Palpably spring

WITHIN the short space of a few years the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby could explore a wide spectrum of themes and subjects. In the mid-1780s, for example, one painting by him is of a romantic landscape with an abbey ruin, cliffs, light-filled sky, and water fished by a lone angler. Nothing could be more different than his classical storytelling depiction, painted a year or so earlier, of ``The Corinthian Maid'' who is supposed to have traced the outline of her sleeping lover's shadow on the wall in her father's pottery. (He, subsequently, according to Pliny, made a clay impression of the shape and fired it with his pots.)

In further contrast there is a charming family group of three children. Then, from the same years, we have a night piece in which the full moon appears in a cloud break just above the cotton mills built by the industrialist Richard Ark-wright, their windows all lit up, indicating there is a night shift in progress.

A viewer of this painting today might find its combination of wooded, rural setting with the new structures of 18th century mass-manufacture an ominous hint of the industrial spoliation that was to come -- an imminent destructiveness sensed by some people already in Wright's day. Equally, however, it might seem to us an almost nostalgic reminder of the harmony that was initially possible between industry and the countryside.

Wright's own interest in the subject, as a painter, was probably different again. His early reputation had been built on portraiture, particularly of the landed gentry and newly rich living in the Midland counties of England. He had also achieved recognition in London for remarkable skill as a painter of ``candlelights'' -- of figures in the dark, their faces, actions, and feelings dramatized by artificial illumination. His moonlit picture of Arkwright's mills was an extension of this painterly fascination for light effects at night. It was also a kind of portrait.

Arkwright had risen from poor beginnings. He had social ambitions. He employed Wright to paint himself, his children, and grandchildren -- a deliberate bid for status for the family. Then Wright also painted Arkwright's domains; but the one-time Bolton barber could not boast family estates. His kingdom was a freshly constructed one in the valley of the Derwent River; it consisted of his house, his mills, his work-force. Wright's pictures of his cotton mills were pictures of industrial success and power.

By contrast, Wright's masterpiece of the early 1770s (which was recently acquired and specially displayed by London's National Gallery) portraying ``Mr. and Mrs. Coltman,'' was designed to affirm an already well-established social position that had nothing to do with new industry. The Coltman family had been landed gentry in Lincolnshire since 1715-16. Wright's splendid portrayal of Thomas and his bride, Mary, described by Allan Braham as one of the artist's ``most tender and authoritative portraits'' is at root a celebration of wealth and position that are taken for granted.

But it is far from being only that. Painted at the same time as Wright's first known pure landscape, it is also the first portrait by Wright in which, as Benedict Nicolson points out in his book on the artist, ``landscape comes into its own.'' Nicolson characterizes Coltman by a quote from a letter he wrote 20 years later. In it Coltman remarks to his correspondent, Sir Joseph Banks: ``I propose to go out with the Hounds in the Morning which I can do more easily than write a letter. No uncommon thing with a Sportsman.'' From this Nicolson concludes that Thomas Coltman was no intellectual but very much a typical part of the country squirearchy. The portrait by his friend Wright suggests the same.

That they were friends is evident from Wright's affectionate references to Coltman in letters, from Coltman's recorded generosity to the artist, and from th{et

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