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Portrait of Peter Perez Burdett, and his Wife Hannah Burdett, by Joseph Wright of Derby

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About the artwork

This superb painting, a masterpiece of British portraiture in the late eighteenth-century, is on loan to the Walker from the National Gallery of the Czech Republic, Prague. It is only the second time the work has been seen in the UK since it left the country in 1774, on Burdett’s departure from Liverpool.

Dated 1765, the portrait depicts Burdett with his older wife Hannah. Peter Perez Burdett was a mapmaker engaged on a prize-winning survey of Derbyshire. He met Wright in Derby in the early 1760s and became his close friend: the artist lent him money to fund his mapping project and used him as a model in several of the celebrated candlelight pictures he made at that period (including the Three Persons Viewing The Gladiator also on view in this exhibition) while Burdett introduced Wright to prospective patrons and gave him advice about perspective. Much less is known about Hannah although she may have been the wealthy widow of a merchant from the Midlands. But even if we knew nothing at all about the two people portrayed, the relationship between them is clearly at the centre of the painting, and we may deduce a considerable amount about their characters from the way that Wright depicts them.

Both figures are portrayed in fine clothes: we may suspect that a liking for gracious living was what this couple shared. But whereas Burdett’s brown suit seems almost appropriate to the setting (we may imagine him, with his telescope, having momentarily paused from his business of surveying the Derbyshire countryside) his wife seems distinctly out of place in her voluminous and expensive silk dress, ostentatiously showing off the beautiful stone at her wrist. There is almost a suspicion that Burdett and Wright are having a little fun at her expense, an impression that her slightly overbearing pose and her half affectionate, but half irritable expression – beautifully observed and captured by Wright – do nothing to dispel. Burdett’s own expression is also well caught, with its hint of ironic detachment and boyish irresponsibility. The lack of intimacy between the two figures is at once conveyed by the way that Burdett refuses his wife’s look and instead returns the gaze of his audience, but it is subtly reinforced by the positioning of the two figures on opposite sides of a barrier, a rustic fence made out of the sawn-off boughs of trees whose sharp points are a visual expression of abrasiveness and disharmony. Wright has his own fun at Burdett’s expense by depicting him sitting, none too comfortably, on this edifice.

The monumental scale and Wright’s intense scrutiny of detail, especially of fabrics and textures, give the work something of the air of a public performance. Wright signalled his pride in his effort by signing and dating the work with unusual prominence and formality – a device which confirms our sense of his personal presence in the picture. It has been suggested that this is the ‘Conversation Piece’ that he showed at the 1765 exhibition of the Society of Artists in London. This was Wright’s debut in the metropolis as an exhibiting artist and he would unquestionably have wanted to represent himself by a grand tour de force of skill such as this.

In 1768, three years after this portrait was painted, Burdett moved from Derby to Liverpool in order to seek patronage for a new survey of Lancashire, a sequel to his map of Derbyshire. He also joined forces with George Perry on the latter’s map and history of Liverpool, writing descriptions and making drawings of some of the major public buildings of the town which eventually appeared in the history in 1773. A talented networker, Burdett quickly judged Liverpool’s promise as a source of income and suggested to Wright that he should join him. Wright did, enjoying a rich vein of patronage from Liverpool’s merchants and the landed gentry in the surrounding countryside. The portrait of Burdett and his wife may have been on show in Wright’s painting room in the town, since one of Wright’s Liverpool sitters, Fleetwood Hesketh, appears to have requested to be portrayed in the way Burdett is here, with a similar seated pose and wearing a dark tricorned hat. (The portrait of Fleetwood Hesketh is shown in the exhibition close by.)

In 1769 Burdett became President of the first Liverpool Society of Artists, an organisation which, although it was initially short-lived, was portentous for the future development of visual culture in the town. Burdett himself probably took the leading role in setting up the Society, consciously imitating the recent foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in London; and he may originally have envisaged Wright becoming its President. When the Liverpool Society was revived in 1773 Burdett – no longer President – lectured to it on perspective. Also in Liverpool, Burdett became involved in the ’discovery’ of aquatint printing. This was a type of engraving newly developed in France, but Burdett made the first English aquatints and claimed to have invented the medium. He tried to market aquatinting as a way of decorating ceramics, and contacted Josiah Wedgwood through the latter’s Liverpool business colleagues. Wedgwood showed interest for a while, but eventually found Burdett too demanding and pulled out of any deal. This was a bitter blow for Burdett, who had been counting on the regular income working for Wedgwood would have guaranteed him, and had got himself heavily into debt. In 1774, taking Wright’s portrait with him (but leaving his wife behind to face their creditors) Burdett departed England for Germany, where he worked as a surveyor in Karlsruhe for the remaining nineteen years of his life.