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Joseph Wright of Derby

1734 – 1797

Three Persons viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight by Joseph Wright of Derby

Three Persons viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight   1769

  Mezzotint by William Pether after Joseph Wright of Derby.
With both artists’ names in the plate.
Ref: Clayton P3 i/iii; Bemrose 6
P 455 (visible, more under mount) x 561mm; I 443 x 561 mm
Outstanding impression in the earliest recorded state of the plate.

A truly exceptional early proof impression of this magnificent large mezzotint with the upper half of the inscription space still grey and with the early scratched inscription; before the inscription was strengthened and before the entire title space was burnished clean.
In this earliest proof state, the mezzotint burr is totally fresh and the soft copper plate shows absolutely no signs of wear.

The Gladiator (as this engraving is often called) is of particular importance amongst Joseph Wright of Derby’s works, providing one of his finest early self-portraits and depicting his first great success as an oil painter – his first exhibited painting, chosen for display at the Society of Artists in 1765.

The image shows a copy of the Borghese Gladiator (the original statue was then in the Villa Borghese, now in the Louvre) being studied by candlelight, whilst the young artist holds up a drawing of the statue for comparison. The sitters are traditionally identified as Joseph Wright himself and Peter Perez Burdett (a fellow draughtsman and Wright’s great friend at this time), together with the more elderly John Wilson. The Borghese Gladiator was particularly admired for it’s truthful rendering of anatomy and Joseph Wright of Derby has chosen to display it here from one of its most dramatic aspects. His remarkable use of chiaroscuro hightens the drama of the composition, the statue being “seen as a thrusting, diagonal image of great potency against the soft, velvety dark; his eternal energy contrasts with the three men’s quiet study. As much as anything else, this picture is about the power of a great work of art”. (Wright of Derby, Tate Gallery, 1990, p.63).

The Gladiator, along with A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery and A Philosopher shewing an Experiment on the Air Pump, represents one of the most outstanding displays of chiaroscuro to be found in English art or in mezzotint engraving. It was upon works such as these that Joseph Wright of Derby’s lasting fame was built; indeed, William Pether’s mezzotint engraving of this particular subject is widely considered to be one of the finest achievements of mezzotint engraving on copper ever to have been produced in England.

Despite the suggestion in Clayton’s catalogue that the plate of this engraving may have been worn out by the time it was sold in 1785, The Gladiator is undoubtedly one of the most scarce of Wright’s mezzotint subjects today. Indeed, only two impressions of The Gladiator, in any state of the plate, have been recorded on the open market in the last 20 years: an impression was sold at Christie’s in London on 1 July 1993, lot 211, for £4,200 hammer price, and an impression in the final published state with considerable rubbing damage in the upper part of the image appeared at Sotheby’s in London on the 13th of November 1997 (lot 581).

A comparable first state impression from the collection of the Honourable Christopher Lennox-Boyd was displayed by C.G.Boerner in 2002; however, this had been presold to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (Paul Mellon Fund) before the opening of the exhibition and before publication of the accompanying catalogue. (The Lennox-Boyd impression is the impression which had been used for exhibition in the major retrospective show on Joseph Wright of Derby at the Tate Gallery in 1990 and for illustration in the accompanying catalogue raisonné).

This outstanding first state impression is printed on antique wove paper with margins beyond the platemark on three sides, trimmed just into the base of the blank title space area at the base of the sheet. The sheet is in remarkably intact condition for an early trial proof mezzotint of this era. The image is in generally very good condition with only one or two minor and unobtrusive disturbances. The sheet has been laid on a firm backing board, within the last fifty years, to support the platemark and the outer margins where a number of old repairs can be seen. In all, this is an exceptional example of one of Joseph Wright of Derby’s rarest and most desirable mezzotints in generally very sound condition.