BBC Discovers Wright

An important lost painting by enlightament artist Joseph Wright of Derby has been rediscovered by Bondholder Derby Museums Trust. 

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.”