beyond the shadowlands


For most of his life and more than a century after his death, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) was known for two things – having his name hitched to a city and being Britain’s best painter of candlelight. Never mind the quirky portraits and the moonlit waterways, never mind the extraordinary scenes of scientific revelation for which he is now deservedly famous; what mainly struck the public, it seems, was Wright’s gift for making a drama out of candles in darkness.

This will seem odd to anyone who has ever seen his great work, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, in which a group of spectators is transfixed but also terrified by the theatre of science. Spooky lighting admittedly plays its part – the living faces, especially the showman-scientist, the pickled skull in the foreground, the cockatoo trapped in the deadly glass: all are illuminated by a single candle – but what compels is the terrible possibility that the bird will eventually be starved of oxygen altogether in order to demonstrate the novelty of the vacuum pump.

more from The Observer Review here.