jospeh                            air_pump

Joseph Wright: Self Portrait c.1765-8;                         An Experiment with an Air Pump 1768

‘Coke and Industry’

Joseph Wright of Derby was an unusual and eclectic artist. You only have to glance at his Self Portrait as a Young Man (above) to realize he was a bit different. He is most famous for his candlelit paintings of scientific experiments, the best known being ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’. In this he emphasizes the concentration involved in scientific research, as well as its importance to the whole of society (expressed in the broad range of participants). The powerful use of chiarascuro (contrast between strong light and shadow), greatly heightens the intensity. The same is achieved in ‘The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone’. The latter is more mythological than historical but demonstrates the extreme drive in the Industrial Revolution to transform ordinary materials into tangible wealth.
Wright mixed with the leading industrialists of his day, including members of the Lunar Society (so-called because they met at full moons in order to more easily find their way home!) This group of intellectuals and innovative thinkers also laughingly referred to themselves as ‘lunar-ticks’. Yet though so involved with science and industry, Wright also executed some more romantic works for the Upper Classes.
Several of these are outdoor portraits. Sir Brooke Boothby lies nonchalantly by a spring dreaming about Rousseau and the Cokes casually discuss a garden design. These more intimate, relaxed portraits are descended from the Rococo style in France in which the gentry are shown pursuing leisurely activities in a rather romanticized fashion. In the latter work of 1782, Daniel Coke (who was an MP for Derby and was known for his good looks), is the stable point, shown studying a plan for his garden in Derbyshire whilst his distant cousin the Rev.D’Ewes Coke and his wife give a lending hand – an unusual ‘conversation piece’. Its simple pyramidal composition and clever rhythmic flow, give it an easy elegance. And yet it breaks the mould by having the point of focus outwith the composition to the left where the planned garden presumably lies. Another great portraitist of the age, the German Johan Zoffany, often portrayed family groups outdoors in unexpected compositional formats such as this. (Note also the umbrella lying on the table. The first light weight folding umbrella was invented in 1710 – this could be an early example in art).
The ever versatile Wright also excelled at romantic landscapes, particularly of the moonlit variety. SEE NEXT BLOG.