A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, or the full title, A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, is a 1766 painting by Joseph Wright of Derby depicting a lecturer giving a demonstration of an orrery to a small audience. It is now in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery[1] The painting preceded his similar An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (National Gallery, London).

The first of Wright's candlelit masterpieces, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, was painted in 1765, and showed three men studying a small copy of the "Borghese Gladiator". The Gladiator was greatly admired; but his next painting, The Orrery, caused a greater stir, as it replaced the Classical subject at the centre of the scene with one of a scientific nature. Wright's depiction of the awe produced by scientific "miracles" marked a break with previous traditions in which the artistic depiction of such wonder was reserved for religious events,[2] since to Wright the marvels of the technological age were as awe-inspiring as the subjects of the great religious paintings.[3]

In both of these works, the candlelit setting had a realist justification. Viewing sculpture by candlelight, when the contours showed well, and there might even be an impression of movement from the flickering light, was a fashionable practice described by Goethe.[4] In the orrery demonstration the shadows cast by the lamp representing the Sun were an essential part of the display. But there seems no reason other than heightened drama to stage the air pump experiment in a room lit by a single candle, and in two later paintings of the subject by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo the lighting is normal.[5]

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery
Wright of Derby, The Orrery
ArtistJoseph Wright of Derby
Yearca. 1766[1]
MediumOil on canvas[1]
Dimensions1473 mm × 2032 mm (58 in × 80 in)
LocationDerby Museum and Art Gallery[1], Derby, England


The painting was one of a number of British works challenging the set categories of the rigid, French-dictated, hierarchy of genres in the late 18th century, as other types of painting aspired to be treated as seriously as the costumed history painting of a Classical or mythological subject. In some respects the Orrery and Air Pump subjects resembled conversation pieces, then largely a form of middle-class portraiture, though soon to be given new status when Johann Zoffany began to paint the royal family in about 1766. Given their solemn atmosphere however, and as it seems none of the figures are intended to be understood as portraits (even if models may be identified), the paintings can not be regarded as conversation pieces.[6] The 20th-century art historian Ellis Waterhouse compares these two works to the "genre serieux" of contemporary French drama, as defined by Denis Diderot and Pierre Beaumarchais, a view endorsed by Egerton.[7]

An anonymous review from the time called Wright "a very great and uncommon genius in a peculiar way".[8]

Provenance, and portraits

The Orrery was painted without a commission, probably in the expectation that it would be bought by Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers, an amateur astronomer who had an orrery of his own, and with whom Wright's friend Peter Perez Burdett was staying while in Derbyshire. Figures thought to be portraits of Burdett and Ferrers feature in the painting, Burdett taking notes and Ferrers seated with a youth next to the orrery.[9] Ferrers purchased the painting, which was exhibited in 1766, for £210, but the 6th Earl auctioned it off, and it is now in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery,[10] where it is on permanent display, close to a working replica of a full-sized mechanical Grand Orrery.

A biographer of Wright, Benedict Nicolson, argued in 1968 that John Whitehurst was the model for the lecturer,[11] while another commentator points out the figure's resemblance to "a painting of Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller".[1] Close observation of the adult faces in the picture reveals that each one demonstrates one or other of the main phases of the Moon – new moon, half moon, gibbous moon and full moon.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Art treasure – The Orrery". Derby City Council. Archived from the original on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 12 August 2011.
  2. ^ Brooke 1991, p. 178
  3. ^ Nicolson 1968, p. 40
  4. ^ Guilding, p. 83
  5. ^ Egerton, 1998, 342
  6. ^ Waterhouse (1978), pp. 215–216, 270, 285–286
  7. ^ Waterhouse (1978), pp. 285–286, and Egerton (1998), p. 334
  8. ^ Solkin 1994, p. 234
  9. ^ Baird, 2003
  10. ^ Uglow 2002, p. 123
  11. ^ Nicolson, Benedict, Joseph Wright of Derby: painter of light, Taylor & Francis, 1968, ISBN 0-7100-6284-2
  12. ^ The Orrery – A Users' Guide, N J Moyes, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 1995


  • Baird, Olga (2003). "Joseph Wright of Derby: Art, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution". Revolutionary Players—Museums, Libraries and Archives—West Midlands. Archived from the original on 29 September 2007. Retrieved 10 April 2007.
  • Brooke, John Hedley (1991). Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science). Cambridge University Press. p. 434. ISBN 0-521-28374-4.
  • Egerton, Judy (1990). Wright of Derby. Tate Gallery. p. 296. ISBN 1-85437-037-5.
  • Egerton, Judy (1998), National Gallery Catalogues (new series): The British School. catalogue entry pp. 332–343, ISBN 1-85709-170-1
  • Elliott, Paul (1 January 2000). "The Birth of Public Science in the English Provinces: Natural Philosophy in Derby, c. 1690–1760". Annals of Science. 57 (1): 61–100. doi:10.1080/000337900296308.
  • Guilding, Ruth; et al. (2004). William Weddell and the transformation of Newby Hall. Jeremy Mills Publishing for Leeds Museums and Galleries. ISBN 0-901981-69-9. Retrieved 12 August 2011.
  • Jones, Jonathan (1 November 2003). "Yes, it is art". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 January 2007.
  • Kimmelman, Michael (7 September 1990). "Review/Art; In Praise of a Neglected Painter of His Time". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 April 2007.
  • Nicolson, Benedict (1968). Joseph Wright of Derby. The Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art Pantheon Books.
  • Uglow, Jenny (2002). The Lunar Men. London: Faber and Faber. p. 588. ISBN 0-571-19647-0.
  • Waterhouse, Ellis, (4th Edn, 1978) Painting in Britain, 1530–1790. Penguin Books (now Yale History of Art series), ISBN 0-300-05319-3
1766 in art

Events from the year 1766 in art.

1766 in science

The year 1766 in science and technology involved some significant events.

Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Derby Museum and Art Gallery was established in 1879 in Derby, England, along with Derby Central Library, in a new building designed by Richard Knill Freeman and given to Derby by Michael Thomas Bass. The collection includes a gallery displaying many paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby; there is also a large display of Royal Crown Derby and other porcelain from Derby and the surrounding area. Further displays include archaeology, natural history, geology, military collections and world cultures. The Art Gallery was opened in 1882.

Dovedale by Moonlight

Dovedale by Moonlight, 1784, is one of five paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby which uses the picturesque valley of Dovedale as its subject. These paintings were sometimes made as pairs with one showing the view by day and the other by moonlight. Wright admitted that he had not observed this scene directly, "Moon lights & fire lights are but a sort of work with me for I cant with impunity go out at night and study the former, & the latter I have seen but once, and at a time too, when I thought not of painting such effects."

Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno

Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno is the subject of at least four paintings completed by Joseph Wright of Derby following his visit there in 1774. The paintings show the different lighting at different times of the day.

James Ferguson (Scottish astronomer)

James Ferguson (25 April 1710 – 17 November 1776) was a Scottish astronomer. He is known as the inventor and improver of astronomical and other scientific apparatus, as a striking instance of self education and as an itinerant lecturer.

Joseph Wright of Derby

Joseph Wright (3 September 1734 – 29 August 1797), styled Joseph Wright of Derby, was an English landscape and portrait painter. He has been acclaimed as "the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution".Wright is notable for his use of chiaroscuro effect, which emphasises the contrast of light and dark, and, for his paintings of candle-lit subjects. His paintings of the birth of science out of alchemy, often based on the meetings of the Lunar Society, a group of scientists and industrialists living in the English Midlands, are a significant record of the struggle of science against religious values in the period known as the Age of Enlightenment.

Many of Wright's paintings and drawings are owned by Derby City Council, and are on display at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

Miravan Breaking Open the Tomb of his Ancestors

Miravan Breaking Open the Tomb of his Ancestors is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby originally completed in 1772 .

Peter Perez Burdett

Peter Perez Burdett (c. 1734 – 9 September 1793) was an 18th-century cartographer, surveyor, artist, and draughtsman originally from Eastwood in Essex where he inherited a small estate and the name Perez from his maternal grandfather who was the clergyman there.

He would have been notable just for his many appearances in Joseph Wright's pictures but he was also involved with numerous projects including surveying the route for one of the major projects of the industrial revolution, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, in 1769. He has been described as "if not in the centre at least in the penumbra of the Lunar Society of Birmingham".

He spent the last years of his life in Karlsruhe, avoiding debtors, but still active in German society. His German daughter married a Count.

Robert Shirley, 6th Earl Ferrers

Robert Shirley, 6th Earl Ferrers (20 July 1723 – 18 April 1787) was a British nobleman.

He was born in 1723 in St James, Westminster, the third son of Hon. Laurence Shirley.

On 26 December 1754, he married Catherine Cotton (d. 26 March 1786), by whom he had three children:

Robert Shirley, 7th Earl Ferrers (1756–1824)

Lawrence Rowland Ferrers (1757 – 5 February 1773), who appears as a youth in Joseph Wright's painting, "A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery"

Washington Shirley, 8th Earl Ferrers (1760–1842)In 1778, he succeeded his brother, Vice-Admiral Ferrers, in the earldom. On 4 July 1781, he was created a deputy lieutenant of Derbyshire. He died in his house in London in 1787 and was buried with his wife at Breedon on the Hill.

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby originally completed in 1771 then reworked in 1795. The full title of the painting is 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. It has been suggested that The Alchymist refers to the discovery of phosphorus by the Hamburg alchemist Hennig Brand in 1669. This story was often printed in popular chemical books in Wright's lifetime, and was widely known.

The Blacksmith's Shop

The Blacksmith's Shop is a recurring theme of five paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby. The version in his home town was originally completed in 1771.

The Captive (painting)

The Captive, from Sterne is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby completed in 1774 and now in the National Gallery of Canada. Sterne's Captive, first exhibited by the artist in 1778, is a similar painting by Wright in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery. The latter painting resulted in a rare engraving, as its purchaser commissioned a print run of only twenty copies before the copper printing plate was destroyed. In 2012, Derby Museum commissioned another Captive painting from Emma Tooth.

The Captive King

The Captive King is a sketch by Joseph Wright of Derby completed in 1772 or 1773. It depicts the French nobleman Guy de Lusignan held prisoner by Saladin. The sketch is thought to have been a preparation for the now-lost painting Guy de Lusignan in Prison.

The Earthstopper

Earthstopper on the Banks of the Derwent is a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby originally completed in 1773. The scene shows a man digging at nighttime beside the River Derwent in Derbyshire.

Thomas Borrow and Ann Borrow

Thomas Borrow and Ann Borrow are two paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby from 1762-63.

Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight

Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight (also known as Dressing the Kitten) (c. 1768–1770) is a "fancy painting" by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797). The picture is one of a number of candlelit studies made by Wright that demonstrate his skill in the use of chiaroscuro in which he specialised. Apparently an innocent scene of little girls dressing a kitten, the picture has been thought by art historians to have a number of deeper meanings.

Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight

Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight was painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1774. It is an oil painting of Mount Vesuvius in the distance, from the coastal shores of Naples at night. Dark grey smoke spews from the glowing red crater of the volcano and fills up the top right of the canvas, in contrast to the pale glow of moonlight to the left. Known as a "Painter of Light," Wright liked to play with highlights and shadows in his works and was most well known for his "Candlelight Pictures," landscape or genre scenes depicting dramatic contrasts between light and dark. Through utilizing this technique, Joseph Wright exhibits the sublimity of nature in Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight as well as his other paintings of Mt. Vesuvius.

Wright made a trip to Italy in 1733, where he acquired a wealth of new sights and experiences which greatly influenced his art. He drew and wrote extensively about ancient Roman and Italian art and architecture, and Italian landscapes and coastal scenes, especially around Naples. His imagination was particularly captivated by the volcanic activities of Mount Vesuvius, from which he derived many sketches of its textures and painted over 30 versions of it upon his return to England. Wright described his impression of Vesuvius as, "the most wonderful sight in nature." Although he did not personally witness an eruption, Wright still observed the volcano in a restrained state of activity, as it fumed smoke and spilled lava—and later expanded on and pieced together what he saw in his future paintings of the volcano.Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight was painted in Europe during the Neoclassical period. In response to the discovery of the ancient Roman cities, the king of Naples appeared to have encouraged the exploration of Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Bay of Naples. This likely lead numerous artists, such as Wright himself, to go to England and become inspired by the sublimity of Mt. Vesuvius. Occurring at the same time was the Enlightenment movement, towards which Wright contributed his more popular scientifically and industrially themed works, especially his two most famous pieces: A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. These typically displayed scientific demonstrations in a dimly lit room, suggesting the idea that society should revolve around education. Even though Vesuvius from Posillipo by Moonlight is not of a directly historical or scientific theme, Wright may have painted Mt. Vesuvius because he felt that it was an important part of history to preserve and be aware of, in addition to his fascination by its nature. Today, is evident that the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius was indeed a major catastrophic event, because two cities with great archaeological artifacts of ancient Rome lie beneath its volcanic ashes.

Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers

Vice Admiral Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers, FRS (26 May 1722 – 1 October 1778) was a British Royal Navy officer, peer, freemason and amateur astronomer.

Decorative arts
Military history
Natural history
Joseph Wright
paintings and drawings
Ancient Britain
Science and engineering

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.