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Higher purpose – Joseph Wright of Derby’s brush with the divine

30 August 2022

From the September 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) is one of the chief glories of the English Enlightenment, its beauty colouring the perspective of anyone who has looked, even for a moment, into that time of marvels. The subject is a display of scientific prowess for the benefit of a family group: elegantly dressed and including women and girls in a domestic setting. It was not a groundbreaking experiment: the use of science as entertainment was enough of a common practice for Josiah Wedgwood to write, half-complainingly, that: ‘Heaven’s once dreaded bolt is now called down to amuse your wives & daughters, – to decorate their tea boards & baubles.’

Nor was the air pump itself a particular novelty, having been invented in Germany a century before. Its purpose was to extract air from a glass receiver, as the picture shows. The experimenter, who is halfway to an old-fashioned wizard in appearance, stands above the glass vessel wherein a white cockatoo has been placed and deprived, by use of the pump, of air. The animal shows the beginnings of frantic distress: a means of demonstrating the otherwise invisible disappearance of the air. There are scientific objects on the table and the main source of light, which catches at the contours of the onlooking faces like moonlight on clouds, emanates from a jar containing a mysterious lump, often supposed to be a skull, submerged in opalescent water.

Much has been written about this painting, most of it concerning the identities of the sitters. It is now fairly well accepted that they are members and associates of the Birmingham society known as the Lunar Men, a group of inventors, scientists and experimenters, including Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, who met every month, on the nearest Monday to the full moon. In the right of the picture, a boy pulls back the curtain to reveal a full moon shining into the room – an allusion to the Lunar Society. The location is thought to be Darwin’s house in Lichfield.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (detail; 1768), Joseph Wright of Derby. National Gallery, London

The bird has also attracted comment. A cockatoo is a rare bird, not easily spared. This helps us understand that the bird is shortly to be revived. What is less remarked is the bird’s position in the composition, and this is how I arrive at my pet theory.

The painting now hangs in the National Gallery in London, where a visitor might come upon it after visiting the Pieros, Giottos and Cimabues of the Sainsbury Wing. In which case, they would notice how the white bird of the holy ghost, wings horizontally outstretched, hovers in the centre of the painting, about a third from the top of the canvas. Wright’s cockatoo occupies this space.

Moreover, the bird divides into two distinct parts, down the middle. To the right, the side where light from the moon comes in, we have a struggling cockatoo. To the left, we have a white wing, floating, horizontal and serene; such that if the left half were only repeated, or mirrored, it would give the two-winged image of the dove of the Holy Ghost. I submit that Wright painted and centered it like this as a deliberate, if veiled, allusion to the presence of two cosmic systems operating in the world: religion and science; and science (represented by the moon, for the Lunar Society) is threatening the equilibrium of the old certainties.

At the time, science and religion were not yet at open war with one another. Great efforts were made to exhibit science as part of God’s creation. One way of doing this was to maintain the forms of divine works of art, applied to science, as here in Mark Akenside’s hymn:

Science! Thou fair effusive ray
From the great source of mental day […]
Descend with all thy treasures fraught
Illumine each bewildered thought

Here, Wright acts accordingly, using the tropes and composition of religious painting for his own hymn to science, steering close to blasphemy in the process. Hence the godlike figure of the experimenter and symbolic placing of the bird, intensified here by the halo-like oval above it, described by the rim of the glass vessel. Viewers familiar with religious scenes read these things instinctively, subliminally: hence the general assumption that the object in the jar is a skull, or part of a vanitas, when it is more likely to be a sponge impregnated with a phosphorous compound to create the light.

Did Wright intend the bird as an imperilled holy ghost? You can never know an artist’s intentions, but in support, an early sketch for the painting shows a quite different composition, with the subject a common songbird, not aloft or centred, and a crescent moon. When Wright made the moon wax, he changed everything to fit his purpose. Moreover, a later painting shows his mind working along the same lines of incorporating divine avian symbolism into secular works: The Synnot Children of 1781, where the little boy makes the two-fingered sign of Jesus over the head of a pet dove.

From the September 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.