The Lady in Milton's Comus

WAG 2500


This artwork has been identified as having links to a person connected with transatlantic slavery. This research is part of the Walker Art Gallery’s ongoing work to be more transparent about the collection’s relationship to Britain's colonial past. This painting was previously owned by Thomas Moss Tate (died 1825), one of the Liverpool merchants who made a fortune through the transatlantic slave trade, as a successful tobacco and snuff merchant. John Milton’s masque ‘Comus’ (1634) describes ‘the Lady’ lost in a wood. She hears frightening noises, becoming ever more nervous and afraid, but the sudden appearance of the moon through the clouds restores her mental and moral strength. The artist Joseph Wright (1734 - 1797) loved dramatic light effects which was central to his art and often determined his choice of subjects. In relation to this painting he wrote to a friend, ‘Moonlight pictures require a good light but not a glaring one.’ His handling of light here results in a subtle and sensitive emotional scene, rather than the intense drama of this painting’s companion piece ‘The Indian Widow’ (Derby Art Gallery). Themes from Milton were common in 18th-century British painting, and Wright has chosen a key episode from one of his best known works.