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Derbyshire heritage - visual artists

Derbyshire, with its fascinating history from prehistory to the present, naturally also has had an illustrious art history. Many successful artists have been born, settled or worked in Derbyshire, which is little surprising considering the natural beauty and picturesque towns and villages to be found around the county. Here we remember the lives and works of the great visual artists that made Derbyshire their home. 

You can find out about the visual artists currently living and working in Derbyshire, depicting the county's beauty, in our contemporary artists round-up.

Joseph Wright of Derby  

Joseph WrightJoseph Wright of Derby is probably the most famous of painters to come from the region, and is considered to be the "first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution. Born 1734 at 28 Irongate, Derby, he studied his art in London for three years under the successful artist Thomas Hudson. He settled and worked in Derby but also spent periods of his working life in London, Liverpool and Italy.

Two of his most important patrons from the Midlands were Josiah Wedgwoodand Richard Arkwright. He also had connections with Erasmus Darwin(grandfather of Charles Darwin) who lived in Derby. Wright painted and was inspired by the meetings of the Lunar Society, of which Erasmus Darwin was a member. it is many of these paintings that are best associated with the work of Joseph Wright of Derby and in particular his treatment of light in these works, known as Chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark. This was particularly significant because this style of painting had always been previously used for paintings of religious reverence, and Wright was using it for paintings of scientific experiments.

Although his residence in Derby was considered a little unusual and provincial, it was Derbyshire, with its factories, glass and pottery cones and blacksmiths, that was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, which inspired his most distinguished works.

Wright died in 1797 and his body was buried at St Alkmund's Church, Derby, which was subsequently demolished in 1968. His remains were moved to Nottingham Road Cemetery and his tombstone is now mounted inside Derby Cathedral. In the present day, Joseph Wright of Derby's work can be seen across the World and on tour from its home in Derby. A building at Derby College is named after him.

Picture above right: Joseph Wright of Derby - Courtesy of Derby City Council

Dame Laura Knight 

Born in Long Eaton in 1877, artist Dame Laura Knight was an English Impressionist Painter who captured scenes of London’s theatre, ballet and circus in her work during her time there, as well as country and rural scenes inspired by the 10 years she lived in Cornwall. Her works often depicted show business scenes, a lifelong inspiration to her that is said to have begun with her visits to Nottingham funfairs. She was considered one of Britain's most talented artists during the first half of the twentieth century.

She had an impoverished start where her father died early in her life.  Her mother, Charlotte Johnson was an art tutor and taught her to draw and paint at an early age.  Sent for a short time to French schools to learn art, she came back and became one of the youngest pupils to be enrolled at the Nottingham School of Art at the age of 13. There she met Harold Knight, who she learned painting technique from and would eventually marry.

Some of her most famous works are those inspired by and of the famous ballet artists of the day, including Anna Pavolva, who she met while in London. She won a silver medal for painting at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, which at that time included medals for architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. She became a Dame in 1929 and in 1936 was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy.  As official war artist at the Nuremberg Trials she produced ‘The Dock, Nuremberg’ in 1946. She continued to paint until her death at 93, having lived an extraordinary life of travels across Europe and the United States, making friends with people from all walks of life, from gypsies and circus performers to judges and aristocrats.

The Gresleys

Harold Gresley DovedaleThe Gresley dynasty of painters stretch out over three generations and include Harold GresleyCuthbert Gresley, James Stephen Gresley and Frank Gresley

Pictured: Harold Gresley, The Stepping Stones, River Dove, Dovedale- Courtesy of Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Harold Gresley was an early 20th century watercolour painter of landscapes and he painted many scenes of Derbyshire such as many places around Dovedale, the River Trent and villages, farmhouses and other scenes in the countryside. He studied at the Derby School of Art in 1912 but when the war broke out he was enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters and in 1917 he won a Distinguished Conduct Medal. On return to the country he studied at Nottingham in 1919, learning much from the landscape painter Arthur Spooner. He had a studio in Irongate, Derby and also taught at Repton School from 1924 for many years. 

James Stephen GresleyFather Frank Gresley, known as the "Grand Old Man of Chellaston", was also a landscape painter working in watercolours and he lived, of course, in Chellaston, Derby.  He was admired in the region, exhibiting no less tha nine time at the Nottingham Art Gallery. He inspired not only one son, Harold, but another son Cuthbert Gresley who was the lesser known artist of the dynasty.  Harold and Cuthbert trained under J.P Wale and began working at the Royal Crown Derby in 1893. Cuthbert was the resident artist at Royal Crown Derby specializing in flowers and landscapes as a ceramic artist.  Grandfather James Stephen Gresley worked in oils and watercolours to depict his landscape scenes and lived in Draycott and Borrowash.  The Derby Museum and Art Gallery is home to some fine examples of the family’s work.

Pictured right:James Stephen Gresley, River Manifold from Fisher's cave- Courtesy of Derby Museum and Art Gallery and 

Best of the Rest 

Frank Ernest Beresford was born in 1881 in Derby and in 1895 began studying at the Derby School of Art. His reputation as a fine painter of portraits in oils grew and he eventually given and completed thousands of portrait commissions. He created the very famous painting of George V Lying in State which was shown at the Royal Academy and bought by Queen Mary.

Henry Moore, (picture below: Henry Moore, St. Mary's Bridge- Courtesy of Derby Museum and Art Gallery )born in 1776, was known as very successful topographical painter and etcher. He was born in Derby and taught at the Derby school for a time. His greatest achievements include his work "Derby from Little Chester", which was copied by china painters and other artists. He also devised a new method of etching onto Ashford Black Marble, earning him a medal from the Society of Arts.

Henry Moore BridgegateDubbed "Derbyshire's John Constable", George Turnerwas born in Cromford in 1841, later moving to Derby with his family. He lived the whole of his life in Derbyshire, at Barley Mow Inn during the last ten years before his death. Early on it was clear that he was not just a talented painter but musician too, and he went on to teach art having largely taught himself. He is famous for his oils, leaving behind an immense legacy of paintings of the English countryside in its unspoilt form. His son, William Lakin Turner, also went on to become a respected oil landscape painter.

Although Llewellyn Fredrick William Jewitt was born at Kimberworth, Rotherham, his education began in Duffield in Derbyshire. He was mostly taught by his schoolmaster father. He married Elizabeth Sage on Christmas Day of 1838. Elizabeth Sage was the daughter of Issac Sage of Derby. Not letting romance get in the way of his work, he returned to London the next day, and the next year became employed by Fredrick William Fairholt, contributing illustrations to a number of famous publications including Punch and The Illustrated London News. After a stint as Head Librarian he returned to Derby to become editor of The Derby Telegraph. He died in Duffield in 1886.

Louis Laguerre was a French decorative painter who worked mostly in England. He was born in Versailles in 1663 and trained at the Paris Academy under Charles Le Brun. He made his fame decorating the grand houses of the rich, and you can see his work today at Chatsworth House, a few miles north-east of Bakewell.

John Piper, a painter and printmaker from Epsom, was born a son of a solicitor in 1903. Inspired by the countryside in and around Epsom he decided he wanted to be an artist, though his father disagreed, wanting John to follow his footsteps into a career in Law. Piper agreed to work for his father for three years before choosing a career, but failed the Law exams. his father died shortly afterwards. In 1940 Piper was appointed official War Artist, and collaborated with many other famous artists including John Betjaman. His sons Edward and Sebastian Piper did follow in their father's footsteps and became painters. The artistic streak even extends to his grandchildren, the sculptor Henry Piper and the painter Luke Piper.

Another artist with art running in the family was Louisa Raynor, born in Matlock in 1832 to Samuel Raynor, who was famous for his skilled engraving on Black Marble, using the technique that was invented by Henry Moore of Derby (see above). Louisa was primary a landscape painter, originally working in oils but finding later that she preferred watercolours. Her works were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Thomas SmithThomas Smith of Derby, another landscape painter, painted scenes around Derbyshire like Chatsworth House, as well as scenes a little further afield, like the Lake District. His 1751 painting, entitled 'An Extensive Landscape with Hunting Party' was sold at Southeby's for over $67,000. He is also known for being the father of another famous painter, John Raphael Smith of Derby, who was famed for his mezzotint engravings. He was even appointed engraver to the Prince of Wales.

Pictured right: ThomasSmith of Derby, Chee Tor- Courtesy of Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Ernest Townsend was portrait painter who was also a friend of Dame Laura Knight's (see above). He came from Derby, born in 1880 and studied at Derby College of Art, before moving to Heatherley's in Chelsea and the Royal Academy, winning the prize for figure painting there in 1904. He travelled in London, Paris and the Netherlands before returning to Derby. His prize-winning work, 'Willows and Weeds', was donated by his family to Derby Art Gallery.

William John Coffee began his career on Nottingham Road at Duesbury, as a modeller for the china factory there. He made busts of local dignitaries including Erasmus Darwin, which can be found today in Derby Museum. He also made a large statue of Asclepius for William Strutt's Derbyshire Infirmary. He emigrated to New York in 1816, where he had such immense success that he sculpted the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Marion Adnams was born in Derby in 1899. She studied Modern Languages at Nottingham University College at the encouragement of her parents, despite already knowing that she wanted to become an artist. She started studying at the Derby School of Art part-time in 1930, doing life-classes, and became influenced by the surrealist painter Alfred Bladon. With influences like René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Paul Nash, she began exhibiting in London in 1939. She returned to her parent's house on Otter Street, Derby and died there in 1995 aged 96.

Though he was born in Sheffield, Harry Epworth Allen often came down into Derbyshire to create stunning landscapes based upon what he saw. He was considered one of Britain's most foremost landscape artists from the 1930s until he died in 1958, and it is often said that his work is remarkably modern in style, and fluid to the point of surrealism.

Helen Mary Elizabeth Paterson was born in Swadlincote in Derbyshire in 1848, though her large family moved to Cheshire when she was just one year old. After her father and one of her sisters died of diphtheria, they had to move again to Birmingham, where Helen's aunts helped to look after the family. Her grandmother and aunt were both very accomplished artists and this is perhaps where Helen got inspiration from to become the successful watercolour artist and illustrator that she became. She was even commissioned to illustrate Thomas Hardy's 'Far From the Maddening Crowd'.

Marjorie Bates, a distant relative to both Dame Laura Knight and Harold Gresley, was a painter born in King's Newton, near Melbourne, Derbyshire in 1882. Her parents made a living from selling mosquito netting, and they moved to Nottinghamshire where Marjorie attended the Nottingham School of Art. She exhibited at the Royal Academy, in London and Paris, and managed to make a living by her paintings. She died in 1962.

William Billingsley was born in Derby in 1758, and was apprenticed to Royal Crown Derby under the famous porcelain painter William Duesbury. He later set up a small factory himself in Pinxton Derbyshire, after which he continually moved around Britain working for pottery firms, and setting up one with his son-in-law Samuel Walker that was mostly unsuccessful, leaving behind losses when he absconded to Coalport, where he stayed until his death in 1828.

Ernest Ellis Clark, painter and designer, was born in Derby and first got into art at the Derby School of Art, where he began studying as an evening industrial student. He was, like many of the other artists here, a painter for the Royal Crown Derby porcelain company, before becoming a full-time ceramics instructor. He served in Royal Field Artillery as a gunner from 1914-1918, and published a book entitled Handbook of Plant Forms for Students of Design. He died in Derby in 1932, aged 63.

Ian Breakwell was also born in Derby, and was known as a very successful multi-media artist. The Guardian had the following to say about him in his Obituary in 2005:

"If there was a medium available to the artist, there is a good chance that Ian Breakwell, who has died aged 62, deployed it. Painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, film, collage, video, audio-tape, slide, digital imaging and performance: all these and more were called into service, according to the needs of the work in hand."

Breakwell studied at the Derby College of Art, graduating in 1964. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, reacting with creative energy by producing a number of works that looked at his condition, before dying a year later.

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Many thanks to Deborah Porter, Sharon Stevens-Cash, Carole Crompton, Bygonederbyshire, Picture the Past, Peak and Fell Walking, The Derby Local Studies Library and Robert Steadman for picture contributions to this series.

Source materials for this article

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