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Sir Richard Arkwright

5 of 19 portraits by Joseph Wright

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

Sir Richard Arkwright

studio of Joseph Wright
circa 1790
29 1/2 in. x 24 3/4 in. (750 mm x 630 mm)
NPG 136


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This portraitback to top

NPG 136 derives from Wright’s remarkable whole-length portrait painted in 1789-90 (in the collection of the sitter's descendants), [1] in which Arkwright’s huge figure is seated by a table bearing a set of rollers for the spinning of cotton, the source of his prosperity and perhaps of his own invention, his stern expression and clenched left hand suggesting the ‘Tyrant ... more absolute than a Bashaw’ described by Boulton. [2]
Wright's undated accounts record 'a full length of Sir R Arkwright £52.12.0' and 'a 3qrs [i.e. 30 x 25 in.] copy of Sir R Arkwright £12.12.0', [3] the latter very probably the half length painted for Jedediah Strutt, now in the Science Museum, London, which Nicolson described as 'the only [half length] that has strong claims to be an original’. [4] NPG 136 is one of three other half lengths which appear to be at least from Wright’s studio, the other two being with the sitter's descendants and in the Helmshore Textile Museum. [5] The abraded surface of NPG 136 complicates assessment, although Nicolson considered it to be ‘also excellent’ and Egerton considered it a replica. It was listed as a studio production in 1981 [6] and the provenance suggests a studio replica commissioned for a friend.
Half-length copies are in Manchester City Art Gallery (1968.239) and the Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham (1887-5); [7] an oval copy was sold Sotheby’s, 12 February 1998, lot 220, and a small pastel copy of the whole length, attributed to J. R. Smith, was with Sabin in 1964. [8]

Footnotesback to top

1) B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1968, no.1; . Egerton et al., Wright of Derby, exhibition catalogue, London, Paris, New York, 1990, no.126. Engraved J. R. Smith 1801 (the painting dated 1790), and as a three-quarter length by H. Meyer 1829, J. Jenkins 1833, and J. Posselwhite 1835.
2) Quoted by A. Burton, Josiah Wedgwood, 1976, p 198. For Arkwright, see also B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1968, I, pp 164-69.
3) B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1968, I, p 175; J. Bemrose, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, commonly called 'Wright of Derby', 1885, p 120, misquoted another entry, 'Mrs Arkwright half length £26.5' as 'Mr Arkwright ½ length 26.0.0', cf. B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1968, I, p 176.
4) B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1968, no.2; subsequently sold Christie’s, 21 November 1986, lot 84; Sotheby’s, 9 March 1988, lot 44, and acquired by the Science Museum in 1989.
5) Purchased 2002; from the Haigh Hall, Lancs., sale, Rogers, Chapman & Thomas, 5 November 1946, lot 1708, and Sotheby’s, 4 July 2001, lot 58.
6) NPG, Complete Illus. Cat., 1981, p 16.
7) Illus. Connoisseur, XCIV, 1934, p 324.
8) Illus. Connoisseur, CXLV, 1960, p 267; ex Christie’s, 11 December 1959, lot 135.

Referenceback to top

Egerton et al. 1990
J. Egerton et al., Wright of Derby, exhibition catalogue, London, Paris, New York, 1990, p 198.

Nicolson 1968
B. Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, 2 vols., 1968, under no.2.

Physical descriptionback to top

Pale blue eyes, powdered wig, red-brown coat, yellow, green-striped waistcoat with yellow buttons bearing green crosses, white neckcloth.

Provenanceback to top

Said to have been given by the sitter to Erasmus Darwin;1 his daughter-in-law Lady Darwin, from whom purchased 1861.

1 Lady Darwin [Jane Harriot, widow of Sir Francis Secheverel Darwin, Kt] to Scharf, 15 November 1861 (NPG archives): ‘This portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright (by Wright of Derby) was presented by him to Dr Darwin in addition to a fee of £1000 in compensation for his time and trouble for appearing in London to give evidence at the trial in which Sir Richd Arkwright was proved to be the sole inventor of the spinning jenny.' Arkwright was a close friend and the sum seems surprising; Darwin and Watt had supported Arkwright's claim to the patent for his 'water-frame' in the Court of the Common Pleas in February and June 1785 (on the first occasion Arkwright's patent was upheld, but on the second it was dismissed, due to an inadequate specification); NPG 136 must date from 1790 or after; Darwin subsequently attended Arkwright in his final illness and wrote a warm obituary notice of him in the Derby Mercury, 9 August 1792 (D. King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin, 1999, pp 204-06, 274).

Exhibitionsback to top

Regency Portraits, Kenwood, 1986.


This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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