The Cosmic Sublime: Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery[Record]

  • Jesse Molesworth

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  • Jesse Molesworth
    Indiana University

In July 1764 the Scottish scientist James Ferguson offered series of lectures on the physical sciences, including mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and astronomy, in County-Hall in the city of Derby. The lectures themselves were not notable; they were several of many such lectures offered by Ferguson between 1748 and his death in 1776. What is notable about the occasion is the prospect that has tantalized many an art historian: that one of Ferguson’s lectures was visited by Joseph Wright of Derby, who two years later would exhibit the painting A Philosopher giving That Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is Placed in the Position of the Sun (1766, figure 1). The appeal of viewing the painting as referencing this event, and viewing Wright’s white-haired philosopher as Ferguson, is obvious. It connects Wright’s work to a tradition of scientific painting exemplified by Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp (1632). It equally connects the painting to Wright’s other scientifically themed works, especially An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) and The Alchymist (1770), the triad of midcentury works said to celebrate rational enquiry, progress, and the values of the Lunar Society (to which Wright was informally connected). According to the essay prefacing the most extensive compilation of Wright’s paintings, it is a “painting representative of Enlightenment philosophy,” wherein the lamp, a manmade mechanism, has come to replace divine light as the central source of illumination. Perhaps for these reasons it has become equally popular to view the philosopher as a latter-day avatar of the similarly white-haired Isaac Newton, lecturing on the vision of the cosmos that he helped to create. Viewed this way, the painting offers a visual representation of the lines by Pope intended for Newton’s epitaph: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night / God said, Let Newton be, and all was light.” Thus, the eternal question: Newton, Ferguson, or neither? As has occasionally been noted, viewing the painting as an actual event, with the philosopher as Ferguson, introduces a host of problems. First of all, Ferguson almost certainly would not have used the type of orrery—the hulking central contraption illustrating the movements of the planets—illustrated within the painting. As an itinerant lecturer, Ferguson generally favored more portable models. Whether or not Ferguson would have used a decorative armillary sphere encircling the orrery—surely one of the painting’s most arresting features—remains dubious. As Elizabeth E. Barker has discussed, Wright’s orrery is grander, more expensive, and older than those constructed in the 1760s; it may be that Wright modeled it on one possessed by Lord Ferrers (who would eventually purchase the painting and has often been proposed as its original commissioner), or on Thomas Wright’s “Great Orrery,” whose image was widely known in Wright’s day. Whatever the case, lecturers like Ferguson and his colleague Benjamin Martin sponsored a turn away from the traditional ornamentation of models of the cosmos. As Martin would write, only years later in 1771, “the Orrery I propose is a bare Representation of the Solar System in its native Simplicity, and is, in its self, sufficiently grand, and pompous; it stands in Need of none of the useless, expensive, and cumbersome Embellishments of Art.” Indeed, figures like Ferguson and Martin helped to transform the orrery from princely luxury to bourgeois acquirement. Within two decades of Ferguson’s Derby lecture, a working orrery would cost little more than two pounds; those manufactured by the ingenious entrepreneur William Jones came in pieces in a wooden box, to be assembled by its purchaser much in the manner of an Ikea bookshelf. The presence of such …