Joseph Wright of Derby, Matlock Tor by Moonlight, 1777-80
The lure of landscape painting was described by Joseph Wright of Derby in a letter to the textile manufacturer and art collector John Leigh Philips: ‘I know not how it is, tho’ I am engaged in portraits and made a dead colour of a half length yesterday, I find myself continually stealing off and getting to Landscapes.’ This was in 1792, fifteen years after returning from Italy to his native county, where he could paint views like Matlock Tor by Moonlight. Such picturesque scenery was in Thomas Gainsborough's mind when he wrote from Bath in 1768 to his friend James Unwin in Derbyshire: ‘I suppose your Country is very woody – pray have you Rocks and Waterfalls! For I am as fond of Landskip as ever.’ But like Joseph Wright he felt constrained by the demand for portrait painting: a trip to Derbyshire would be fine if only ‘the People with their damn’d Faces could but let me along a little...’ And in a similar vein the witty and rueful passage below, in a letter Gainsborough wrote to William Jackson, may resonate with any reader who feels they cannot spend enough time away from the pressures of work, out in the landscape.
‘I’m sick of Portraits and wish very much to take my Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease. But these fine Ladies and their Tea drinkings, Dancings, Husband huntings and such will fob me out of the last ten years, & I fear miss getting Husbands too – But we can say nothing to these things you know Jackson, we must jog and be content with the jingling of the Bells, only damn it I hate a dust, the Kicking up of a dust, and being confined in Harness to follow the track, whilst others ride in the wagon, under cover, stretching their Legs in the Straw at Ease, and gazing at Green Trees & Blue skies without half my Taste, that’s damn’d hard.’
Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Miss Evans, 1786-90