My Favourite Painting: Lord Rees of Ludlow

'The beauty and precision of the orrery itself exemplifies the link between science, engineering and aesthetics'

A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, 1766, 58in by 80in, by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–97), Derby Art Gallery. Bridgeman Images.

Lord Rees says:
‘This superbly composed painting celebrates the scientific achievement that made the greatest cultural impact in the 18th century–Newton’s explanation of “the clockwork of the heavens”. The beauty and precision of the orrery itself exemplifies the link between science, engineering and aesthetics. And the two small children display a level of interest and wonderment that today’s teachers strive hard to instil in their pupils.’

Lord Rees of Ludlow, president of the Royal Society, is a professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Joseph Wright of Derby established his professional reputation as a portrait painter, but it was his first series of ‘Candle Lights’, a novelty in English art, that made his name. He proceeded to explore a new light source, white-hot iron from the forge, and he loved moonlight. On his only trip abroad, to Italy, he was transfixed by the mega-‘candlelight’ of Vesuvius erupting. From then on, his preference was for landscape.

His two most famous pictures, of the orrery and the air-pump, which combine light, portraiture and scientific activity, have made him, in our scientifically awed age, the artistic embodiment of the scientifically based Enlightenment. Wright is a painter of the drama of light rather than scientific enlightenment, but nonetheless, the enlightenment tag is appropriate, if principally as a pun. An orrery (named after its patron, the 9th Earl of Orrery) was an early type of planetarium, showing the movements of the planets round the Sun. The lecturing ‘philosopher’ appears to explain how an eclipse occurs. The audience is informal. Faces and minds are equally illuminated, as children and adults both benefit in their different ways from ‘the Pleasures of Science’.

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Wright lived in Derby all his life. His neighbour, friend and doctor was Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the evolutionist, and he knew several other members of the Midlands-based Lunar Society, a discussion group of leading philosophers, scientists and industrialists. The name derived from the custom of holding monthly meetings on the Monday nearest the full Moon. Such an idea would surely have appealed to Wright of Light.’

This article was first published in Country Life, November 3, 2010