Joseph Wright of Derby

Self-portrait at the age of about forty by Joseph Wright of Derby, c.1772. Image credit: c/o Omnia Art.


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Self-Portrait at the Age of About Forty – which also features a study for Wright’s famous painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump on the reverse – will now go on display at the museum after being acquired for £3.49m.

The picture has been purchased via £2.72m of grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, The Headley Trust, Omnia Art and Robert Kirkland, as well as other of private donors and foundations, and a further £779,619 via the government’s Acceptance in Lieu of Inheritance Tax scheme. The independent art adviser Omnia Art advised on this hybrid arrangement with the tax scheme being administered by Arts Council England.

Tony Butler, director of Derby Museums, said: ‘The acquisition of this painting is a triumph for Derby Museums. The work has never been in public ownership having remained in private hands since it was executed in a studio not far from where Derby Museum and Art gallery is now. We feel a palpable sense of ‘bringing Joseph Wright of Derby back home’.

A study for 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump'

On the reverse of the Wright of Derby picture is a study for the artist’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Image credit: c/o Omnia Art.

Edward Harley, chairman of the Acceptance in Lieu Panel, said the picture “depicts… the only surviving version which shows Wright as a practicing artist... The painting demonstrates the close bond that Wright had with his patron, Thomas Coltman, to whom the artist gave this work.”

The museum said the self-portrait captures a sense of the self-confidence and recognition of Wright’s growing reputation for his so-called ‘candlelight paintings’. It is also the only one of Wright’s 10 self-portraits in which he specifically depicts himself as an artist, and it is packed with references to his specialism as a master painter of light effects: the porte-crayon in his hand, with a white chalk in one end, and a black chalk in the other, and the play of warm fire – or candle – light on the folds of his exotic, and unusual, artistic costume.