John Masey Wright, OWS (1777-1866) John Masey Wright was best known for his contributions to the Society of Painters in Water Colours, notably subjects taken from Shakespeare. While revealing the influence of Wright’s teacher, Thomas Stothard, they have a distinct – and authentic – charm of their own, as a result of the artist’s experience as a theatrical painter.
John Masey Wright was born in Pentonville, London on 14 October 1777. The son of an organ builder, he trained in the same business and began work as a piano-tuner for Broadwood. During his boyhood, however, he spent time in the studio of Thomas Stothard, and developed his own artistic skills under the older artist’s influence. The most prolific and distinguished illustrator of his day, Stothard contributed extensively to the fashionable anthologies of verse and prose, such as pocket-books, almanacs and ‘galleries’.
Wright’s ability to summarise character and action of a work of literature in a single image was rooted in this kind of work and, not surprisingly, he later made a number of his best drawings for the similarly occasional ‘annuals’, The Literary Souvenir (1825-26), The Amulet (1826-27) and Heath’s Gallery (1836).
In 1810, at the age of thirty-three, Wright married and moved to Lambeth, where he shared a house near the Thames, in Bishop’s Walk, with the Scots marine painter, John (‘Jock’) Wilson. Lambeth was then a theatrical quarter, and Wilson – who painted scenery for Astley’s circus theatre – introduced Wright into a circle of notable managers and designers, including T E Barker and David Roberts, who frequented Bent’s public house. In turn, Wright contributed figures for reconstructions of famous battles at Barker’s Panorama in the Strand, and painted scenery at Covent Garden and at His Majesty’s Theatre. Through this work, he gained the first-hand knowledge of the stage, which affected both the structure of his literary watercolours – distinguishing them from Stothard’s more frieze-like compositions – and the expansiveness of the rare historical set-pieces in oil that he exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts between 1812-18. During this period he gave his address as 24 Great Pulteney Street in Soho, an area frequented by writers.
Wright was elected an associate of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1824, and became a full member in the following year. From that time, he made his living as an exhibiting watercolourist and illustrator of literary subjects (Burns, Cervantes, Goldsmith, Milton, Scott, Shakespeare) and as the teacher of such aristocratic clients as Lady Craven, the Marquess of Lansdowne and the daughters of the Earl de Grey. Despite this apparent success, however, he never gained financial security and, until his death at Twickenham Common, on 13 May 1866, was dependent upon charitable payments from the ‘Old’ Watercolour Society (1849 and 1860) and a small life annuity from the Royal Academy (1858). He was survived by four daughters and a son.
The particular devotion of Wright to Shakespeare, is indicated by the anecdote, told by his son, that ‘during an illness, [he] loudly and repeatedly recited passages from his favourite Shakespeare plays while asleep’ (F G Burnett).
His work is represented in the collections of the British Museum and the V&A; and the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington).