The contrast between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial’ was at the heart of Enlightenment thinking. This focus on nature took different shapes in different countries, but would lead to new ways of picturing the landscape, and the figure within the landscape. Images that are not solely concerned with ownership, but demonstrate a relationship in which human beings draw pleasure or inspiration from nature, provided a confirmation of the Protestant belief that the natural world was a sign of God’s benevolence. Rousseau held a more extreme belief in the corrupting forces of civilisation, which he contrasted with the innocence and happiness of primitive man living in a ‘state of nature’. Despite Rousseau, the French remained less at home in nature than the English.
Joseph Wright of Derby, The Reverend d’Ewes Coke with His Wife Hannah and Daniel Parker Coke MP, c.1780–82. Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 177.8 cm.
Joseph Wright of Derby is best known for his pictures of scientific experiments incorporating dramatic lighting effects, but he was also a highly successful portrait painter who found his clients in the expanding provincial centres rather than in London. This portrait of The Revd d’Ewes Coke, his wife Hannah and their distant cousin, the MP Daniel Parker Coke, shows them gathered round a table in front of a clump of trees. Using a simple triangular construction, Wright places the husband at the apex, his gaze directed at his wife. The focal point of the narrative and object of discussion is the sheet of paper and its relationship to an unseen landscape.
One interpretation is that they are discussing plans for the development of their newly inherited estate, plans that no doubt would have been influenced by the work of ‘Capability’ Brown, who stressed the natural unfolding of the landscape in contrast to the more rigid formality of previous conceptions. Alternatively, we may see the table as having been set up facing a particularly attractive view, which the participants have explored through the medium of drawing, thus aligning themselves with other persons of taste and sensibility who understand the importance of the ‘Picturesque’. Hannah, whose hand rests possessively on a portfolio, from which peeps a study of trees, may be the author of the drawing they discuss, and her husband’s regard may indicate his praise. Since he also holds a drawing instrument, he may alternatively be offering an explanation of his artistic intentions.
In their negotiations with the artist about the way in which the sitters wished to be presented, such doubts about the narrative would not have existed, and their intentions would have been clearly stated. Unfortunately these have been lost to us.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department publication Citizens And Kings: An Introduction to the Exhibition (0.8 MB)