Birmingham Museums Trust has been awarded a grant of £97,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) towards the purchase of Joseph Wright of Derby’s superb portrait of Erasmus Darwin. The HLF award means that after 12 months of fundraising, Birmingham Museums Trust has raised the asking price of £275,000 to complete the purchase.
The portrait belonged to Erasmus’ elder brother, William Alvey Darwin (1726 – 83), of Elston Hall, Notts, and remained in the family until sold at auction in 2009. It was one of only two copies done by Wright of this particular portrait. The other copy survives and is now on loan to Darwin College Cambridge.
Darwin was 40 years old when the portrait was painted around 1770, and Wright brilliantly captures his intellect, charisma and good humour through his skilful brushwork and trademark use of contrasting light and shadow.
Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802) was a key figure in the history of the British Enlightenment. He was a gifted physician, botanist, author, poet and inventor, and a founder member of the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham with Matthew Boulton. Although not as well known today as his grandson Charles, Erasmus is credited with many of the ideas that led to Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution. Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) is perhaps the artist most closely associated with the Enlightenment and the early Industrial Revolution. Best known for his dramatic scientific subject works like the iconic Experiment with a Bird in an Air Pump, much of his output was portraiture.
Chris Rice, Head of Heritage Services at Birmingham Museums Trust commented: “This is a hugely important acquisition for Birmingham Museums. Once again we are extremely grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for their generous grant which means the portrait can be enjoyed by everyone in the region for generations to come.”
Reyahn King, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund West Midlands, said: “This artwork is a most important part of the heritage of the city and the West Midlands. It depicts one of the luminaries of the Birmingham Enlightenment, and is also by a significant portrait artist of the period who had strong Midlands connections.”
Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said: “We are delighted that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery can add this significant portrait to their collection, so renowned for the quality of its portraiture.”
The total cost of the portrait is £275,000. The other main contributors to the acquisition are the Art Fund, the Public Picture Gallery Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Birmingham Museums Development Trust, the Feeney Trust, the Friends of Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery and the Lunar Society.
The panting is currently on display as part of temporary exhibition in Gallery 23 at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.