William Hogarth’s death in 1764 brought to an end a new tradition of narrative painting in British art, which had started with James Thornhill (1675–1734) in the early years of that century. Although a few British painters in the middle of the eighteenth century made the occasional narrative work, those appear to have been almost accidental, and years passed before another British artist set out to tell stories in paint.
The next painter also doesn’t appear to have made any conscious decision to tell stories, but became fascinated by contemporary science and chiaroscuro light. As a portraitist and painter of landscapes, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797) at his best was a match for his more famous contemporary Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), but Wright also painted very differently when he chose to.
Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight (1765) was Wright’s first exhibited painting, and shows three men studying a miniature replica of the Borghese gladiator sculpture as a canonical classical work of art. The two younger men are Wright himself on the right, and Peter Perez Burdett, a Derby man who was a cartographer and progressive spirit, inspiration for more of Wright’s paintings.
At this time it was considered, even among the enlightened, that only men were able to undertake this sort of aesthetic exercise, and that women and children were simply incapable of doing so. It has also been proposed that Wright’s frequent use of such deep chiaroscuro was not just stylistic, but reflected the influence of John Locke’s metaphor of the mind as a darkened room into which the eye lets in images to be reflected upon and stored.
Next, Wright developed his chiaroscuro images by adding a little story.
The following year, 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 (1766). 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 the ever-present 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 with a stronger narrative. 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 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.
Wright also developed the theme of improvements in access to art education, and encouragement of drawing and painting skills. Academy by Lamplight (1769) was the first of a pair of paintings devoted to this, and making pointed commentary about the newly-founded Royal Academy. Here students at different stages of their artistic development are gathered round a full-scale reproduction of the Hellenistic sculpture Nymph with a Shell (the original was and is in the Louvre, Paris). Wright clearly saw this more egalitarian scenario preferable to the establishment of the Royal Academy under its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds.
His Philosopher by Lamp Light (1769) was still more pointed a reference to the Royal Academy, being a reworking of a Salvator Rosa style painting, perhaps warning the new members of the Academy of the transience of earthly glory.
Today’s concept of alchemy as a mixture of magic and charlatanism was not established in Wright’s day. 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 in 1771 from a variety of sources, including drawings provided by Peter Perez Burdett from his new chemical laboratory in Liverpool, and classical engravings. It is particularly appropriate in depicting the purification of phosphorous, which was seen as a productive and positive outcome from the ancient pursuit of alchemy.
The culmination of his series of Enlightenment narratives, it wasn’t well-received, and towards the end his career he reworked the painting.
Instead, Wright turned to more traditional narratives. The first is based on the classic story of Dibutades, the maid of Corinth, who ‘invented’ painting. The daughter of a potter, her boyfriend was due to leave the city. In order to remember him, she traced the outline of his shadow on a wall, when he was sleeping. Once he had gone, she was left with his silhouette, and her father (sometimes claimed to be Dibutades) then filled it with clay, which he fired in his kiln, making the first relief sculpture.
This tale had recently been retold in Wright’s friend William Hayley’s poem An Essay on Painting (1778):
The line she trac’d with fond precision true,
And, drawing, doated on the form she drew …
Thus from the power, inspiring LOVE, we trace
The modell’d image, and the pencil’d face!
Wright’s The Corinthian Maid (c 1782-5) was painted for a commission by Josiah Wedgwood, affluent and successful founder of the local Wedgwood pottery. This appears to be have been the first commissioned narrative that Wright painted.
Its physical companion shares the theme of wifely fidelity, in showing the wife of Odysseus/Ulysses, Penelope. In the many years that her husband was away on the Odyssey, she told potential suitors that she couldn’t remarry until she had completed weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Although they saw her weaving intently by day, she then unravelled her work each night.
Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamp-light (1785) shows Penelope watching over her sick child, while Odysseus’ statue watches her carefully unravelling her day’s work.
Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet (published 1597) would have been familiar to the learned classes of the day. It reaches a climax when Juliet is discovered apparently dead, but in fact comatose from a potion which she took to avoid her arranged marriage. Her body is placed in the family crypt, but the messenger intended to inform Romeo of Juliet’s plan failed to reach him.
Instead, Romeo learns of Juliet’s apparent death from his servant, buys poison, and goes to the crypt in which Juliet is laid out. Meeting her fiancé, the two men fight, and Romeo kills her fiancé before taking poison himself. When Juliet awakens from her coma, she sees Romeo dead, and stabs herself with his dagger.
In Romeo and Juliet. The Tomb Scene (1790), Wright shows Juliet, still white from her coma and dressed in funeral attire, when she has just discovered Romeo’s dead body, and before she commits suicide with his dagger: the theatrical climax. However the artist hides both their faces from view, leaving Juliet’s body language to tell us of her anguish, and the cue of the cup from which he drank poison.
Joseph Wright’s enlightenment narratives remain highly innovative, and might best be thought of as precursors of Naturalism, which was to celebrate nineteenth century science almost a hundred years later. By the end of Wright’s career, though, he wasn’t the only British artist painting stories. Not by a long way.
The Joseph Wright Gallery, Derby.
Daniels S (undated) Joseph Wright, British Artists, The Tate Gallery. ISBN 978 1 854 37284 0.