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No. 897:
Wright of Derby

Today, a brilliant artist mutes the voice of 18th-century rationalism. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Surely one of the most unjustly obscure painters is Joseph Wright of Derby. Wright, born in 1734, was an established portrait painter by the age of 22. His formal portraits were as good as any that artists were grinding out in the mid-1700s.

But something else was going on in Wright's mind. When he was 32, he exhibited a remarkable picture in London. A philosopher demonstrates a planetary model to a group of children by the light of an oil lamp, which serves as an artificial sun. It is stunning in its detail and eerie in its mysterious light.

Wright came back to that theme three years later in his best-known picture. This time an aging scientist demonstrates a new air pump for a family by suffocating a bird in a glass jar. Young and old alike are fascinated. But one child weeps in horror.

Wright's contemporaries believed that we live in a rational world and learn its workings through rational analysis. So Wright painted more than just the cool, rational faces of rational lords and ladies. He began exploring the machinery of rationalism.

By the mid-1760s Wright was doing commissions for members of the Lunar Society -- that small literary/scientific group that included Watt, Priestly, Wedgwood, and Erasmus Darwin. He painted them, and he learned their science.

One of his pictures has a long title. It starts, "The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation." And there the alchemist, this dealer in magical chemistry, prays over his glowing glass beaker. Wright's viewers knew that chemists had, by then, built upon that same alchemical discovery and created far more modern ideas about the nature of chemical reaction.

So he reminds the rationalists that they haven't suddenly corrected centuries of error. A great deal of alchemical thought has actually paved their way.

A year later, another masterpiece. This time it's an iron forge driven by a water wheel. This time the eerie light doesn't flow from a lamp or a candle. It flows from the white-hot bloom of iron itself. Seven people surround the forge, watching -- each in one of Shakespeare's seven stages of life. They remind us that the violent shaping of metal is a human act with a human center.

Wright painted into the late 1790s. By then other artists and writers had picked up his Gothic themes. They saw the human dimension that put limits on the cold use of intellect. When Wright was done, we knew what a horrified child in a painting was telling us. The equation between a suffocating bird and true understanding is too complex for cool mind alone to solve.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Egerton, J., Wright of Derby. London: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.

Einberg, E., Acquisition in Focus: Wright of Derby's An Iron Forge. Apollo, Vol. 138, No. 380, October, 1993, pg. 259.

Jones, R., The Technique, Condition and Conservation of An Iron Forge. Apollo, Vol. 138, No. 380, October, 1993, pp. 259, 261.

To see Wright's painting, The Alchymist in Search of the Philosophers' Stone discovers Phosphorus (1771) click on the website,

For Experiment on a Bird in the Airpump (1768) click on:

And for more background on Derby click on: