Archive for category Author: Matthew Craske

Joseph Wright of Derby – painter of darkness || Matthew Craske

Joseph Wright effectively chronicles the Age of Reason and the rise of the scientific method. His most famous works show experiments and create the sense of wonder that miust have accompanied them. He was much more than that, though, and this magnificently thorough biography and analysis includes a wide range of other figurative and landscape works. Craske also examines contemporary engravings and prints that reveal details that are now lost. In addition, he turns the received view of Wright as a scientific insider on its head and reveals him to be more of a sceptical outsider, something which the whole chapter on An Experiment on the Bird in an Air Pump demonstrates. It’s a token of the book’s attention to detail that several pages are devoted to the history of the (vacuum) air pump itself and that, far from feeling like more information that we really need, is deeply fascinating.

It’s worth drilling down into this. The composition of the picture is chiefly a pyramid, but with a side-bar that adds a sense of Wright’s own sceptical view. At the head of the pyramid is the experimenter, a more than slightly sinister and Messianic figure who is clearly driven by the desire for experiment itself. He does not appear to share the inquiring mind of the male viewers, who are fascinated by the demise of the bird when the air is removed from its glass chamber – its death is all too visible. To one side are a couple who seem less interested in the proceedings than each other – for some, such things were more of a social event. And then there are the children. This is not, please note, A bird, it is The bird, a fact emphasised by the title, which has An air pump, not The air pump. This is their pet and their distress at its loss is clear to see. The adults may lack which we would now call humanity, but the children don’t. Again, there is emphasis: a male figure (their father?) points to the bird in a kindly way, expecting education and Reason to trump Emotion. All of this sounds like a sledgehammer, but Wright’s skill is to conceal the message in what is simply a damn good painting. The details have to be teased out.

And then there’s the side-bar. A servant looks quizzically at the viewer and is engaged in something, possibly closing the curtains, although the rod he is using neatly points out the bird’s empty cage. Any doubt that this poor creature was part of the household is dispelled. Through the window, a full moon peeps through clouds, a hint, perhaps at Reason and Enlightenment, or maybe that light can also be obscured – are those clouds breaking or closing?

The sub-title of the book is also worth a mention: Painter of Darkness. It hints at the sense of Enlightenment not always as a clear view, but also at Wright’s skill in using limited light – he is probably the best there is at that.

I’ve always liked Joseph Wright, but now I’m a confirmed admirer. It take a pretty good book to do that.

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