Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) 1790

Joseph Wright of Derby ARA 1734 - 1797

Portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), Joseph Wright of Derby ARA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
30 x 25 inches 76 x 63.5 cm
Haigh Hall, Lancashire.
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The partnership of Joseph Wright and Sir Richard Arkwright has produced some of the most satisfying icons of the early Industrial Revolution. Wright's two landscapes of Arkwright''s Mill by Day and Arkwright''s Mill by Night are a dramatic and romantic vision of the effect of industry upon nature and upon the landscape of Derbyshire, and have become emblems of their age.

Wright's portrayal of the great mill owner himself is as uncompromisingly literal as its subject. Thomas Carlyle spoke not from any personal knowledge of Arkwright -they were men of different centuries- but solely from this picture when he summed up Arkwright as ''a plain, almost gross, bag-cheeked, pot-bellied Lancashire man, with an air of painful reflection, yet also of copious free digestion.'' This is a memorable testament to the power of the image, though it does not do credit to Arkwright''s restless energy captured by Wright so well: even though he is seated this repose is temporary and unappreciated. Arkwright did not pioneer the first truly modern industrial process through idleness: his whole career was fuelled by a relentless drive to overcome mechanical obstacles, the reluctance of workers and the litigation of rivals. His reward at his death in 1792 was a fortune of half a million pounds and a reputation as the father of the Industrial Revolution.

A letter from Wright to Richard Arkwright junior dates the completion of the prime full-length version, (Family collection on loan to Derby Museum) to 1790, and the sittings are listed in the previous year. It is reasonable to date the autograph 30 x 25 inch versions that derive from it to the same period. The portrait now in the collection of the Science Museum (formerly owned by Historical Portraits Ltd.) is identified with ''the copy of Sr. Richd.Arkwright''s picture for Mr Strutt'' which Wright completed in January 1790. These are the only two portraits that Nicolson catalogues as autograph. However, by 1990 it was recognised that a number of versions of this portrait were produced by Wright, which may chiefly be associated with friends and associates of Arkwright. Judy Egerton acknowledges ''at least three'' replicas in 30 x 25 inch format: these are the Science Museum portrait painted for his partner Jedediah Strutt, a portrait in the collection of the Arkwright family and a further version in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 136) formerly thought to be a studio work, which was commissioned by Arkwright for a business rival.
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