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Wright of Derby



c. 1765

(black and white chalk on paper)



Name: Joseph Wright

Born: Derby, England
3 September 1734

Died: Derby, England
29 August 1797



Joseph Wright was born in Derby, a small city in central England, at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. He was the third son of John Wright, attorney and town Clerk, and his wife Hannah Brooks.

His early interest and talent in portrait drawing lead him to train formally from around the age of 17 in the studio of Thomas Hudson in London, initially for a period of 2 years in 1751 and then again for 15 months in 1756 to polish his technique.
Returning to live in Derby, his reputation and career as a portrait painter began to flourish and he obtained commisions not only from Derby but increasingly from throughout nearby towns and cities.

He first exhibited in London at the Society of Artists in 1765, aged 31, showing two works including "Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight". This was the first of a series of 'candlelight' compositions by which his name became established. The two major works of this period were, to give their full titles, "A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun" (1766), and "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" (1768). They represent a complex combination of art, science and philosophy and owe much to the Wright's circle of friends who included members of an important provincial group of philosophers, scientists and engineers, collectively known as the "Lunar Society" - a title derived from their custom of meeting monthly on the Monday nearest the full moon. They demonstrated experiments and discussed the latest developments in chemistry, medicine, electricity, gases and industrial topics.

Among the members famous today were Josiah Wedgewood, the ceramics manufacturer; James Watt, developer of the steam engine; Joseph Priestly, chemist; and Dr Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the evolutionist Charles Darwin. The interests of the Society represented a microcosm of the European movement of the 'Enlightment' which, during the 17th and 18th centuries, radically transformed man's view of himself, in relation to his place in the universal order, and to God, through developments in intellectual, philosophical, religious and scientific thought and related literature.

Wright appears to have been particularly influenced by two members of the group: John Whitehurst FRS (1713-88) and Dr Erasmus Darwin FRS (1731-1802).

Whitehurst was by trade a maker of clocks, watches, barometres and other instruments and he lived only a few doors away from Wright's parental home at No.28 Irongate, Derby. He was also a well-known geologist, publishing in 1778 an "Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth" which addressed the issue of Creation and specifically the topic of volcanoes - of particular interest to Wright who, during his trip to Italy (1773-5), witnessed an eruption of Vesuvius. Indeed, over the next twenty years, so much did the sense of volcanic power and drama appeal to him, he was to paint over 30 pictures of Mount Vesuvius.

Erasmus Darwin studied medicine at Cambridge and Edinburgh before taking up practice in Lichfield in 1756, moving to nearby Derby in 1781. However, his interests were wide-ranging, ecompassing atmospherics, electricity, gasses, geology, canals and botany in addition to medicine. He also composed poetry. He was a lifelong friend of Wright and also his physician, treating him for an ongoing depressive state from which he suffered for the last 20 years of his life.

Wright painted his portrait several times, the second one (c.1793) depicting the doctor in his literary role, holding a quill pen, having just completed his long didactic poem "The Botanic Garden" which embraced a muliplicity of scientific ideas, discoveries and inventions of his age, including descriptions of the planetary systems and the workings of the air pump, which feature in Wright's paintings.

The 'Orrery' was invented in the early 18th century to show the movement of the planets around the sun during the course of the year. It was named after the Earl of Orrery who sponsored its invention. The instrument was operated by turning a handle on the base which drove a clockwork mechanism, setting the planets in motion on concentric discs around the centre where a brass sphere on a stem usually represented the sun. In Wright's painting the sun is represented by a lamp-wick burning in a jar of oil, another method of depiction, one ideally suited to his dramatic intent in which the philosopher is explaining a point to the man standing beside him taking notes, while the expressions and gestures of the other, apparently middle-class non-scholarly figures, portray their interest, curiosity and amazement as they study this model of their own Universe.

The cosmological theme of Wright's painting of the Orrery relates to the subject of of Whitehurst's treatise "Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth" in which he attempts to "inquire after those laws by which the Creator chose to form the World" by explaining the creation of the Earth from particles of matter in space according to Newton's theory of universal gravitation. Wright and Whitehurst were therefore similiarly concerned with Newtonian physics and philosophy and the latter's experience as a clockmaker would also have enabled him to advise his friend on the operation of the Orrery.

It is also likely that Wright was able to attend just such a lecture on the Orrery as depicted in his painting, given in Derby in 1762 by Whitehurst's friend, the Scottish astronomer, James Ferguson (1710-76). Ferguson made scientic instruments, including the Orrery, in his London workshop and also travelled the country giving lectures.

Wright's second scientific painting "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" also draws on the content of Ferguson's lectures, which included demonstrations on the air pump producing a vacuum. However it is unlikely that Ferguson's demonstration took the form shown in this painting since in this published lecture notes of 1760 he specifially states:

"If a fowl, a cat, rat, mouse or bird be put under the receiver, and the air be exhausted, the animal is at first oppressed as with a great weight, then grows convulsed, and at last expires in all the agonies of a most bitter and cruel death. But as this experiment is too shocking to every spectator who has the least degree of humanity, we substitute a machine called the 'lung-glass' in place on the animal; which, by a bladder within it, shows how the lungs of animals are contracted into a small compass when the air is taken out of them".

However, what Wright chose to paint was the more shocking vision of the experiment employing a live bird, thus enabling him to increase the dramatic effect by depicting distress and horror in the girls' faces. It also explicitly highlights his interest in the portrayal of the theme of human mortality, presenting a spectacle of death in the context of the Laws of Nature.

The term used to define man's responses to the natural world, particularly those of awe, fear and terror, was 'Sublime' (c.f. Edmund Burke's "Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful", 1757). Furthermore, the penetrating stare and outstretched arm of the philosopher have the effect of making the viewer participate in the experience. The contemorary religious connotations are quite clear.

Wright spent most of his life in Derby. He worked in Liverpool from 1769 to 1771; he also travelled to Italy, arriving in Rome in February 1774 and returning to Derby in September 1775; then he attempted, unsuccessfully, to emulate Gainsbourgh as a fashionable portrait painter in Bath between 1775-7. However, only Italy left any lasting impression on his work and the fiery subjects of Vesuvius and the Fireworks in Rome (Girandola), extended his interest in the effects of light into an altogether vaster, ourdoor scale.

Joseph Wright married Hannah Swift in 1773 and they had six children, three of whom died in infancy. Hannah died in 1790 but Wright continued to paint up until his final year. He became increasingly asthmatic and nervous about the house and for these complaints he was treated by his friend Dr Darwin. He died at his new home at No.28 Queen Street, Derby, where he spent his final months with his two daughters, on 29th August 1797.

The name "Wright of Derby" was applied to him by reviewers of the Society of Artists' exhibitions in the 1760s, to distinguish him from the Liverpool artist, Richard Wright, who was already exhibiting. The American artist Joseph Wright also arrived in England in 1772, making the style "Wright of Derby" even more helpful. He is not known to have complained about the title and it it by this name that his reputation has endured as one of the most original, wide-ranging and talented English artists of the 18th century.

[Ref: articles by Judy Egerton and David Fraser, Tate Gallery, London, 1990]