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Feature Vol. 59, No.6, p. 13-17

Shedding a Light on 18th Century Science:
The Works of Joseph Wright of Derby

Maureen Byko

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Figure 1
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (Joseph Wright of Derby, exhibited 1768). A bird, in the glass bowl in the upper center of the image, is used to demonstrate the air pump visible on the table. The man conducting the experiment has pumped the air out of the bowl, threatening the bird’s life and inspiring a range of emotions from the audience. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery in London.
Figure 2
A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery (Joseph Wright of Derby, exhibited 1766). An orrery is a mechanical planetarium depicting the movements of the planets in the solar system, with a light in the center representing the sun. In Wright’s time, ‘’philosopher” was a term indicating a scientist. Photo courtesy of the Derby Museum and Gallery.
Figure 3
The Alchymist (Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771). Here, the scientist seeking the Philosopher’s Stone to turn base metal into gold, discovers phosphorus, seen glowing in the image. Photo courtesy of the Derby Museum and Gallery.
Figure 7 Self portrait aged about 20 (Joseph Wright of Derby, 1753–1754). Photo courtesy of the Derby Museum and Gallery
Figure 5
The Blacksmith’s Shop (Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771). Wright described this painting as “Two men forming a bar of iron into a horse shoe, from whence the light must proceed.”1 To achieve the dramatic effect desired, Wright created a scene of a traveler who had an accident, therefore requiring the candlelight repairs. This was the first in a series of five blacksmith’s shops and iron forge paintings by Wright. Photo courtesy of the Derby Museum and Gallery.
Figure 6
An Iron Forge (Joseph Wright of Derby, 1772) This work, painted after The Blacksmith’s Shop, shows a more mechanized process, with a hammer doing the work as the smith stands in the background, arms folded. Photo © Tate 2006.
Figure 7
The Hermit Studying Anatomy (Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771–1773). Considered to be a companion to The Alchymist, the painting depicts another night scene of an old man engaged in a form of scientific research.1 Photo courtesy of the Derby Museum and Gallery.

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Joseph Wright of Derby painted portraits of intellectuals, industrialists, and an assortment of wealthy clients. But the work he is perhaps best known for centers on a dying bird. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (Figure 1) illustrates the wonder and horror of science as it was known in the 18th century.

"The bird lays in a glass globe at the top of the painting as the scientist withdraws air from the globe using an air pump."

The painting, as described by the National Gallery in London, depicts a traveling scientist who demonstrates the formation of a vacuum, a lesson provided at the expense of a cockatoo. The bird lays in a glass globe at the top of the painting as the scientist withdraws air from the globe using an air pump. And if the sight of a bird on the brink of death is not enough to generate a response from onlookers, a bowl containing a skull glows in the candlelight that illuminates the scene.

The demonstration, conducted before a group of men, women, and children, inspires a gamut of reactions from fear to disinterest, as shown in the eyes of the onlookers.


Joseph Wright of Derby will be keeping good—and unusual—company in an exhibition of various artists’ portrayals of “Work, Rest & Play.” The exhibit, organized by The National Gallery, London, includes Wright’s An Iron Forge (Figure 6) with its compilation of works dating from the 16th century to the present. Among the artists featured are Thomas Gainsborough, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Paul Gauguin.

Wright’s blacksmith, whose 18th century shop is equipped to forge iron using water-powered tilt hammers,2 will be featured with the masters as well as more modern views of work and leisure, such as Lars Tunbjork’s photograph of a Tokyo stockbroker asleep at his desk, and L.S. Lowry’s painting, Coming from the Mill (1930), which depicts an army of faceless laborers in a 20th century industrial city.

According to the National Gallery, the exhibition “traces changing ideas about work and leisure, and looks at how artists have responded to major shifts in working patterns, from industrialization to contemporary office culture.”

The exhibition will be at the U.K.’s Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon Tyne, through July 15, and at the National Gallery, London from July 26 through October 14.

This painting, along with two other striking works, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery (Figure 2) and Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers, often shortened simply to The Alchymist (Figure 3), earned Wright acclaim as a painter of 18th century science.

Wright’s art will have greater exposure later this year when an exhibit, focusing on the period from 1768 to 1771, and an accompanying symposium, will be presented at the Walker Art Gallery at the National Museums in Liverpool starting in November. After the exhibit closes in February 2008, it will travel to the United States to be presented at the Yale Center for British Art from May through August.


Wright’s artistic inclinations were shaped during his boyhood in Derby, a small town that would become an epicenter of the Industrial Revolution in central Britain. Born in 1734, young Wright was mechanically minded and curious, and a frequent visitor of the shops in his town, according to an 1885 book by William Bemrose.1 Wright would observe the work of the various craftsmen, and then do his best to mimic it at home.

“This love for mechanics showed itself later in life by the introduction of an air-pump and an orrery into two of his principal pictures,” Bemrose wrote.

"As an adult, he was drawn to an impressive circle of friends that included scientists, artists, and industrialists."

Wright was also interested in drawing, and when he was 17 trained formally with Thomas Hudson, a successful portrait painter in London.2 Wright subsequently painted numerous portraits, including several self portraits. (Shown in Figure 4 is a self portrait at the age of about 20, provided by the Derby Museum and Gallery.)

As an adult, he was drawn to an impressive circle of friends that included scientists, artists, and industrialists. This combination of influences resulted in dramatic paintings that captured the mood of progress and possibility in Britain in the 18th century.

“He’s considered one of the most important 18th century British painters,” said Elizabeth Barker, director of the Picker Art Gallery at Colgate University in New York. Barker is guest curator of the upcoming Wright exhibition in Liverpool and Yale. She has spent years studying the artist, culminating in her doctoral dissertation. Wright may not be as well known as his contemporaries, such as Joshua Reynolds or Thomas Gainsborough, she said, but his work has become more widely appreciated beyond Derby’s borders. “Certainly his star is in the ascendancy,” Barker said.


Barker first encountered Wright’s art when she was studying at Yale University as an undergraduate. The Yale Center for British Art has among its holdings a Wright work called The Blacksmith’s Shop (Figure 5). That painting, with its dramatic treatment of a mundane subject, captured Barker’s attention and she has never lost interest.

"He is perhaps best known, however, for the three science-themed paintings that set him apart from most artists of his time: those of the air pump, the orrery, and the alchemist."

Wright was fascinated with the effects of light, and many of his paintings, such as The Blacksmith’s Shop and another, later piece, An Iron Forge (Figure 6), show evidence of that interest. He is perhaps best known, however, for the three science-themed paintings that set him apart from most artists of his time: those of the air pump, the orrery, and the alchemist. Barker has studied the paintings in the context of Wright’s times and concluded that they were probably intended to represent concepts of physics, astronomy, and chemistry.

The Orrery
The first of the paintings, exhibited in 1766, features an orrery, a model showing the movements of planets in the solar system. A lamp in the center represents the sun. In Wright’s composition, the lamp is not visible, but its reflections illuminate the faces of the audience. It was not unusual to behold such a scene in Wright’s time. In 18th century Britain science was becoming popularized with traveling public demonstrations. Wright very likely attended such demonstrations, according to Benedict Nicolson, author of an extensive 1968 study of Wright.2

“He watched chemical experiments being conducted at night in darkened rooms,” Nicolson wrote. “On the polished surface of the table would be set a lamp, and as the spectators crowded around to observe what was happening, shadows would play on their faces or hover menacingly on the wall behind them, shuddering as the flame flickered.” In his paintings, Wright was artfully portraying the drama he saw in bringing enlightenment to the masses, Nicolson wrote.

The Air Pump
Like the orrery, the air pump painting was a depiction of a science exhibition. This one, however, is set up to inspire suspense and sympathy along with curiosity among the onlookers. Exhibited in 1768, the painting shows an air pump, which the demonstrator cranks to remove air from a glass bowl in which a bird is sealed. One child hides her eyes, while an older boy watches curiously on the sidelines. A young couple gaze into one another’s eyes, disinterested in the fate of the bird altogether. Eerie shadows light the faces of the onlookers, and whether the bird is to live or die is left to the imagination of Wright’s audience.

The scene, and the questions it suggested about science, morality, and enlightenment was so memorable for John H. Lienhard that he composed a short radio story about Wright for his Engines of our Ingenuity program. Lienhard, M.D. Anderson Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston, writes and hosts a program for public radio that features stories of culture and human creativity. Episode 897 focused on “Wright of Derby.” Lienhard said he saw Wright as representing an exciting time in science and humanity, when the Industrial Revolution coincided with a period of intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment.

“This whole rising up against rationalism . . . Oh boy, you can see it in Derby, that horrible beautiful picture of the bird being smothered,” Lienhard said.

The Alchymist
The Alchymist, painted in 1771, presents a scientist in a church-like lab, stumbling onto a discovery by moonlight. As stated in the full title, the alchemist was seeking the Philosopher’s Stone, a magical substance that would turn any metal into gold. Instead, he discovers in his flask the glow of phosphorous. The painting places the scientist on his knees, reverently kneeling before the glowing substance.

"The painting is believed to depict the discovery of phosphorous by Hennig Brandt, nearly 100 years earlier."

The painting is believed to depict the discovery of phosphorous by Hennig Brandt, nearly 100 years earlier, according to Matthew Edwards, collections access assistant at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. The Derby museum holds an extensive collection of Wright’s paintings and other supporting materials, such as writings by and about Wright.


Although Wright is reported to have consulted scientific texts and diagrams to plan The Alchymist and similarly, The Hermit Studying Anatomy (Figure 7), Barker does not believe technical accuracy was his primary goal. “He was not a scientific illustrator,” she said.

“One of the things that really interests me about Wright’s work is not so much that his subject matter was scientific but his whole approach to making art was very much in keeping with his times,” she said. “He was willing to question preconceived notions and test new ideas and to follow successes, and that he was willing to do so with an almost unparalleled rigor, I think, is very much in keeping with his age.”


1. William Bemrose, The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, ARA commonly called “Wright of Derby,” (London: Bemrose & Sons, 1885).

2. Benedict Nicolson, Joseph Wright of Derby, Painter of Light (London: Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1968).

Maureen Byko is managing editor of JOM.