My favourite painting: Nicola Shulman

'I have always loved this great Enlightenment painting'

An Experiment on a Birdinthe Air Pump, 1768, by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–97), 72in by 96in, National Gallery, London. Bridgeman Images.

Nicola Shulman says:
‘I have always loved this great Enlightenment painting for the terrible thing in the jar, the novelistic depiction of a family and because girls are also brought to witness this spectacle of scientific magicianship. Walking through the National Gallery one day, I noticed that the unfortunate bird is placed exactly where you’d find the dove of the Holy Ghost in Renaissance religious paintings. Put your finger over the right, moonlit side of the bird, and something curious happens. Intriguing. Was this about the Lunar Circle (later Lunar Society)? Did Wright mean to hint at the convulsive effect of scientific knowledge upon religious certainties?’

Nicola Shulman, the Marchioness of Normanby, is a writer/journalist and trustee of the Garden Museum. Her life of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Graven with Diamonds, was published in 2011.

John McEwen comments:
Joseph Wright was born and always based in Derby, his father an attorney and town clerk. He studied in London under the portraitist Thomas Hudson, teacher of Joshua Reynolds, and subsequently established a professional reputation for portraiture in the East Midlands. The Air Pump, first shown at London’s Society of Artists, was immediately recognised as unique. ‘Mr Wright of Derby is a very great and uncommon genius, in a peculiar way,’ wrote a contemporary reviewer.

Wright’s subject reflects his Midlands circle of friends and patrons, several of them philosophers, scientists and industrialists, who later formed the Lunar Society, an influential discussion group. He was never a member, but his close friend and doctor, Erasmus Darwin, the evolutionist’s grandfather, was. Darwin treated what seems to have been Wright’s depression, the bane of his adult life.

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A 17th-century German invention, the air pump (luftpumpe) was a familiar item in England by Wright’s 18th century time, when a general interest in science was encouraged by travelling lecturers, who demonstrated pneumatics (the air pump) and other simple scientific experiments.

The lecturer pumps air out until the chambered cockatoo is at the point of death. the suffocating bird will then be dramatically revived when air is pumped back. The object in the glowing vessel has been identified as a decayed skull. Technically a tour de force of light effects, it is an update of the allegorical vanitas, a cautionary reminder of death. For the little girl, death is a frightening revelation; for the gloomy old man, an imminent reality. only the lovers are oblivious.

This article was originally published in Country Life, February 25, 2015

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