‘Rare’ Joseph Wright of Derby self-portrait ‘saved for the nation’

A “remarkable” self-portrait by world-renowned artist Joseph Wright of Derby has been acquired in a “triumph” for the world’s largest collection of his work, having been privately owned for 250 years.

The artwork, titled Self-Portrait At The Age of About Forty, has been acquired by Derby Museums and will go on public display in the Joseph Wright Gallery from May 17.

It is one of only 10 self-portraits which depicts Wright as the artist, capturing his reputation for candlelit paintings and representing what can be described as a defining moment in his career – a year before his influential tour of Italy.

Curator Lucy Bamford and museum director Tony Butler with Self-Portrait at the Age of About Forty by Joseph Wright (Oliver Taylor/PA)
Curator Lucy Bamford and museum director Tony Butler with Self-Portrait at the Age of About Forty by Joseph Wright (Oliver Taylor/PA)

Owned as part of a private collection since it was completed in 1772, the self-portrait was acquired as part of the Acceptance in Lieu “hybrid offer” scheme, administered by the Arts Council on behalf of the UK Government.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund donated almost £2.3 million towards the acquisition, alongside the Art Fund and a number of private donations.

Arts minister Lord Parkinson said: “It is wonderful that this rare self-portrait by Joseph Wright has been saved for the nation and acquired by Derby Museums.

“Thanks to the Government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, this fantastic piece will be exhibited at Derby Museum and Art Gallery where it will take pride of place in the world’s largest collection of his works.”

Bid to buy portrait
A portrait of the British engineer and inventor Sir Richard Arkwright by Joseph Wright of Derby (National Portrait Gallery/PA)

The painting will be displayed in a free-standing case in order to view the verso (reverse) of the painting – which depicts a preliminary study of his famous oil-on-canvas painting An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump.

Lucy Bamford, curator at Derby Museums and Art Gallery, said: “We are extremely excited to be able to add this remarkable painting to our existing Joseph Wright collection.

“The way it depicts his growing confidence as an artist is wonderful, and the incredible verso is the icing on the cake as it tells us so much about his way of working.”

Tony Butler, director of Derby Museums, added: “The acquisition of this painting is a triumph for Derby Museums.

“The work has never been in public ownership having remained in private hands since it was executed in a studio not far from where Derby Museum and Art Gallery is now.

“We feel a palpable sense of ‘bringing Joseph Wright of Derby back home’.

“It has been a remarkable achievement for a regional museum organisation like Derby Museums to secure the funding to save this wonderful painting for the nation.”