Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


29 Inside the Arcade of the Colosseum c.1774-5

Brown washes over pencil with pen and brown ink on laid paper 37.7 x 50.7 (14 7/8 x 20)
Inscribed upper left in pen and brown ink '25'


Wright launched his career as a portrait painter (see under no.28), and his representations of sitters from his native Derbyshire were to remain an important source of income throughout his professional life. Today he is best known for his subjects of scientific experiment set at candlelight or lamplight, such as A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (Derby Museum and Art Gallery) and Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (National Gallery, London); and, indeed, it was with these paintings that Wright established his London reputation in the 1760s. During a trip to France and Italy between 1773 and 1775, however, he became increasingly interested in landscape, and on his return to England landscape oils - of both Italian and British subjects - became a regular feature of his output as well.

With his pregnant wife and the two artists Richard Hurleston (d.1777) and John Downman (nos.54-6), Wright set sail for Italy in November 1773. They travelled round the coast of Spain as far as Nice on the southern French coast, disembarking there for three weeks because of bad weather (see no.54). They then continued by sea to Genoa and Leghorn (Livorno), from where they took the overland route to Rome, arriving in February 1774. Three sketchbooks by Wright are known from the trip, all apparently used in Rome; they contain studies after the Antique, figures observed on the streets, and landscape views, especially sketches of skies (Egerton 1990, pp.140-2). He also made larger, more elaborate drawings of Italian landscapes and classical ruins in monochrome media like this one, his preference for monochrome finding parallels in the work of other oil painters in this period such as Wilson and Gainsborough (nos.13, 23). However, some of these drawings may have been executed after Wright's return to England. This subject, for example, exists in a second version (Henry Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, repr. Nicolson 1968, pl.155) which one author believes may be the original and this, the Opp? version, a later commissioned copy (Egerton 1990, p.143). However, it should be noted that the Opp? version carries one of the inscribed ink numbers found on other original sketches made by Wright on his Continental trip, such as the Nice landscape in the Opp? collection (T08253) numbered 244; and it is also executed on a Dutch paper (made by Jan van der Ley) commonly found in use in mid to late eighteenth-century Italy (Bower 1997, p.63).

The Colosseum, one of the most impressive of all the great monuments of Imperial Rome, never failed to make a striking impression on the eighteenth-century traveller. The gigantic amphitheatre was constructed between AD 72 and 80, and was used by the Romans for gladiatorial combats, games and other festivities. Owing to its immense scale, it could be shown by artists in its entirety only if they adopted a rather distant viewpoint. Instead, some artists concentrated on the arena itself, perhaps showing - as in a watercolour by William Pars (Tate Gallery T04853) - the wooden cross and altars symbolising the stations of the cross erected after Pope Benedict XIV in 1750 declared the site sacred ground in memory of the Christians who were martyred there. However, other artists, such as Wright, 'Warwick' Smith and J.R. Cozens, chose to depict a section of the arcade from close to. Their compositions have a dramatic impact which is reminiscent of the powerful ruin etchings made by the Italian printmaker and architect G.B. Piranesi (1720-1778) and may, indeed, have been inspired by them (Hawcroft 1988, pp.41-5).

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.94 no.29, reproduced in colour p.95