Born in 1747, Thomas Coltman inherited Hagnaby Priory, near East Kirkby in Lincolnshire, in 1768. He and his wife Mary Barlow are portrayed here probably a year or so after their marriage in October 1789. The couple can also be seen in Wright’s great painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (also in the National Gallery), exhibited in 1768.
The informality of the portrait suggests that Wright and the Coltmans were on friendly terms. Coltman rented a house in Derby from Wright and owned two other paintings by him. Both Mr and Mrs Coltman look relaxed and natural, about to set out on a morning ride. The landscape background is studied from nature – Wright painted his first pure landscape at about the same time.
A groom leads Coltman’s bay horse from stables behind the house. This is Gate Burton Hall, which Coltman rented after his marriage while continuing to rent the house in Derby from Wright.
Thomas Coltman and his wife Mary are portrayed here probably a year or so after their marriage in October 1789. Coltman was a friend of Wright’s, although 13 years younger than him. Born in 1747, he was the second son of John Coltman of Hagnaby Priory, near East Kirkby in Lincolnshire. He inherited the Hagnaby estate in 1768 when his elder brother died unexpectedly, and married Mary Barlow in 1769.
It is not known how the couple met but they can be seen in Wright’s great painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, exhibited in 1768. Wright often used relatives or friends as models for his subject pictures. Coltman rented a house in Derby from Wright and owned two other paintings by him: A Girl Reading a Letter, with an old Man reading over her Shoulder and Two Boys Fighting over a Bladder, both in a private collection.
The informality of the portrait conveys the friendship between Wright and his sitters. Both Mr and Mrs Coltman look relaxed and natural, about to set out on a morning ride. Mrs Coltman sits side-saddle and wears a rose-red riding habit. Coltman stands beside the grey horse in an energetic pose, wearing a summer frock coat and a waistcoat trimmed with silver twisted thread, which shows Wright’s delight in the play of light on intricate surfaces. None of the raised areas of paint, known as impasto, has been flattened as the painting is unlined, so we can still admire Wright’s superb painterly technique. Coltman’s breeches are so close-fitting that they reveal the outline of a coin in his pocket – perhaps a joke between the friends.
A groom leads Coltman’s bay horse from stables behind the house. This is Gate Burton Hall, which Coltman rented after his marriage while continuing to rent a house in Derby from Wright. In the painting, Coltman may be pointing to Lincoln Cathedral which could be seen from the Hall. The landscape background is studied from nature and lit by daylight, which marks a new departure in Wright’s work – he painted his first pure landscape at about the same time. Here the light shifts over the landscape through the windswept clouds in a credible representation of the English weather. The sky was originally bluer, but the smalt pigment has lost its colour and degraded to grey. Wright adapted the Coltmans‘ poses eight years later for his double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton (which was destroyed by fire).
Wright made minor alterations to the position of the house at the right edge, in Thomas Coltman’s left arm and in the horse’s ears. However, cracks in the top layer of paint suggest that foliage once covered much of the sky on the right, and that a broad tree trunk was originally placed to the left of the horse’s legs.
The artist entered the portrait in his account book as Mr and Mrs Thomas Coltman a conversation. It may have been the picture he exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771 as ’A small conversation'.
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