[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] A valuable painting by an Old Master, Joseph Wright of Derby, featuring the exiled adulteress Julia in a cavern in the Gulf of Salerno near Naples, is to be auctioned by Sotheby’s after its owners donated it to the Anglican mission agency United Society (Us, formerly USPG) to support their work with refugees.
“When my phone rings it is more often than not someone trying to sell me something – advertising space, promotional products, a conference place . . . So one of my recent phone calls really took me by surprise,” the Revd Tim Harford, director of fundraising and communications for the United Society said.
“‘I see you are helping the Diocese in Europe to co-ordinate its response to the Europe refugee crisis. My family own an old painting by one of England’s most celebrated artists. It was valued a few years ago at £180,000. We’d like to give it to you so we can play our part in all this.’ What an incredible offer!
“I cleared my throat, then my diary, and agreed I would visit the gentleman, his wife and their son two days later. I met a delightful couple. Their home was simple, adequately furnished and equipped, but not displaying any signs of an extravagant or indulgent lifestyle.
“They talked about their concern for the refugees entering Europe and their heartfelt desire to do something about it. We discussed the sort of things that the Diocese in Europe would like to achieve and how their gift could be put to use to support many people through the most distressing circumstances over the coming months.”
He was then taken to see the painting, which depicts a young woman in exile, kneeling in a cave, with her hands held out as in an appeal for help. “It seems very appropriate,” Harford said.
“Entitled Julia, by Joseph Wright of Derby, the painting carries the inscription: ‘A cavern with the figure of Julia banished thither by her grandfather Augustus.’”
The auction house Sotheby’s, which is including the painting in its sale next Wednesday (9 December), provide more details about the painting’s origin and its artist, who they describe as “one of the most important of the late eighteenth-century artists who define the British Romantic movement.”
They say: “Based on a detail drawing done on the spot in 1774, the painting depicts a cavern in the Gulf of Salerno, near Naples, and is as startling for the originality of its composition as it is for the exquisite treatment of light.”
They say that “Three errant Julias were banished from Rome during classical antiquity, all for adultery, all within about a forty-year period during the first century BC, and all to virtually inaccessible islands.
“Whilst the title given to this picture at the 1780 Royal Academy exhibition leaves it ambiguous as to which of these three she is meant to be, another version of the subject was exhibited by Wright at Robin’s Rooms in 1785 under the somewhat loquacious title Julia, the daughter of Augustus, and supposed mistress of Ovid, deploring her exile by moonlight, in a cavern of the island to which she was banished, thereby confirming her identity.
“Much the best known of three possible candidates, Julia, the only child of Emperor Augustus and his wife Scribonia, was the wife of the great Roman general Agrippa, and following his death married Tiberius, who succeeded her father as Emperor. However, her many blatant adulteries became so great a scandal that in the year 2 BC Julia was banished to the island of Pandateria, of the coast of Campania, near Naples – a coastline that Wright had explored, and it is possible that he would have heard the story of Julia’s banishment whilst staying in Naples.”
It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1780 before being sold by the artist to a Joshua Cockshutt of Chaddesden, Derbyshire, for the sum of £105. It was held by the Cockshutt family until 1840 when it was given in lieu of payment for a debt. While remaining in the private collection, in 1990 it was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London; the Grand Palais in Paris; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was donated to the United Society for sale this year as the owners’ response to the refugee crisis.
The painting, an oil on canvas, is held in its original Wright of Derby Neo-Classical frame and measures 124 by 172 cm. It is expected to raise between £100,000 and £150,000 GBP when it goes under the hammer on Wednesday.
The suffragan Bishop of Europe, David Hamid, described the “extraordinary and generous gift” as “exciting news.”