‘To use academic jargon,’ Craske says at the start, ‘I present this as a “revisionist text” … I address current scholarship but do not depend on any one strand within it.’ Craske does not merely address current scholarship; he also shakes it.
Wright painted portraits, landscapes and what were known as ‘history’ paintings, a genre that embraced his opportunistic depiction of the 1782 Siege of Gibraltar and works depicting scenes from Aesop, Shakespeare, Milton and Sterne. But it is A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery and An Experiment on the Bird in