Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright mid 1780s

Joseph Wright of Derby ARA 1734 - 1797

Portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright, Joseph Wright of Derby ARA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
49 ½ x 40 inches, 126 x 102 cm
By descent from Susannah Hurt, Arkwright’s daughter.
Joseph Wright’s account book, as “Mr Arkwright half Length £26.5” Judy Egerton, “Wright of Derby”, Exhibition catalogue (Tate, London 1990), p198, under no.126.
National Portrait Gallery exhibition, South Kensington, 1867, no.800, on loan from the Hurt collection. Wright of Derby exhibition, Derby 1883.
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This largely unknown and hitherto unpublished portrait shows Sir Richard Arkwright, one of the fathers of the industrial revolution. It was painted in c.1785 after he had established his revolutionary cotton mills as the most profitable and efficient in the world. Arkwright’s spinning frames, which he first developed in the 1760s, were operated round the clock at water-powered mills such as Cromford, and made him one of the richest men in Britain. This is the earliest likeness of him, and was considered by his children to be the best.

Despite the contented gaze, this picture shows Arkwright at a time of some uncertainty in his career. Although he was far richer than any other uneducated former barber could hope to be, he faced a series of legal threats to his future. Lucrative patents were overturned in 1785, and rivals began to steal his designs and copy his practices. In one court case he had been called a ‘thief’, and was accused of stealing his original ideas from an impoverished clockmaker.

As a result, this portrait from the mid 1780s provides a contrast with the best-known image of Arkwright, the full-length painted by Wright in 1790 [private collection, on loan to Derby Museum and Art Gallery]. In the later portrait Arkwright sits proudly and contentedly beside a table on which a model of his spinning invention is displayed. He had by then secured the legal rights to his inventions, a knighthood, and the office of High Sheriff of Derbyshire. His gaze is directed away from the viewer, into the distance, and he wears more flamboyant clothing. It is a triumphal image, complete with red drapery in the background, and classical columns.

The present picture, however, is an uncompromisingly direct image, free of any indication of wealth, fashion or social success. Arkwright is perched on the side of a rather small chair, and his face emerges from the half-lit, plain background only marginally ahead of his belly. This skillful use of chiaroscuro twinned with such honest characterisation is typical of Wright’s work, for, unlike so many eighteenth century portraitists, he makes no attempt to flatter or amend his sitters’ appearance. It is therefore tempting to see here the shared spirit of two no-nonsense northerners, both of whom were self-taught and self-made, and battling against the pressures and prejudices of established society.

This picture is recorded in Joseph Wright’s account book as costing £26.5, alongside other references to pictures of the Hurt family, in whose possession this portrait has descended [original MSS, National Portrait Gallery, London]. Unfortunately, the reference was mis-interpreted by Nicolson, in his catalogue raisonné, as an entry for a portrait of “Mrs Arkwright”, and so this picture remained practically unknown since its last exhibition in Derby 1883.

We can be sure that Wright’s note refers to this portrait by a careful analysis of the account book. First, Wright’s script was correctly interpreted as “Mr Arkwright” by Bemrose in his early catalogue of 1885, and no single portrait of Arkwright’s son Richard Jnr, the other possible ‘Mr Arkwright’, is known. Since Arkwright was knighted in December 1786, and referred to in other notes by Wright as “Sir Richard” thereafter, the note must date the present picture to before the knighthood. Furthermore, the “Mr Arkwright half length” Wright mentions is certainly a 50 x 40 inch picture, for in a separate note in his account book, where he notes frame sizes, “half lengths” are 50 x 40 inch pictures.

Finally, the dates of other pictures on the same page of the account book as “Mr Arkwright” are worth noting. Nicolson dates the other pictures on the same page as 1787-90, but this assertion is open to re-examination. Certainly, the picture immediately following the “Mr Arkwright”, “A full Length of Mrs C Hurt & her child £81.18” is dated to c.1789/90. But, the entry preceding “Mr Arkwright”, a “Virgil’s Tomb, Sun breaking thro a cloud, small picture £31.10”, is recorded as signed and dated 1785. Similarly, the “View in Dovedale…. For Mr Gisborne”, also on the same page as “Mr Arkwright”, and is signed and dated 1786. Nicholson may have been confused by the entry for a “View of the ponte Mol… Sold to Sr Broke Boothby”, for he points out that Boothby only received his title in 1789. However, the manuscript in fact reveals that Wright’s note “Sold to Sr Broke Boothby” is a later addition by Wright, evidently made after he had had the picture unsold for some time. Wright’s note book, therefore, was clearly kept for accounting purposes, and affords only a broadly chronological list of sitters and pictures.

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