East Midlands: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 18th C 39 Who is the gentleman depicted in this portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby?

Portrait of a Gentleman
Topic: Subject or sitter

Could anyone offer any clues as to the identity of this gentleman, depicted in a portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)?

The collection, Manchester City Galleries, note:

'Attributed verbally by Benedict Nicolson to Wright of Derby, 1.10.1963, and dated on stylistic grounds as circa 1777–1780 (Nicolson, 'Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light', Paul Mellon Foundation', 2 volumes, 1968). The painting is closely related in style to the portrait of Dr Charles Hague (1769–1821) by Wright, dating circa 1780s, in the Miss W. L. Hill sale, Christie's, 1965(?) (lot 39).

The Agnew's stock book (15 January 1901, no. 9674) records the picture as 'A Gentleman called The Hon. Thomas Bligh'; however, the Bligh family tree (the Earls of Darnley) reveals that there was no Thomas Bligh who could have sat for the portrait at that time, neither is there any record of a Bligh in Wright's account book. The only possible member of the Bligh family that this could have been a portrait of was John Bligh, who would have been in his late fifties when the picture was painted and the sitter is clearly much younger.

That's as much information as we have concerning the possible identity of the sitter.'

Jade King, Entry reviewed by Art UK


Tim Williams,

(from Christie's)

Thomas Blight, the presumed sitter, came from an old Yorkshire family who had settle in Ireland. He was the son of the Reverend Robert Blight, later Dean of Elphin, and his second wife, Miss Winthrop, and a nephew of John, 1st Earl of Darnley and General Thomas Blighe, who had a distinguished army career; the General bequeathed his estates and fortune to his younger brother the Dean. In 1790 Thomas married Theodosia, second daughter of John, 3rd Earl of Darnley, and his wife Mary, daughter and heir of John Stoyte of Street, Westmeath. He died in 1830.

Ward and Roberts, loc.cit., record a portrait of Thomas Cherbury Bligh in 1782, and sittings in October and December that year, and January and March the following year; payment was made in two halves, the final one in 1784.

A note under the entry mentions a portrait attributed to Romney of the sitter at Mancester City Art Gallery, which was purchased in 1901; this has, however, been re-attributed to Joseph Wright of Derby, dating from c.1777-80, the provenance for that portrait is given as the Collection of Charles Hamilton, Hamwood, Dunboye, Co. Meath and quotes another note from Mr. Hamilton's father to the effect that the portrait, together with those of other members of the family, were bought at the Bligh sale at Brittas; Mr. Hamilton senior was the great-grandson of Lady Mary Bligh by her marriage to William Tighe of Rossana, Co. Wicklow in 1736. This provenance could apply to the present portrait.

Tim Williams,

The Bligh sale was in 1841 - maybe there is a surviving catalogue.

The attached expands on the Christie's blurb from Ward & Roberts 'Romney: A Biograpical and Critical Essay' vol.2, pp.13-14 (Scribner, NY 1904).

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Tim Williams,

Presumably the attached image is the Romney catalogued by Ward & Roberts of Bligh painted in 1782.

Hoppner painted Bligh's wife Theodosia, Lady Bligh (daughter of John, 3rd Earl of Darnley) in 1796 - the portrait was exibited at the RA that year. Seemingly Thomas was the 1st Earl's nephew and Theodosia was the first Earl's grand-daughter.

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Mark Gray,

The Cambridge Alumni database suggests that Thomas Cherbury Bligh, matriculated at St Johns in 1780. This could therefore be a portrait commemorative of entry into undergraduate life?

The Holburne Museum,

Wright's patron and close friend Rev. Thomas Gisborne received his BA from St John's, Cambridge in 1780, having matriculated in 1776 (see ODNB). Could Gisborne have recommended Wright (who had already produced several paintings for the Gisborne family) to his college contemporary Bligh in 1780?

Patty Macsisak,

Have you considered that the portrait under discussion is The Honorable John Bligh (1767-1831), later 4th Earl of Darnley? He succeeded to his titles on the death of his father John Bligh, 3rd Earl of Darnley in 1781.

The Honourable John Bligh 1767-1831) was the brother of Theodosia Bligh (1771-1840), wife of Thomas Cherburgh Bligh (1745-1830, who died a debtor in prison after a rocky and litigious relationship with his wife's family).

To see an image of his portrait by Thomas Gainsborough ca. 1785, scroll down to John Bligh, 4th Earl of Darnley. http://www.thepeerage.com/p2833.htm#i28326 A larger image would be greatly appreciated.

The identity of the sitter in the NGA, Washington, portrait as the 4th Earl of Darnley seems pretty certain, as the painting was apparently commissioned by him (see John Hayes's 'British Paintings' in the NGA's series of 'systematic' catalogues, 1992, as 1785). However, I suggest this is not the man who appears in the Manchester portrait. Gainsborough's sitter has a straight (verging on the aquiline) nose and a soft, broad jawline, compared with the slightly retroussé nose and narrow, more angular jawline of Wright's.

Patty Macsisak,

Thanks for your insight, Richard. I see that you are correct about the nose.

The Rt. Hon. Thomas Bligh (ca. 1654-1710) had three sons: John Bligh, 1st Lord Darnley (1687-1728); Lt.-Gen. Thomas Bligh (1693-1775) and Very Rev. Robert Bligh (?-?), father of Thomas Cherburgh Bligh. As far as I know, Thomas Cherburgh Bligh was not entitled to the courtesy title of "The Honourable" and was styled variously as Esq. or Mr.

Thanks, Patty. Thomas Cherburgh Bligh (despite not being 'The Hon.' and the fact that 'Bligh' does not appear in Wright's account book) would be a possibility if his date of birth were right. Judging from the sitter's appearance, that would have to be in, say, the 1750s -- perhaps a little late for a father (Robert Bligh) born perhaps c.1700 , but not impossible.

Patty Macsisak,

The Very Rev. Robert Bligh (?-1778) married his second wife, Frances Winthrop(e), in 1759 and subsequently had four children. The "History of Parliament" website states that Thomas Cherburgh Bligh was born "?1761" and that he graduated from St. John's Cambridge on 1 June 1780, aged 19.


While testing whether any of Lady Mary Bligh Tighe's descendants might be a possibility for the sitter, I ran across a statement about St. John's, Cambridge "...it had the added advantage of possessing the largest funds of any Cambridge college for assisting poor but able men to gain a university education." It would be interesting to know whether Thomas Cherburgh Bligh qualified for funds described above or if the legacy from Lt.-Gen. Thomas Bligh to his brother, the Very Rev. Robert Bligh paid for his nephews' education. At any rate, it is ironic that Rev. Robert Bligh would be engaged as Curate for Abbymahon ca. 1751-1778 for £ 15 per annum, only to have his son purchase a portrait by Romney for £ 42 soon after his death in 1778. (In all fairness, Rev. Bligh had other income, e.g., at various times, impropriator of Clondullane, Liatrim, Macroney and Curate of Kilmaloda; from 1768-1778, Dean of Elphin.)

Title Patrick Bronte: Father of Genius
Author Dudley Green
Edition reprint
Publisher The History Press, 2010
ISBN 0752462474, 9780752462479
Length 384 pages
Page 26

A second marriage on the part of the Very Rev. Robert Bligh would certainly explain the somewhat late (for him) birthdate of offspring. Wright's portrait could thus be of Thomas Cherburgh Bligh, painted on his graduation in 1780.

This, of course, ties in with Tim Williams's comments at the beginning of the present discussion -- allowing for a variation between 'Cherbury' and 'Cherburgh'. However, I am not absolutely certain that the image Tim Williams posts as presumably the Romney portrait of Thomas Cherbury Bligh recorded by Ward & Roberts (as of 1782) shows the same sitter as the Wright portrait in Manchester.

Patty Macsisak,

But the Romney portrait was started in 1782, so soon after the completion of the Wright portrait? Even if the Wright portrait was to celebrate the beginning of his career as an MP (1783-1800), it seems overconfident and extravagant.

Manchester Art Gallery,

It would seem the closest this discussion has come to an answer would be Thomas Cherbury Bligh but this is not nearly a certainty. Does the discussion have any further avenues of exploration?

Will Pinfold,

I'm sure it's been suggested before, but facially he looks to me quite like Sir Brooke Boothby, subject of that famous Wright portrait (attached)

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Osmund Bullock,

Roger, thank you...but I am not convinced by the resemblance, which to me seems very slight. Look at their noses: von Nolcken has a long, pointed one with a prominent bridge, while our sitter's could almost be described as 'snub'. Oh, and I don't think Downman was ever Wright's pupil or apprentice - that was Hurleston. You seem to have mixed up the information in the two Wikipedia articles you link us to.

Diana Donald,

Like Will Pinfold, I am struck by the resemblance to Brooke Boothby, as depicted by Wright in the full-length reclining Tate portrait of 1781. The sitter in the Manchester painting looks a bit younger, which would fit in with Nicolson's suggested date (on stylistic grounds) of late 1770s. The heavy-lidded eyes, the slightly effete air, the elegant but understated dress and the bookishness are all characteristic of Boothby.

Hugh Polehampton,

Just to say that William Tate was a pupil of Wright's probably from 1768 while Wright was lodging in Liverpool with Richard Tate, William's elder brother. Nicholson has a lot of references to the Tates and also to Thomas Moss Tate, William's nephew (Joseph Wright of Derby) and also Elizabeth Barker in 'Joseph Wright of Derby in Liverpool' 2007/2008- the catalogue for the Liverpool exhibition which also went to the Yale Center for British Art. See also the article I wrote for 'The Hidden Art of Barnsley' 2015-available on http://www.barnsleyartonyourdoorstep.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/1.The-Tate-Family-of-Gawber-Hall.pdf
I am afraid that this does not help identify the sitter but a previous post discussed Wright's pupils.

Michael Steele 01,

Is there any chance that this might be an earlier portrait of Charles Burney, music historian and father of Fanny the novelist, than the later portrait (1781) by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the NPG? They do seem to me to look very alike.

James Fairhead,

Might this not be a portrait of Robert Waring Darwin, son of Wright's close acquaintance (and medical doctor) Erasmus Darwin? Robert was sent to be a student at Edinburgh in 1784-6. A portrait would have been in order. There is in Wright's 'Accounts Book' an (undated) reference to two Sitters at Newark being Mr Darwin and Miss Darwin and perhaps these refer to two of Erasmus Darwin's children. In any case, this young portrait seems to match the portrait of Robert Darwin later in life. (Against this, of course, it is said that Wright's list of the 'Sitters of Newark' date from the early 1760s, but perhaps this is not entirely correct).

Lynn Lamport,

I have been researching for 30 years the identities of 514 subscribers to the Italian Opera for the year 1795 listed on an aide-de-memoire fan which I own. I have this portrait the source of which I unfortunately cannot verify at this late stage but I can pass on the information about this particular gentleman. He was Thomas Cherburgh Bligh, of Brittas, County Meath, cousin and husband from 1790 of Theodosia, sister of Lord Darnley. Known to be a querulous Irishman he was constantly looking for arguments, especially with his brother-in-law, the Earl. In 1812 he was tried and bound over to keep the peace and again in 1820, when he was bound over for a further four years. Unable to pay his sureties for his discharge, the hot-tempered Thomas died in the Kings Bench prison. Hope this helps.

Caspar More,

Could this portrait possibly be Richard Paul Jodrell (1745-1831). There is a Thomas Gainsborough painting of Richard Paul Jodrell dated circa 1774 which the facial features look similar to this painting. The Jodrell family also came from outside Manchester.

Andrew Graciano ,

Judging by costume, according to memory, the narrow collar, large buttons and wide cuffs on the jacket, which is relatively loose in fit through the sleeves, suggests a date in the late 1760s, early 70s. That could certainly date it to Wright's Liverpool period. It may then be Thomas Moss Tate (of Liverpool), Daniel Daulby (of Manchester), or Wright's pupil, Thomas Hurleston(e).

Martin Hopkinson,

Alex Kidson agrees that this is a Liverpool portrait - it does not look like Daulby - Thomas Moss Tate is perhaps a better possibility see the portraits of both men by William Tate in the Walker Art Gallery. Bendor Grosvenor thinks that a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery may be of Hurlstone by Wright - but this has not received universal acceptance [BBC Britain's Lost Masterpieces 2/2]
This does not seem to be the same sitter.

Bruce Trewin,

Lynn Lamport's comment brings back the suggestion of Thomas Cherburgh Bligh. Could she please clarify what she means by "I have this portrait"?

Simon Gillespie,

With regard to technique , Wright generally uses a twill canvas which normally is very noticeable. The twill has a pronounced 45 degree angle in the weave as opposed to the normal horizontal and vertical weave most artists supports. With a good image or close inspection this should be visible and worth checking.

Manchester Art Gallery,

I've studied the image and this is the point where the paint layer seems the thinnest where you can make out the canvas weave.

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Simon Gillespie,

That is very useful and I would say typical of the weave one finds on Wright. Also the paint application is his way of working. Great example with the way the button is painted and also the high light on the red lining. Simple small details with perfect application with the right amount of paint. Economical and confident Wright

James Fairhead,

I think the answer lies on the ARTUK website. This portrait bears a striking resemblance to Thomas Shrawley Vernon (1759-1825) who portrait is to be found at Hanbury Hall (on the National Trust Website, here: https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/thomas-shrawley-vernon-17591825-130508/search/term:jacket-857/page/92/view_as/grid ). See attached for comparison. This identification also makes sense as (a) Thomas Shrawley Vernon was of the Vernon family of Hanbury Hall near Birmingham and its ‘Lunar Society’ with which Wright had longstanding links); (b) his cousin (from whom he eventually inherited Hanbury Hall https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanbury_Hall ) was married to (eventually divorced from) the Marquis of Exeter who was an early patron of Wright of Derby (purchasing ‘Boys with a bladder’ and its pendant); (c) there is a record in Wright’s account book of his painting a ‘Dröper’ (at least transcribed as such, whatever that means) to a whole length picture for a ‘Lord Vernon’. Whilst there is a real ‘Lord Vernon’, this painting cannot be of them, as none were of the right age at the time of sitting. It is, however, not unlikely that Wright would have referred to Thomas Shrawley Vernon as ‘Lord’ given his ancestry and as he was then an heir. More research would probably turn up more. References to the account book entries are pp 17 and 19 in Elizabeth E. Barker. 2009. “DOCUMENTS RELATING TO JOSEPH WRIGHT 'OF DERBY' (1734-97) The Volume of the Walpole Society, Vol. 71 (2009), pp. 1-216

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Jacinto Regalado,

I do not see the resemblance. The Wright portrait has a longer, narrower face, no cleft chin, and much lighter-coloured eyes than the Vernon portrait.

It would be good to try to make progress with this interesting discussion started almost five years ago.

Simon Gillespie's opinion that the canvas and paint point strongly to Joseph Wright of Derby (as attributed) is very helpful. Among the suggestions received to date, as far as the facial resemblance goes (Wright was an artist known for producing excellent likenesses), I also lean toward Will Pinfold's speculation that this could be Brooke Boothby.

Although it’s speculation for the time being, could this be Boothby on his return from Paris in 1776 (aged 32)? Why might Wright have painted Boothby twice in close succession? It’s tempting to imagine that he might have produced this one (a half-length portrait with a published, bound book, a specific work) and expanded on the theme in Tate’s full-length, reclining homage to Rousseau’s philosophy in the widest sense. Nicolson dated this 1777–1780. The date of Tate’s picture is 1781 (so, between 1 and 5 years apart). (Rousseau himself visited Wootton Lodge in 1766, not 1776 – there’s a typo on Tate’s website).

Or, as Patty and Richard have considered, Thomas Cherburgh Bligh, perhaps painted on his graduation in 1780?

I’m ready to be judged swiftly for speculating wildly, but it’s as much an attempt to re-start the discussion. It would be good to try to find some basis for some of the earlier ideas too, but each probably needs quite a lot of work!

I am more convinced by the suggestion it is Boothby than any of the other candidates mentioned: it is not just likeness (which we know can be deceptive, though Wright had a great reputation for good ones). It's the colour of the dress, which at the least is a remarkably close coincidence to the full-length Wright portrait; also the inclusion of the book, ditto; and the same somewhat dreamy representation of character. Even Wright had limits to his sitter list, albeit the conclusion may have to remain 'Brooke Boothby (?)'/ or 'thought to be' him.

If its a question of which of the two portraits came first, then this looks marginally younger than the other (certainly not the other way round) and one could well see that this might have been a preliminary one -albeit fully finished in itself rather than just an apparent study: again, that would be more logical than the other way round. It's an Occam's Razor case: what is the minimum evidence for a rational conclusion? If it is not someone totally unknown to have been painted by Wright (e.g. a name we don't know at all, or one known but connected to a picture now lost without visual record), then what is the highest probability? Boothby certainly looks to be heading the field.

Please support your comments with evidence or arguments.

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