PRESS RELEASE: Wednesday 11 October
The painting had been acquired by Derby Museum in the 1950s, but the attribution to Wright was doubted by scholars. In recent years the painting was believed to be by an unknown artist, and showed an unidentified location – a ruined bridge. But research and conservation carried out in partnership with the BBC series Britain’s Lost Masterpieces has revealed not only the location of the bridge, but also that the canvas was painted by Wright of Derby towards the end of his career.
The artwork lost its attribution after it was almost entirely repainted by a local Derby restorer in the 1950s. For unknown reasons, the restorer decided to alter almost every aspect of the canvas, from the colour of the sky to the costumes worn by the figures. As a result, the painting looked like a work painted in the later 20th Century, not the 18th Century.
But after seeing the painting on the Art UK website, the art historian Dr Bendor Grosvenor believed that the painting was worth a second look. Working with Derby Museums, the painting was sent to the restoration studio of Simon Gillespie, who successfully removed the overpaint. This revealed a work of extraordinary quality by Wright himself, full of his signature techniques. These included Wright’s way of painting water by incising the wet paint with the handle of his brush, a technique known as sgrafito.
Further research then identified the bridge as the Ponte Nomentano, an ancient Roman bridge on the river Aniene just outside Rome. Wright is known to have studied and painted Roman bridges on this stretch of river on his Grand Tour of Italy in the 1770s. The final clue came with the discovery of a sale catalogue of Wright’s paintings on 6th May 1801 at Christie’s in London, which included (as lot 20) a painting by Wright of the ‘A View of the Ponte Nomentano near Rome, unfinished’. The painting was then valued at just £3, and until now its whereabouts had remained unknown to Wright scholars.
The attribution to Wright has been confirmed by Brian Allen, former director of the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, and Lucy Bamford, Senior Curator of Art at Derby Museums.
Lucy Bamford, Senior Curator for Fine Art at Derby Museums, said:
“After the revelation of Wright’s Colosseum by Moonlight last year –another work that had been so badly over-painted that the artist’s hand was unrecognisable – we had begun to wonder what other treasures might be lurking, unknown, in our stores. We had our suspicions about this particular painting, so when Bendor phoned to discuss the opportunity of researching and restoring it, we jumped at the chance. And I’m so pleased we did! A picture that had been languishing in a museum store may now be added to the catalogue of Wright’s known works and, as a result, we can begin to understand a little more of Wright’s Italian tour and the influence it had upon his subsequent output.”
Dr Bendor Grosvenor said:
“This was probably the most satisfying case I have ever worked on. To be able to free this painting from the clutches of inept restoration – the worst I have ever seen – has been tremendously exciting. Best of all, it can now join the other Wrights in Derby Museum, one of Britain’s best regional museums.”
The episode of Britain’s Lost Masterpieces featuring the painting was shown on BBC4 on Thursday 5 October 2017. The programme can be viewed on iPlayer here.
The painting can be seen on display Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until Saturday 4 November.
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Notes to Editors
Britain’s Lost Masterpieces – BBC Four
Britain’s Lost Masterpieces is presented by Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Emma Dabiri. It investigates potential discoveries in UK public collections. The series is produced in partnership with Art UK.
Art UK, previously called the Public Catalogue Foundation, works in partnership with some 3,000 public collections, the BBC and other organisations to showcase the art the UK owns. The artuk.org website is the online home for art from every public collection in the United Kingdom. The site already features over 200,000 oil paintings by 38,000 artists. These artworks are in museums, universities, town halls, hospitals and other civic buildings across the UK. Most of this art is not on public view. Art UK is now expanding to include watercolours, pastels, drawings and prints uploaded by collections, as well as sculptures. Members of the public can contribute knowledge about artworks on the website through Art UK’s Art Detective initiative. Over the last two years this has resulted in many interesting discoveries relating to the identity of people and places in paintings as well as some artist re-attributions.
Founded in 2012, Derby Museums Trust is an independent charitable trust which is responsible for the rich cultural and creative history of Derby. It manages three sites across the city, the Museum and Art Gallery, Pickford’s House and The Silk Mill, and holds and curates all the art and collections within them, including the world’s largest collection of paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby.
The Trust’s aim is to bring as many of the objects and treasures in the collections into the public domain as is practically possible and present them in ways that delight and inspire, via education and learning programmes, events and exhibitions, in order to share knowledge and inspire creativity and making amongst the people of Derby.
As a charitable trust, Derby Museums relies on funding and grants from organisations and donations from businesses and the general public, all of which is gratefully received in order to ensure that admission to the museums remains free for all.
Derby Silk Mill – Museum of Making
Derby Museums has secured major grant funding of £9.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £2.5m from Arts Council England, £4m from Derby City Council via the Local Growth Fund, and support from a range of charitable trusts and foundations for the £16.4m development to create Derby Silk Mill – Museum of Making. The project will open up the whole of the Silk Mill, creating beautiful spaces to inspire our visitors and will provide access to 100% of Derby Museums’ collections of Making and Social History. The new museum will have our communities at its heart and be uniquely co-produced with the people of Derby over the next few years and is due to open in 2020.