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Did Kenwood really lose out?

14 February, 2020

• JOSEPH Wright of Derby (1734-97) is acknowledged as the key artist of the early stages of the Industrial Revolution considered as an aspect of the Enlightenment, (Art bypass? Kenwood House misses out on ‘£2.5m’ companion painting, February 6).

Among contemporary artists of the British School he was far from alone in his interest in 17th-century Dutch art (famously represented at Kenwood), but seemed particularly taken by the chiaroscuro – dramatic light and shade – of the Utrecht Caravaggists (early 17th-century), which he used to great effect in famous works such as An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (National Gallery).

At Kenwood he is represented by an enigmatic candlelit painting of two young girls, who may not be as innocent as they look, dressing a cat (or rather a resentful kitten), a work influenced by Judith Leyster’s 17th-century Dutch genre paintings of mischievous children, usually illustrating some sententious proverb (in this case something like “If you play with cats you’ll get scratched”).

Although Wright fully deserves his place in the British School c1750-c1830 (so brilliantly encapsulated in the Iveagh Bequest), this painting, other than his signature chiaroscuro, surely cannot be said to represent much more than a hint of the unique vision upon which Wright’s larger reputation rests.

Under the circumstances it is puzzling that Peter Barber should be so exercised at English Heritage’s refusal to bid for a (perhaps) rather less atmospheric companion piece much more clearly derived directly from Judith Leyster’s work ­– although both pieces, of course, would offer an interesting pendant to a Wright exhibition, and striking contributions to a Leyster exhibition.

Gospel Oak


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