You had to be there

Picture: “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery” (1766) by Joseph Wright of Derby

A sharp wind blowing across the forecourt of Derby Station drove me into the bar of the Midland Hotel opposite, in search of a hot lunch. As I waited for my order to arrive, I gradually tuned in to the conversation around me. Following a quick online search, I deduced that I had blundered into the post-match discussion between participants in a Braille Chess Association tournament.

Fed and watered, I pressed on to the Joseph Wright of Derby Gallery in the local Museum. Again I sailed in to a situation of playing catch-up with reality. I had been particularly looking forward to seeing the original “A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun”. However, the first thing to strike me in this room was Carl Clerkin’s “Long Crawlies and Little Crawlies” , a “family of flexible seating”. In a speech of 2008, Sir Christopher Frayling explained that “the installation aims to inspire people to look at the 18th Century paintings differently, to see them as specific stories of real individuals, rather than solely through the lens of art history.”

In the meantime, I gaze at Wright’s typically chiaroscuro painting with two points made by Abram Fox in mind. Firstly, that the painter was, by taking as his “moral” the pursuit of scientific knowledge, extending the boundary around the traditional depiction of a moral of leadership or heroism. Secondly, that the painting mimics the compositional structure of a conversation piece (or informal group portrait), without giving us any certainty as to the identities of its subjects. The Gallery’s caption to the painting comments: “Light unites them in an understanding of their place within this larger, ordered system.”

Several identities have been proposed for the philosopher delivering the lecture. His face may be modelled on that of Sir Isaac Newton, whose work helped to herald the Enlightenment. Alternatively, the face may be that of a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham.

Finally, my own associations to the picture. One, gleaned from an image popular on Christmas cards: “Adoration of the Shepherds ” (1622) by Gerrit van Honthorst (known in artistic circles from the 18th Century onwards as “Gherardo delle notti” for his trademark skill at rendering nocturnal lighting).

The other remembered from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Bonfire”:

“……………………And let’s be the talk

Of people brought to windows by a light

Thrown from somewhere against their wall-paper.”

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