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Joseph Wright of Derby

1734 – 1797

The Captive by Joseph Wright of Derby

The Captive   1779

  Mezzotint by John Raphael Smith after Joseph Wright of Derby.
With the artist's name in the plate.
Ref: Clayton P19 ii/ii; Bemrose 25
S 455 x 640 mm; P 450 x 556 mm; I 434 x 556 mm
Exceptionally rare – this is by far the most scarce of all of the large mezzotints after the work of Joseph Wright of Derby. No impression is recorded in any major international institution outside England.

Finished proof with the scratched inscription. Excellent impression in warm brown-black ink, with totally fresh mezzotint burr, the copper plate showing no signs of wear. (The quality of this impression and its condition were confirmed by direct comparison with the Lennox-Boyd impression upon its sale in 2008).

Only 20 impressions of this mezzotint were ever printed prior to the destruction of the plate. This outstanding mezzotint engraving was made as a private plate for John Milnes – the purchaser of Joseph Wright’s painting of this subject at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1778.

Clayton records “Smith’s fine mezzotint was the first engraving of the subject. It is apparently rare and escaped the notice of early cataloguers: Frankau relied on Bemrose’s description, never having seen an impression herself. According to Bemrose (p.125) the print was ‘Engraved for Mr. Milnes of Wakefield: who destroyed the plate when twenty impressions had been taken off’”. In May 1778, after Milnes had purchased the painting of this subject at the Royal Academy show, Joseph Wright of Derby had supplied him with a near complete collection of his earlier mezzotints. It would have been characteristic of Milnes to have taken a new enthusiasm to the extreme of commissioning a private plate for himself, such as this mezzotint engraving of his latest acquisition.

Clayton goes on to observe that the publication line announces merely that this print was published on 30 April 1779, not that it was published by the engraver J.R.Smith – this represents a departure from J.R.Smith’s usual practise and supports Bemrose’s view that The Captive was a private plate. Similarly, its absence from J.R. Smith’s catalogue of his published engravings indicates that he was not the proprietor of the plate. Clayton was unable to locate more than one impression in the first state (Royal Academy, London) and two impressions in the second state worldwide (Derby Art Gallery; Private collection Hon.C. Lennox-Boyd - this latter impression has now changed ownership).

Prison and cave scenes, because of the single source of natural light casting brightness into a darkened space, provided perfect settings for Joseph Wright of Derby's natural genius with chiaroscuro. He had produced a small prison scene as an oil painting in 1773 and followed this with an oil of The Captive in 1774 (engraved 7 years later than this mezzotint, in stipple). Joseph Wright’s final and most elaborate oil version of this subject was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778 as ‘The Captive’ from Sterne when it was bought by John Milnes, for whom this mezzotint was engraved. This large mezzotint engraving follows the 1778 version of the painting (now Derby Art Gallery).

This particular subject depicts a scene conjured up in the mind’s eye of a character from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, in which a solitary captive, lost in despair, is described sitting in his cell. In Wright’s picture the prisoner is seen holding the stick upon which he carves a notch to record each day of his confinement. There is a melancholy and desolate mood to this depiction of infinite solitude.

There can be no doubt that Joseph Wright of Derby’s image of The Captive owes much to John Hamilton Mortimer whose own drawing of The Captive was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1774 (no.177) – Mortimer’s composition was etched by Robert Blyth but not published until November 1781 (Walpole Society Cat. No.89). Joseph Wright of Derby had been closely associated with Mortimer on the decorations for Radburne Hall during the two years prior to Wright’s departure for Italy in the autumn of 1773. While in Rome, in the late summer of 1774, Wright painted a picture of exactly the same scene as Mortimer’s design, including the calendar of sticks and the captive seated on the floor. It is possible that Wright could have seen Mortimer’s drawing before his departure for Italy or, perhaps more likely, have discussed the theme with Mortimer before he left. Certainly, both artists were exploiting a subject which was popular both in literature and art at this time and which was to become one of the staple ingredients of the Gothic novel.

No other British artist has excelled in the painting of light in quite the manner of Joseph Wright of Derby. Wright’s genius lay in his treatment of chiaroscuro, especially in the depiction of a glowing light source in darkened surroundings. Candlelight, the fires of forges, and the cold glow of the moon were Wright’s fountains of light. In this respect his work lends itself more specifically to the mezzotint medium than that of almost any other artist. Mezzotint requires the engraver to begin with a totally blackened plate, creating his image by introducing the areas of light into the design. In consequence, this process is particularly suited to the depiction of night scenes. The Captive is a perfect subject for the mezzotint engraver, the scene being illuminated by a single source of light emanating from the small window of the prisoner’s cell. This design has afforded the engraver an extraordinary challenge in the handling of light and shade; added to this is the task of interpreting Joseph Wright of Derby’s outstanding painting of the human figure. There can be no doubt that in both of these respects John Raphael Smith has excelled.

On coarse laid contemporary paper, warm cream in colour. Wide margins at sides and thread margin at top of sheet. Trimmed into engraver’s line at base. Evidence of handling consistent with age and various minor defects towards edges of sheet which have been conserved to the highest museum standards. One very small ink spot of similar colour to the printer’s ink in the hay on which the captive sits. This is a museum quality example of one of the great rarities of eighteenth-century mezzotint printmaking.