Joseph Wright of Derby paints Warwick Castle

Image: Warwick Castle by Moonlight, Joseph Wright of Derby, dated 1787, oil on canvas 58 x 76.2cm. Private Collection, Montreal. 

In 2014 I was handed a postcard of a painting for a cataloguing task during my Master’s Degree. Fortunately, I recognised the view instantly. The uniquely shaped stone tower perched on a rock; the river flowing beneath it, it could only be Caesar’s Tower of Warwick Castle.

After working out the painting was a work by that often underrated British painter, Joseph Wright of Derby (1737-1797), I quickly and diligently began to scan through all the literature available on the artist. Surely enough, the painting was there. However, I was baffled to find out that no-one had identified the view. Indeed, when the work was exhibited in the large 1990 Wright of Derby exhibition at the Tate, the catalogue noted that “The tower must be imaginary.” After making a lightening fast trip to the Witt Library, usually a treasure-trove of pencil notes made by generous scholars, I found the cards of this picture completely lacking any marginalia. Finally, once I had consulted a few experts on the artist, it seemed that I had confirmed my suspicions that this picture had never been identified as a view of Warwick Castle.

The majority of the great landscape painters of the eighteenth century had all flocked to paint and draw Warwick Castle. It’s views and prospects have been captured by the likes of Canaletto, Sandby, Turner and later by Constable. The romantic associations of such a well preserved and picturesquely-placed medieval fortification has always attracted those with a romantic sensibility. The opportunity to add Wright of Derby’s name to this already prestigious list was an exciting one.

Wright of Derby’s view is very unlike Canaletto’s. Rather than providing us with an accurate view of the castle and its environs, the artist has distilled the atmosphere of moonlight scene which Benedict Nicolson described as having “the gently undulation vegetation of an aquarium”. The picture omits the houses on Mill Street, and other details which remove it from being a purely topographical work. Wright had originally coupled it with an opposing painting of A Cottage on Fire, now part of the collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The contrast between the murky and muddy greens with the fiery reds and yellows of the dramatic cottage scene must have made quite an impression. Unfortunately,  our appreciation of Wright’s fabulous moonlight and effects are made nearly impossible due to the lack of a good quality image of the painting. Last recorded in a Private Collection in Montreal, one hopes that it might eventually reappear for for the camera at least.

It seems that the painting was never part of the once grand collection of the Earls of Warwick. This is despite a record of George Greville, 2nd Earl of Warwick, owning a picture by Wright described as A blind man with guide. Considering the Earl’s considerable patronage of watercolour painters, the omission of Wright’s name amongst the many others is interesting.

Fortunately, I came across the final part in the jigsaw only a few weeks ago. Whilst scanning through a fantastic transcript of a recently re-identified Wright of Derby’s notebook in the Walpole Society Journal, this reference appeared;

“A view of Warwick Castle Moon L” for Mr Culler – pd. – £36 – 15″. (1)

This reference confirms that the Moonlight picture is indeed of Warwick Castle. Mr Cutler is listed as the original owner of the pair, including the Cottage Fire, who seemingly rejected the Moonlight picture on its arrival. The painting was eventually sold to a George Morewood of Alfreton Hall, Derbyshire, and then by descent until it was sold at Christie’s, London, 16 July 1982.

I have since spotted the picture on a few classical music cd cases and even a front cover of Shelley’s Frankenstein. A fitting use for an painting which should be celebrated as one of the most important and striking views of Warwick Castle.

For further information, see James Mulraine’s blog posted a few years ago.

(1)E. E. Barker,  “DOCUMENTS RELATING TO JOSEPH WRIGHT ‘OF DERBY’ (1734-97)” in
Walpole Society Journal, Vol. 71 (2009), p. 40.

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