During the eighteenth century, life and ideas in Europe underwent change generally known as the Age of Enlightenment, in which reason came to the fore, replacing superstition and, in some respects, belief. The sciences started to develop more rapidly, and were based more on the basis of observation and experiment. It was a period in which many scientific academies were founded, and states became more secular and less linked to the church.
Other than in painting their portraits, few artists became directly involved with these new academics or changing philosophy. One prominent exception to this was Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), who became captivated with the exciting changes happening in science, technology and the arts. One important influence on him was his friend Peter Perez Burdett (c 1734-1793), originally a cartographer, who was the first artist to develop aquatint in Britain, and a progressive intellectual who built himself a chemical laboratory in Liverpool.
In 1766, Wright exhibited one of his most enduring images of the period, A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is Put in Place of the Sun. The orrery, a miniature planetarium showing the movements of the planets and their moons, was an impressive high-end Grand Orrery, an expensive device which would undoubtedly have captivated the minds of those able to gaze at it.
There are numerous cues here to different narratives: to Locke’s educational theories with their emphasis on geography, understanding of astronomy, and Newton’s gravitation and mechanics. It has been proposed that the philosopher (in the red gown) is modelled on Newton’s likeness, and the figure at the left taking notes is Peter Perez Burdett.
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) is another famous work by Wright which epitomises the culture of the enlightenment. Here the philosopher (red gown again) is seen at the climax of his lecture on pneumatics, inspired by the radical chemist Joseph Priestley. A precious white cockatoo has been taken from its cage, at the left of the table, and placed inside the large glass jar at the top. A vacuum pump has then been used to evacuate the air from within the jar, and the cockatoo has collapsed near death.
Wright shows the moment of peripeteia, as the philosopher is about to open the tap at the top of the jar and restore the air to the bird, hopefully resulting in its revivification, and transformation of the anguish and horror being expressed by the two girls at the table.
Today’s concept of alchemy as a mixture of magic and charlatanism wasn’t established in Wright’s day. His The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and Prays for the Successful Conclusion of his Operation, as was the Custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers (1771-95) – which summarises its narrative in the title! – is far more sympathetic.
Wright created this image from a variety of sources, including drawings provided by Peter Perez Burdett from his new chemical laboratory in Liverpool, and classical engravings. It’s appropriate in depicting the purification of phosphorous by Hennig Brand in 1669, which was seen as a productive and positive outcome from the ancient pursuit of alchemy, and an early step in the development of the new science of chemistry which replaced it.
With The Enlightenment came the Industrial Revolution, in which new scientific discoveries were applied in the manufacture and production of goods, which in turn brought riches to those who could then afford to be part of the enlightenment.
An Iron Forge (1772) is one of a series of paintings which were both commercially successful, and accurate portrayals of the small-scale technological advances of the day. It shows a group of workers forging a white-hot iron casting, using a tilt-hammer powered by a water-wheel. Also present is the wife and children of the iron-founder, stressing the family nature of these small forges at the time.
A decade later, Pehr Hilleström recorded a visit to the Anchor-Forge at Söderfors. The Smiths Hard at Work (1782). As with many of these early glimpses of new industries, his painting shows a well-dressed group of visitors, at the right, who are watching the workmen in the centre. Söderfors is in Uppsala, on the east coast of Sweden, and seems to have been an early industrial site.
Philip James de Loutherbourg’s famous Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) shows the round-the-clock labour of the furnaces sweating out iron for industry and construction. Its clouds are lit by the furnaces, with white-hot spoil and smut rising into the night. A team of horses draws finished castings away from the site, towards the viewer, as boys watch from amid the debris. Here is a new sub-genre, the industrial landscape, and a glimpse into the fires not of some spiritual hell, but the hell of humans, toiling on earth, in a small, previously rural and wooded, valley in Shropshire, England.
With men working in the heavier industries, women were put to work in the fabric mills. Giovanni Migliara’s Mylius Spinning Mill (1828) shows a visit by a well-dressed and obviously affluent woman and her family, as the workers toil at their labour.
In about 1832, Turner painted a view of Dudley Castle and the Dudley Canal, one of the busy industrial waterways which had been dug around Birmingham in the English Midlands during the late eighteenth century. I regret that I can’t locate a usable image of that painting, but in 1835 it was turned into this fine engraving and published. This is one of the best visual records of a heavily-industrialised canal during this period before the advent of the railways.
Industrial development rapidly swallowed what had previously been agricultural land across Europe and America. George Childs shows the consequences in a series of paintings of South Wales, including this one of Dowlais Ironworks (1840). This site at Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, opened as a single iron furnace in 1760, and by the time that Childs painted this was providing iron for the railway tracks which were spreading throughout Britain and much of Europe. It operated eighteen blast furnaces, employed over seven thousand people, and produced over 80,000 tons of iron each year.
Later in the nineteenth century, Naturalists went on to celebrate more of the achievements of science, as I’ll show in a future article in this series.
The Joseph Wright Gallery, Derby.
Daniels S (undated) Joseph Wright, British Artists, The Tate Gallery. ISBN 978 1 854 37284 0.