Which artists will define our age?

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Which artists will define our age?

It glows. The whole painting glows. Don’t just believe the way the light of a fire reflects unseen outside the artist’s frame in his glittering eyes; reflected in the moist redness of his almost girlish lips; reflected in the folds of his turban and silk gray sash. It also glows with an inner radiance, glow of its character.

We have some arcane tax legislation in Britain that can yield a harvest that is anything but arcane. The recent acquisition of Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Self-Portrait at the Age of About Forty’ (c. 1772) was made possible ‘in lieu of inheritance tax … under a hybrid arrangement and awarded to Derby Museums … with further support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund’. Private individuals such as Robert M. Kirkland and other donors and foundations also helped. The result is that the self-portrait of the great 18th-century artist of the Midlands industrial revolution has come home.

It has just gone on display, the centerpiece of an entire gallery room dedicated by the Derby Museum and Gallery to their city’s greatest artistic son. Wright didn’t just come from Derby and didn’t just happen to be living in the English Midlands when Sir Richard Arkwright revolutionized the spinning industry at Cromford Mill, 20 miles up the River Derwent. These realities and this world made him, and made his art. There are such things as soundtracks for an era; there are also works of art that frame it for us – and Joe Wright has that distinction. He brings us the excitement of scientific and industrial progress.

I went to see the acquisition in its new environment last week. It is beautifully done. Around the walls are Wright’s paintings: portraits, real and imaginary scenes, landscapes, families with child prodigies caught by his brush watching scientific experiments, blacksmiths at their anvils. And in the middle, ingeniously displayed so you can walk around to the back of it, is the self-portrait: surely his best, self-consciously exotic and dressed for the role of celebrated master of his craft. And the reason you’ll want to see the back is that, to save expense, he used a canvas he used for a first study for his famous ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’.

I had an hour between trains and took a taxi to the gallery, which gave me about half an hour to inspect. I could have spent that time just staring at the self portrait. Some paintings need distance, but you can get close to face-to-face with the subject. I almost feel like I know him now.

Wright, of course, painted portraits for money. But with many of those on these walls one gets the strongest indication that he knew and condemned his sitter. In particular, look at his large portrait – the definitive work – of Sir Richard Arkwright; then at his portrait of the innovative Belper mill owner, Jedediah Strutt (no knighthood because he was a convinced Unitarian). Strutt’s belief in social obligation is still evident in the design and proportions of the millers’ houses he built, and when William Gaskell (Unitarian minister and husband of the celebrated novelist) visited Belper, he thought it a pity that there were no more factories are not owned. by such ‘men of enlarged benevolence and active philanthropy’. Sir Richard was utterly ruthless: a hard-driving man. And you can see it in both portraits: Arkwright proud, fat, insane, domineering; Strut softly, thoughtfully, with a kind of inner light. And then Arkwright’s son Richard: expensively dressed, woman in a hat with bows big enough to dwarf Liz Truss’ extravagances, her husband almost dancing with a hint of weakness in his face, the rich man’s son.

There is no doubt that the paintings of industry and scientific experimentation dominate the works. Alone, almost mournful in the gallery company she has to keep, is a large portrait of an imagined American Indian princess, widow, on a hill, keeping watch over the sacred objects of her dead husband’s inheritance. In the sky behind her is the most vivid painting of lightning I have ever seen. Perhaps Joe Wright sensed the signs for her way of life – just as in his beautiful painting of Needwood Forest near Derby, now part of the National Forest, but then all but destroyed by an era for which Wright was in a sense the court artist.

I said earlier that periods can have artistic backgrounds just as they might have musical soundtracks. From the perspective of more than two centuries, it is easy to see how Joseph Wright of Derby exemplified his era in the Midlands. Two centuries from now, will there be fine art or sculpture that says ‘early 21st century Britain’ with the confidence that Wright can command?

I can’t say I can see what the candidates might be, but maybe that’s because we’re in the thick of it, and time will thin the strange to the core. However, I think we can do it now for the 1950s, when I was a boy. That neon-fluorescent light-changing installation that used to flash along Waterloo Bridge in London; Henry Moore’s strange figures; the look and feel of the Festival of Britain on the South Bank; Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, in the Eagle comical, with his evil adversary, the Mekon; and the germ-free, lifestyle-themed ads that seemed to usher us into a world of hygiene and vitamins. I used to collect copies of Do it yourself magazine, where you enter this world: ‘contemporary’ life; clean lines; wipeable Formica surfaces; household appliances that banished drudgery. It was a post-war Britain that felt like we were breathing the fresh air of modernity. Away with frills and dark mahogany cabinets; in with built-in cupboards, Nylon and Bakelite.

These, next to portraits that had no time for detail and display, or obstructions around the margins, no time for curtains and cushions and sharp book-lined backgrounds, but tried to cut: it exemplified the age. An age of functionality, an age of reason, was finally upon us. It all feels so dated now, almost like a dead end.

“It’s like being in government, but with more to do.”

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