Joseph Wright of Derby Painter of Darkness Matthew Craske

Publication date:
24 Nov 2020
Paul Mellon Centre
368 pages: 279 x 241mm
195 color + b-w illus.
Sales territories:

A revelatory study of one of the 18th century’s greatest artists, which places him in relation to the darker side of the English Enlightenment

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), though conventionally known as a ‘painter of light’, returned repeatedly to nocturnal images. His essential preoccupations were dark and melancholy, and he had an enduring concern with death, ruin, old age, loss of innocence, isolation and tragedy.

In this long-awaited book, Matthew Craske adopts a fresh approach to Wright, which takes seriously contemporary reports of his melancholia and nervous disposition, and goes on to question accepted understandings of the artist. Long seen as a quintessentially modern and progressive figure – one of the artistic icons of the English Enlightenment – Craske overturns this traditional view of the artist. He demonstrates the extent to which Wright, rather than being a spokesman for scientific progress, was actually a melancholic and sceptical outsider, who increasingly retreated into a solitary, rural world of philosophical and poetic reflection, and whose artistic vision was correspondingly dark and meditative.

Craske offers a succession of new and powerful interpretations of the artist’s paintings, including some of his most famous masterpieces. In doing so, he recovers Wright’s deep engagement with the landscape, with the pleasures and sufferings of solitude, and with the themes of time, history and mortality.

In this book, Joseph Wright of Derby emerges not only as one of Britain’s most ambitious and innovative artists, but also as one of its most profound.

Matthew Craske is reader in art history at Oxford Brookes University.

“A bold, punchy thesis, sure to ruffle academic feathers, and one that Craske, a reader in art history at Oxford Brookes, has been mulling for some time”—Alistair Sooke, The Daily Telegraph

“In this beautifully illustrated volume Matthew Craske takes a fresh approach to one of Britain’s most exceptional and profoundly thoughtful painters.”—Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times ‘Best Art Books of the Year 2020’

“The “darkness” identified in the subtitle of this perception-shifting book was in the artist’s personality as well as on the canvas.”—Michael Prodger, The Sunday Times 'Best Art Books of 2020'

"Matthew Craske's fascinating biography of Joseph Wright looks afresh at the artist known as the 'painter of light' [and] provides an alternative reading of this 'self-professed melancholic', drawing on neglected sources to mine the motivations and forces behind the creation of Wright's oeuvre...Craske's ambitious and innovative book invites the reader to reconsider this melancholy mind, this painter of darkness."—Emily Knight, Apollo Magazine

"In this beautifully illustrated new book Matthew Craske overturns this view of the artist as a spokesman for scientific progress and reveals him to be someone very different."—ArtMag

"[Joseph Wright's] most famous works show experiments and create the sense of wonder that must have accompanied them. He was much more than that, though, and this magnificently thorough biography and analysis includes a wide range of other figurative and landscape works."—Henry Malt, 

“Matthew Craske’s analysis of Wright’s life and art is clear and ample, with a combative streak that is an echo of Wright’s own demeanour...Craske does not merely address current scholarship; he also shakes it.”—James Hamilton, Literary Review

“Matthew Craske’s spectacular new book directly challenges...our understanding of this enigmatic 18-century artist.”—Christopher Masters, World of Interiors

“It is good to read a book so intent on its argument about a British painter, so sure that there is much at stake, so determined to break free of both neutral surveys and theoretical schemes...This intricate study leaves little doubt that Wright is not an intriguing minor artist with an attractive line in candlelit drama but among the great European painters of the eighteenth century.”—Alexandra Harris, Times Literary Supplement

“Meticulous and eye-catching, [Wright’s] work is justly celebrated, and Matthew Craske goes to great lengths to explore his mindset and way of life.”—Elizabeth Fitzherbert, The Lady