Interior of a Glass House no. 1 (c. 1770-1772)

Image: Interior of a Glass House (no1), c. 1770-1772. Pen and brown ink and grey wash on paper.

Image from: Derby Museum and Art Gallery

This is one of two surviving images of the inside of glass houses which Wright produced in the early 1770s. Glass was one of several industries to experience significant growth in the late eighteenth century Midlands. The Black Country in Northeast Worcestershire and South Staffordshire was an important glass making district where glass kilns were constructed to produce crown glass for windows and flint glass for household ware and ornamental objects.

This image of Wright’s is probably the picture described as “The Glass-House, a Sketch: the Fire Exceedingly well expressed” which was sold by Christies in 1801 after Wright’s death. David Fraser in Joseph Wright of Derby (Derby Art Gallery, 1979) suggests that this and the other picture held by Derby Museum and Art Gallery may have been composed in one of the glass factories established by a member of the Lunar Society member, James Keir .  .

In 1771 Keir had leased the Holloway End Glasshouse, close to Stourbridge, near Dudley in the Black Country. According to a letter held in the Boulton and Watt Papers in Birmingham City Archives, from his fellow Lunar Society member, William Small to James Watt on 16 December 1771, Keir made flint glass, which was blown to make glassware pieces. Keir also used his glass furnaces as laboratories to carry out experiments on the properties of alkalis. In a letter to Matthew Boulton on 22 October 1772, he referred to his ‘chemical operations in an old glass-house’. Keir also experimented with annealing, the slow cooling of vitreous materials such as glass to try and remove imperfections in the finished materials. Both Keir and Josiah Wedgwood co-operated in this branch of applied science. In 1776, Keir delivered a paper on this subject to London’s Royal Society.

Wright’s picture is an important study of the inside of a glass factory, but there is no evidence that Wright used the image, or the other example held at Derby, as the basis for a colourful painting to present his characteristic contrast between light and shade. The sketch, though, hints at the religious symbolism which appears in several of his paintings. Wright places the cross-shaped window at the rear of the glass house in such a way that it looks like a crucifix on top of the furnace, A similar image on a grander scale is represented by the interplay of vertical and horizontal beams; a crucifixion without Christ.

The Blacksmith’s Shop (1771)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Oil on Canvas,

Image from: Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

It was Wright’s residence in the industrial heart of England that from his early years had given him a good chance to visit various workshops and to see craftsmen at work. He was obviously fascinated by strong muscular workers and gloomy interiors dramatically illuminated by glowing sparks and white-hot metal.

In his industrial paintings Wright continued to experiment with the effects of natural and artificial light which strongly occupied his mind. Wright was not the first artist in European art deeply interested in chiaroscuro. His works clearly correspond to paintings by Caravaggio (1569-1609) and his followers, particularly with these by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652). Although Wright probably did not know these pictures or even the name of de la Tour, they have common features and artistic technique. Almost all de la Tour’s paintings are illuminated by the light of a torch or a candle, either flaring nakedly, or covered by a hand. Wright’s term ‘candlelight pictures’ can literally be applied to de la Tour’s works.

Wright’s series of five pictures of blacksmith’s shops and iron forges painted between 1771 and 1773 is as unusual and original, as his scientific masterpieces.  The composition and light effects of the two paintings of blacksmith’s shops are described in his account book. The artist refers to them as ‘Night Pieces’, emphasising their romantic elements.

‘The Blacksmith’s Shop’ shows a dramatic moment when the smiths are striking the iron. Although the subject is relatively traditional and the smiths’ action is realistic, they are working by moon light, not in an actual workshop but in a semi- ruined classical building. The figures are grouped around a piece of white-hot metal which is the central light source. In semi-darkness the figures of an old pensive man and a woman with two children can be seen. It is a representation not of a metal-working process, but rather of a magical atmosphere and the fascination of the natural and industrial world. In many ways the painting echoes 16th century nativity scenes, but at the same time it also anticipates the dramatic images of the Age of Romanticism.

When exhibited, these works attracted public attention, and were highly praised by contemporaries. The artist James Northcote referred to Wright as ‘the most famous painter now living for candlelights’.

Another painting, “The Iron Forge viewed from Withou” (1773) was bought in 1774 by the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. This purchase was followed by her acquisition in 1779 of Wright’s Italian works “Firework Display at the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome” and “An Eruption of Mount Vesuvius”. In one of the earliest descriptions of sights of St Petersburg (1794) where for the first time the collection of the Empress’ Hermitage was mentioned, its author I G Georgi made a particular note of  ‘three pictures and among them the best showing a forge during the dark of night’.

The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone (Exhibited 1771)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Oil on Canvas.

Image from: Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

“The Alchymist” is a complicated work. Since its exhibition in 1771, it has provoked many contradictory interpretations. Its mystery obviously disturbed 18th century viewers, and the painting was not sold at exhibition. It travelled with Wright to Italy in 1773-1775, came back to England, was reworked in 1795, but still was not sold until four years after Wright’s death.

Its full titleThe 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” explains the subject. It was suggested that “The Alchymist” refers to discovery of phosphorus by the Hamburg alchemist Hennig Brandt in 1669. The story was often printed in popular chemical books and was widely known. It was also described in   Elements of the Theory and Practice of Chemistry by the French scholar P-J. Macquer (1718-1784). Wright could have found more about it through his friend and member of the Lunar Society James Keir, who at that time was translating Macquer’s Dictionary of Chemistry into English (1771).

However, Wright does not identify the alchymist as Brandt. He situates the alchymist not in a 17th century background, but in a striking medieval stone room with gothic arches and high, pointed windows. The alchymist kneels in front of a brilliantly shining vessel of dazzling light.

Wright was not the first or the only artist to depict alchymical practitioners. They appear in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, often as subjects of ridicule. Their laboratories are shown in a state of chaos, and their bizarre experiments ending in disaster. (Although at Chatsworth there is “An Alchymist” by D.Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) where the hero is shown in serious and respectful way). Wright’s treatment of instruments, glass vessels and books also refers to serious study. They are rather reminiscent of the idealised engravings in Diderot’s Encyclopedie, or in the Macquer’s book. The pieces of apparatus are those that were used in contemporary chemistry by his Lunar acquaintances.

Despite its alchemical disguise, the painting refers the viewer to contemporary philosophy and science, and is not a jest. Wright’s image does not depict the rational scientific research typical of the Age of Reason, but something which is clearly a non-theory-related and irrational. In his painting, the phosphorus has not been created as the result of scientific calculation, but appears in a miraculous way. Such an experience did not correspond with Wright’s contemporaries’ definition of chemical research, which Macquer described as ‘a Practical Treatise, intended to contain the manner of performing the principal Operations of Chymistry; the operations which serve as standards for regulating all the rest, and which confirm the fundamental truths laid down in the Theory.’

The dignified clarity of “The Orrery” allows no room for superstition. “The Air Pump” conveys dismay, doubt and fear. ‘The Alchymist’ with its hero kneeling down in front of an inexplicable magical light denies the rational theories of the Age of Reason. The contents of the painting do not correspond with the enlightened idea of a knowable and explicable universe, and may have alarmed Wright’s contemporaries. If we remember that the common name for Phosphorus was the ‘Devil’s element’, it might open other possibilities for a further interpretation of Wright’s masterpiece.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (Exhibited 1768)

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Oil on Canvas.

The air pump was invented by Otto von Guericke (1602-1686) at Magdeburg in 1650. The first English pump was made for Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in 1658-1659. In the 18th century the air pumps became ordinary items for laboratories of scientists, or for museums of curiosities. “A Model of a double Pump” is mentioned in the catalogues of Richard Greene’s museum of curiosities in Lichfield, which no doubt was well known to the artist.

Air pumps were widely used to illustrate scientific lectures. This experiment is described by James Ferguson in a following way: ‘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 in practice the experiment was probably shown in less upsetting manner: ‘As this experiment is too shocking to every spectator who has the least degree of humanity, we substitute a machine called the lungs-glass in place of the animal; which by a bladder within it, shews how the lungs of animals are contracted into a small compass when the air is taken out of them.’ Wright chose the cruel variant of experiment. The bird will die if the demonstrator continues to deprive it of oxygen, and Wright leaves us in doubt whether or not the cockatoo is going to be suffocated.

Including a white cockatoo in the painting is unusual. These birds were little known in England until the 1770s when they were depicted by British draughtsmen taking part on Captain Cook’s journeys. Although they probably had been brought to England earlier via Dutch merchants, the birds themselves and their images still remained rare. Wright might have seen a specimen at Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Alkrington, near Manchester, or in paintings by Jacob Bogdány (c.1660-1724), a Hungarian painter who had came first to Amsterdam, and then settled in London. He became the leading exponent of this genre in England. A number of Bogdany’s paintings for William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire, survive at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.

Wright did not depict an actual gathering, although two lovers on the left are Thomas Coltman and Mary Barlow, who were married in 1769. According to a family tradition, the man timing the experiment has been identified with Erasmus Darwin.

In contrast to “The Orrery”, this painting is disturbing. At that time doubts were being expressed whether rational or scientific knowledge could answer all questions, and satisfactorily explain all nature’s mysteries. The intervention of the ‘civilized world’ into nature and the life of distant countries was often destructive for the latter. Wright is deliberately emphasising the dramatic and exotic over the scientific and the factual.

This painting combines the scientific with the horrific. The wide range of individual reactions – terrified and dismayed girls, the amazed youth on the left, the pensive old man, even the young lovers concerned only each other and indifferent to the experiment – are a far cry from the quiet explanation and understanding of the harmonious laws of the universe in the previous painting.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1764-1766)

Image:Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797. Oil on Canvas,

Image from: Derby Museum & Art Gallery

Public scientific lectures became popular during the Age of Reason. As the ‘enlightening’ was addressed to various levels of the nation, such lectures were attended by very mixed audiences. The Scottish scientist, astronomer and lecturer James Ferguson (1710- 1776) undertook a series of lectures in Derby in July 1762. They were based on his book Lectures on Select Subjects in Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, Optics &c., published in 1760. In order to illustrate his lectures he used various machines, models and instruments.

The Orrery is a mechanical model that shows the motion of planets around the Sun, the Moon around the Earth, or both. It was named after Charles Boyle (1676-1731), Earl of Orrery, who supported and patronised the design of an early planetarium by George Graham between 1704 and 1709. James Ferguson himself designed several astronomical clocks and orreries for use in his lectures.

Wright possibly attended Ferguson’s lecture, especially as tickets for the event were available from John Whitehurst, his close neighbour, the clockmaker and scientist. The artist could also have drawn on Whitehurst’s practical knowledge to find out more about the orrery and its operation.

Whitehurst’s own premises, and Richard Greene’s museum of curiosities in Lichfield, might have provided Wright with other visual ideas of astronomical models and the details of instruments, which are clearly shown in his splendid painting.

The full title of the painting – “A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun” – reveals its scientific subject: the demonstration the movement of the planets around the Sun, and an explanation of eclipses of the Sun. The painting was bought by the 5th Earl Ferrers, an amateur astronomer, who was himself the owner of a complicated orrery.

The painting is full of meanings and open to various interpretations. The artist did not paint one particular meeting, and the characters in the picture are not exactly portraits, although the man making notes has been recognised as Peter Perez Burdett, one of Wright’s friends, a surveyor, mathematician and artist. There is also a suggestion that Earl Ferrers and his nephew are depicted. The Philosopher dominates his audience, and he is the only character in the picture who has not been recognised as a real person. It was suggested that Wright deliberately gave him a good deal of the physical appearance of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727). In his Principia (1687) Newton unified the terrestrial and celestial worlds – he demonstrated that bodies which fell “naturally” on Earth and the motions of celestial bodies obeyed the same great law – the law of universal gravitation. Newton presented the universe as an ordered harmonious system.

The spectators in the picture respond to the idea of this newly perceived universal order with wonder, fascination, or awe. Their illuminated faces, emerging from the darkness of the room and darkness of ignorance, signify the illumination of their minds by the light of Science. They are literally experiencing Enlightenment, in both physical and intellectual senses.

Joseph Wright of Derby: Art, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution

Image: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), Self Portrait in a Black Feathered Hat(c1767-1770). Oil on canvas.


Joseph Wright was the most significant artist of the English Midlands during the late eighteenth century. He painted portraits, landscapes and interiors and was probably the most perceptive painter of industrial and scientific subjects of his time. He was a close friend of two members of the Lunar Society, the geologist and engineer, John Whitehurst and the doctor, scientist and poet Erasmus Darwin. He painted their portraits and those of the industrialists Richard Arkwright and Jedediah Strutt. Four oil paintings and one sketch are explored in this exhibition.