My choice of annotations was something I considered very carefully – the Napoleonic Wars were the starting point for choosing a painting of a recent contemporary event and the works of Joseph Wright for the second.
Starting with Joseph Wright of Derby – I live in Derby and consequently have been able to visit the Joseph Wright Gallery at our local museum this past week. I have never been a huge fan of his works but that was before this course and consequentially walking into the gallery this week I realised that knowledge of the period had completely changed my mind! I thought the choice of painting would be easy but it took over 2 hours of careful consideration and study. In June of this year (2016) the museum had secured at auction in America two paintings which were companion pieces and one was of Arkwright’s Mill in Derbyshire – known locally as Cromford Mill.
Arkwright’s Mill was the first water powered cotton mill in the world and as such is now part a Derwent Valley World Heritage site and rightly so. Joseph Wright painted both this and the companion piece of A View of Cromford Bridge on speculation and later sold to his agent Daniel Parker Coke. I chose the work as although it shows no experiments or technical detail of the industry itself it does reflect the impact that the Industrial Revolution had – a huge mill in what was formerly a sleepy valley albeit one with some iron works nearby (the water from those works provided part of the water for the mill along with Bonsall Brook). The mill was first built in 1771 and a second added in 1776.
Joseph Wright was the one of the most foremost painters of the industrial revolution and it would have been easy to choose his Experiment with an Air Pump but this was not on display (I believe the National Gallery has possession) and there was another of an iron forge that I loved but for me the image of the mill set in the landscape is much more evocative of the period – our country was becoming industrialized and this huge mill with its machines was a prime example of this.
Technically the painting style is typical of the Romanticism period and there is no doubt that I find it very emotional and expressive – the way the sky lights up the valley and the trees and falls on Scarthin Rock almost making it glisten in the early morning. I noted the use of atmospheric perspective with the distant hills of Crich and the minute detail of the wooden post commemorating the accession to the throne of George II. Joseph Wright had a eye for detail – this can be seen perfectly in the addition of the workman with the horse and cart which not only gives the work scale but I feel it is a reminder of this is not just a landscape scene but one of hard labour and brings a human element that is familiar to the viewer. The workman gives an indication of the sheer scale of the mill and the buildings he approaches – the size even now is awe inspiring when you consider how old the mill is. I took note of the bridge that passes between the mill and the area above the road – the volunteer at the museum believed that area to be a path but I can now see it is the water from the iron works and this bridge must have been a viaduct to carry the water to the mill.
I noted in the museum there were no visible brush strokes but the work had a smooth almost photographic quality about it – I have never used oil paints before but my reading suggests the use of glazes both opaque and transparent that build up the depth and tones of the image and this work does have a feeling of form and dimension. There is one point of note that I have just noticed – the building behind the viaduct does not appear to have linear perspective – the building seems a uniform size from front to back rather than narrowing even slightly at one end as I would expect and it seems quite naive in its rendering (note my photograph is slightly at an angle).
Overall the picture is one of a subtle and technically exquisite rendering of soft colours with careful use of light and shadow to create a sense of depth and proportion – Joseph Wright was skilled with chiaroscuro and tenebrism in his nocturnal works of industrial scenes. The painting has a slightly dream like quality about it which befits the style of Romanticism – it is a natural scene but I see no evidence of realism other than perhaps in the composition. Joseph Wright had clearly visited the mill and was great friends with the owner and the work is one of his last landscapes. In one article the two companion works are described as sombre philosophical landscapes and were apparently his last testament to the Lunar Society (a group of intellectuals, pioneers of the Midlands and atheists, (Wright himself was an evolutionary theorist), but I do not find these works sombre as I see the morning sun casting its shimmering light over the landscape and the mill as one that is shining new light on a new era of industrialization.
In contrast the second annotation was to be one that whose subject was a recent or contemporary event from the 18th or 19th Century and my immediate chose would have been The Field of Waterloo by Joseph Mallord William Turner but something drew me to the work of David Wilkie and his depiction of the Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo Despatch.
The London Gazette has a personal connection to my family as during WW1 my grandfather was mentioned in despatches and this was the reason I liked this work so much in truth.
The painting was commissioned by the Duke of Wellington after his victory at the Battle of Waterloo and the brief to the artist was just one to depict old soldiers outside of a public house. David Wilkie decided to take the instructions a step further and depict the Chelsea Pensioners reading the London Gazette of the 22 June 1815 which told of the victory. Wilkie placed the soldiers in Jews Row which is nearby the Chelsea Hospital and intentionally named the public houses along the road after battles fought by Britain throughout the world.
Chelsea Hospital had been founded to look after retired and injured soldiers so rather than show the suffering of soldiers on the battlefield, as was commonplace for the era, he depicted them nearby – there is one with a wooden leg so the depiction of suffering is still there but in a subtle manner. David Wilkie was renowned for his portraiture and it is know that he took many notes of different characters and portrayed them within the painting. This portrayal of individual characters brings life and vitality to the work – there are different soldiers from different regiments who had fought in different battles. Of note is one bandsman who had witnessed the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, another who had fought under the Duke of Wellington and also the Marquis of Granby, another (reading the gazette) who had fought at the Battle of Quebec with General Wolfe and also the soldier in the blue uniform and red pillbox hat who had delivered the gazette. Each of these characters is listed with his regiment in the Wilkie’s notes so can be identified clearly. In addition though Wilkie portrayed a soldier with his wife, son and even his dog who had accompanied his regiment and just behind the soldier reading the gazette a young woman with her child scanning the words for news of her husband.
The work has a familiarity about it and is one of human life but it is also one of peace and joy as opposed to the suffering that Turner painting in his works. However apparently the painting belies the truth of the terror that the soldiers had been through and the horrific losses of the regiments through the 23 years of war.
As regards the style – David Wilkie was still in the Romanticism era and this can be seen in the portray of light and the colours but there seems to be more form and line than I perhaps would expect although the period is one of variation and individual expression by the artists. This is not a landscape scene but one that is both urban and military and familiar to many at the time. There is distinct and clear linear perspective with the buildings going to clear vanishing points. There is also atmospheric perspective with the blue tinge of the buildings in the background. I like the use of colour in this work – on immediate viewing it strikes as complementary colours of blue and orange (earth tones) which create both harmony and contrast but on closer look there are also blues, yellows, greens and reds which due to the use of both the primary and secondary colours create a vibrancy and feeling of life and joy to the image.
The figures of the painting are clear with tone and form and a clear feeling of depth and dimension to the whole piece but the piece still retains a slight dream quality about it that I personally associate with the Romanticism period.
On this piece I do detect a hint of satirizing of the scene – it is not direct reportage historically but rather an imagined scene done in the studio for a patron and said above the scene is one of relaxation and joy that hid the horrors of war.
To contrast the two paintings in many ways it could not simpler – they are two totally different styles but from the same era and separated by less than years. One is a dreamy landscape done in the muted greens, yellows and blues of the area with what was said to be a sombre quality, (which I dispute), and the other a scene of joy and relaxation at the end of a long hard fought war. The first shows the industrialization of a valley with the first cotton mill and a sign of things to come but before the 23 year war that the other reflects on.
Stylistically can they be compared? the styles of both artists are reflective of the fragmentation of Neoclassicism and the ability of the artists to express their own individual personalities. David Wilkie was a painter of portraits and subject based pictures who turned to historical art and this no doubt influenced his work on this painting. I personally like the way he chose to depict the Chelsea Hospital with the retired and wounded soldiers realising that the 23 year war had ended – it has a poignancy that speaks of all those who lived there. In contrast the depiction by Joseph Wright of an industrialized mill in a landscape could not be more different – there is just one solitary figure who gives an idea of the sheer scale of the building and the valley. The mill itself almost recedes into the landscape but it is still clear enough to see due to the colours used which are muted and restrained whilst still being able to depicting the light casting its early morning glow across the valley.
The light is where the two images are similar although each is different – one is early morning and one clearly later in the day but still have a gentle soft quality. In the work by David Wilkie the shadows of the soldiers, the table and the horses can be clearly scene and there is no need for dramatic contrasts – he has done this much more subtlety and without the use for chiaroscuro or tenebrism. David Wilkie has used his palette of colours to bring life and joy and vibrancy to his works whilst Joseph Wright has used a much more muted palette and hence creates a very different atmosphere and emotion. Joseph Wright also makes use of light and shadow more dramatically to highlight Scarthins Rock and the brook and the mill. The mill itself recedes in the painting only due to it not facing the direction of light – it strikes as the building itself casts a shadow upon itself which for me is metaphorical in the sense of the industrial revolution changing the world forever.
Regarding line and tone – there is no question that David Wilkie’s work has defined and detailed linear qualities with the linear perspective and distinct form of the soldiers and people he depicted. The trees are defined through gentle colour rather than defined lines and as they are starting to recede they are portrayed much more gently. However in Joseph Wright’s work the line is still defined and the detail in the piece is exquisitely done and it is clear that he knew the area well as unlike David Wilkie’s painting this was not an imagined scene but one of reality. I find the trees in Joseph Wright’s valley have much more definition and form that those of Wilkies and are more textured and not as softly depicted but having seen some of the other works in the gallery this comes as no surprise – what I noted in particular was Wright’s supremely skillful depiction of texture no matter what his subject was.
Both of the paintings are stylistically Romanticism but by choosing these two particular ones I realise I have shown the stylistic differences of the era that I felt I struggled a little to understand – it is a period in which each artist developed his own style and own way of expressing feelings and what he saw. For me the David Wilkie image of the Chelsea Pensioners is one of joy but one that I do still find it tinged with sadness as you know what lies behind the joy and for me the focus becomes the woman searching for that news of her loved one. The wars that had been fought to get to that day and that moment in time are reflected in the fact that Wilkie portrays retired and injured soldiers broken by battle and that moment of relief as they read the gazette amongst the jubilant people of London but also with that singular woman representing all those women whose husbands, sons and fathers never came home or were yet to be heard from or come home.
The Joseph Wright painting however I am still slightly in awe of – I saw it in person just a few days ago and like the rest of his works I find his technique and rendering of colour, light, form and line a delight to behold. To understand the image is to understand the history of the area and the history of the era with the industrial revolution and to understand the image is also to see some of his other works in person – the delicacy of his brush strokes that you can barely see at all that give such smoothness to the painting but at the same time reflect the textures of the subject whether as a portrait or landscape. I feel in the image of the mill there is now a sense of foreboding in many ways as the industrial revolution made its impact on the landscape and the people. The building is dark and shadowed and the working conditions of the people were known to be grim in many factories. The valley I know to be beautiful and that beauty is reflected in the capturing of light on the trees and on Scarthin Rock but that rock is now scarred as it is hacked away to create the roads and the ever encroaching industry.
Both paintings capture scenes which could be described as ‘moments in time’ but both are very different – one is of life and one is of industry and to look now I am not sure which I prefer personally. Technically both are accomplished and brilliant but Joseph Wright captures an essence of atmosphere that is hard to pin point and is more subtle – for the first time I understood what it meant to be moved emotionally by a painting as I stood in front of both of the newly acquired pieces.
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