Joseph Wright of Derby: A Painter With a Scientific Turn of Mind

Updated on June 26, 2019
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John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.

Joseph Wright of Derby (self-portrait)
Joseph Wright of Derby (self-portrait)

His Early Life

Joseph Wright was one of five children born to a Derby attorney, his date of birth being 3rd September 1734. Little is known about his childhood apart from the fact that he was educated at Derby Grammar School and that he was interested in drawing from an early age.

When he was aged 17 he was sent to London to be apprenticed to Thomas Hudson, a fashionable portrait painter. After two years he returned to Derby, being somewhat dissatisfied with spending too much time finishing the background details of Hudson’s portraits.

Wright tried to establish himself as a portraitist in Derby, but came to realise that he needed more guidance. He therefore went back to Hudson’s studio for a further 15 months.

On his second return to Derby he tried his hand again as a professional portraitist, and this time he was more successful. He soon established a reputation for this kind of work and was able to set up his own portrait business in Derby.

A New Development

In the early 1760s Joseph Wright turned his hand to something new, which was “candle-light” pictures in which the chief source of light was a candle or lamp that highlighted faces and objects and threw other parts of the canvas into deep shadow. He sometimes included the Moon as a secondary light source.

This approach was unprecedented in English painting but had been used for some time in European art, notably by Caravaggio in the early 17th century and his followers who became known as the “Caravaggisti”.

However, what made Wright`s approach original was his choice of subject matter, namely the world of science which had not previously been a theme that attracted artists. Two notable works in this genre were “A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrey” (1764-6) and “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1767-8).

Liverpool

Towards the end of 1768 Joseph Wright moved away from Derby and settle in Liverpool, which was a flourishing cultural centre. A Society of Arts, modelled on London’s Royal Academy, was set up in 1769 during Wright’s stay in the city.

Wright concentrated on portrait painting while in Liverpool and there were complaints from fellow artists that he was stealing their business.

After three years he returned to Derby where he married Anne Swift, apparently not with the approval of his own extended family. It was a successful marriage that was to produce six children.

Rome

The couple visited Rome in 1774 for a stay that kept them away from England for nearly two years. He was fascinated by Rome, where he spent a lot of time making sketches of classical statues and monuments, although he was unmoved by most of the High Renaissance art that he came across. An exception to this indifference was Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. He contracted a liver complaint after spending hours lying on the floor to get a better view.

A visit to Naples coincided with a minor eruption of Mount Vesuvius, of which Wright was able to make a spontaneous oil sketch.

Their visits to other Italian cities on their return journey were brief, despite all the artistic treasures to be seen in Florence, Venice and elsewhere. He did not reckon that he would see anything to rival what he had seen in Rome.

Wright was able to make good use of the contents of his sketchbooks when he resumed his large-scale painting back in England.

Bath

Joseph Wright did not stay long in Derby before moving to Bath in November 1775. He hoped to fill the portrait-painter gap that Thomas Gainsborough left when he had departed for London the previous year.

However, this did not prove to be a good move due to the fact that the fashionable residents of Bath did not appreciate Wright’s down-to-earth style of portraiture. Potential clients expected to be flattered by a portraitist, and Wright’s Midlands honesty was not to their liking. Commissions for portraits were therefore few and far between and after two years he had no choice but to head back to Derby, where he spent the rest of his life.

Becoming Better Known

One problem with being based in a relatively small provincial city is that one will find it difficult to be appreciated by the leaders of the artistic world, who are generally located in the larger cities and particularly London. Joseph Wright had no wish for obscurity, so he regularly sent canvases to London for exhibition.

He was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy in 1781, but he desperately wanted to achieve full membership. He was passed over for this honour in 1783, having quarreled with some senior members, and therefore looked elsewhere for recognition, namely Liverpool. This led to him mounting an exhibition of 25 of his own works in the city in 1785, which was probably the first example of a one-man-exhibition in the country.

However, this move was not as successful as Wright had hoped, so he patched up his quarrel with the Royal Academy and resumed exhibiting in London.

His Later Life

Joseph Wright suffered from ill health in middle age, although he added to his asthma by depression caused by imagining ills that did not exist. He was greatly helped by his friend Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles) who was not only a key member of the “Midlands Enlightenment” but a physician who was able to prescribe appropriate treatments for his patient.

Health concerns did not restrict Joseph Wrights from making visits to friends in various places and making tours of the Lake District in 1793 and 1794 which resulted in a number of landscape paintings.

Joseph Wright died in Derby in August 1797 at the age of 62.

His paintings and drawings can be seen today in galleries around the world, but the largest collection is almost certainly that held at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

This is probably the best-known painting by Joseph Wright, and is typical both of his mature painting style and choice of subject matter. It dates from around 1767 or 1768.

The scene is a demonstration of a scientific experiment that is presumably being given in a country house to the wealthy owner and his family. The device in question, which had been invented at least 100 years before the date of the painting, was used to create a vacuum in a glass vessel, and by placing a live creature in the vessel it was possible to show that removing air caused the creature to lose consciousness and possibly die of suffocation.

In Wright’s painting a bird is inside the air pump, lying collapsed at the base, and the experimenter is about to release the valve at the top of the glass vessel and let the air back in. There is tension in this scene – has the experimenter waited too long? Has the bird died?

This is very much a candle-light painting, although the candle is hidden behind a bowl of water. Also typical of Joseph Wright’s work is the presence of a secondary light source, namely the Moon which is visible through a window on the extreme right-hand side thanks to the young servant who has just opened a curtain.

However, the real interest in this painting comes from the reactions of the witnesses to the experiment. The demonstrator’s face is expressionless as he looks straight at the viewer and not at the air pump or the bird inside it. Other observers are clearly fascinated by it, although the young couple on the extreme left seem to be far more interested in each other.

The people whose faces are best illuminated by the candle are the three who attract most attention, particularly the young girl who looks anxiously at the bird. She seems close to tears but cannot tear her eyes away from what could be a tragic outcome. Her older sister, on the other hand, hides her face with her hand and is comforted by her father, who points to where the scientist is about to open the valve and save the life of the bird.

Every face has a different story to tell, and Wright has achieved this within the limits of the illumination provided by a single candle. That is why this painting has been described (by the art historian Sir Ellis Waterhouse) as “one of the wholly original masterpieces of British art”.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone

It might be thought strange that Joseph Wright, with his interest in modern science, should feel comfortable in portraying the activity of a man whose quest was entirely spurious, namely trying to discover the secrets of turning base metal into gold and of living forever. However, alchemy was not always held in such low esteem.

During the 17th century Robert Boyle, who was one of the founders of the Royal Society and is often regarded as being the “Father of Chemistry”, showed considerable interest in alchemy and was known to have carried out experiments that sought to do exactly what traditional alchemists did. In other words, the dividing line between fake and true science was by no means clear-cut.

The painting, which dates from 1771, certainly has mystery and magic in it, such as the attitude of the alchemist and the expression of wonder on his face. However, there are also elements of more established science to be seen, such as the scientific instruments and the documents that the alchemist has been consulting or possibly writing.

Indeed, there is strong evidence that this painting demonstrates the crossing of the line from alchemy to chemistry in that it depicts the discovery of phosphorus by a German alchemist named Hennig Brand, in 1669.

The painting is typical of Wright for its limited number of light sources, the glow from which illuminate the faces of the people depicted. The Moon also makes an appearance through the window of what appears to be a church-like building.

The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone
The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone

The Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent

This is an early landscape by Joseph Wright, painted in 1773. This was before he travelled to Italy and became seriously interested in painting landscapes.

However, despite this being an outdoor scene, it is also a “candle-light” one, with a lantern on the ground and the Moon illuminating high clouds at the top of the canvas.

The scene depicts a man who had the task of filling in foxholes at night prior to a foxhunt taking place the following day, with the aim being to prevent any fox from making an easy escape.

Although it is a landscape, with trees, clouds and a fast-running river, the focus is very much on the man doing the digging and his dog, which is sniffing the ground beside him. This realistic and dynamic work shows Wright at his experimental best.

The Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent
The Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent

Sources

The Great Artists: Number 65. Marshall Cavendish, 1986

The Oxford Companion to Art. OUP, 1993.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • profile image

        Miebakagh57 

        5 months ago

        Very informative, my pleasure in reading a good article. Thanks for sharing.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        I thought it was. Thanks for the confirmation. We had gone to visit the cathedral and stumbled upon the museum by chance. It was interesting.

      • John Welford profile imageAUTHOR

        John Welford 

        5 months ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

        There is a museum in Lichfield in what used to be the home of Erasmus Darwin, who ran his medical practice from there.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        5 months ago from UK

        This is an interesting article. I had not heard of Wright. I thought moving around for work was a relatively modern phenomenon, but he certainly got around. I have a vague recollection of coming across references to Erasmus Darwin in a museum close to Lichfield cathedral a few years ago.

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