Joseph Wright of Derby’s continued residence in his home town, far from condemning him to provincial isolation, located him within the remarkable orbit of the
Lunar Society, whose luminaries included Josiah Wedgewood, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestly.
Wright’s exceptional range of subject-matter, extending beyond conventional landscapes and portraits into iron forges, industrial premises, alchemists’
dens, air pumps and orreries, plunges us visually into the rising scientific ferment of the second half of the eighteenth century. The sciences of chemistry, not least discoveries relating to combustion and oxygen,
and of physics, particularly electricity, were revealing new dimensions to the forces which animated nature.
Vulcanology, the discipline which may be said to have been founded by Sir William Hamilton, King’s Envoy in Naples, antiquarian and passionate observer of
geological phenomena, played a significant role in demonstrating that the vast formative forces in the body of the earth lay far beyond the scope of the Biblical Creation and Flood in time and magnitude. The fields
of lava around Mount Vesuvius, now serving as fertile land, must have been, in Hamilton’s view, ‘so very ancient, as to be far out of the reach of history’. Rugged topographies resulted not from
God’s static design but from huge effusions of material molten by subterranean fires: ‘mountains are produced by volcanoes, not volcanoes by mountains’ - a process which was still very much under
way. Indeed, he believed that the present surface of the earth contains no surviving part from its original. ‘primitive’ state.
Wright visited Vesuvius in 1774, two years after Hamilton had published his Observations on Mount Vesuvius... The painter wrote excitedly back to John Whitehirst in
Derby that he had witnessed ‘a very considerable eruption.... of which I am going to make a picture’. Four years later Whitehirst was to publish his ‘Inquiry into the Original State and Formation
of the Earth’, which talked about the great sea of inner fire which surged through what Wright called the ‘bowels of the mountain’. In the event, Wright painted not one picture of Vesuvius, but
more than thirty.
His series of pictures, composed in the studio as sublime exercises in visual poetry, are quite different in method from Hamilton’ s professed system of
‘collecting facts’, and exceed in power the images of Pietro Fabris, Hamilton’s favoured illustrator. The vertical jet of white-hot debris, the vortex of clouds and emergent moon correspond less to
what Wright witnessed at a single moment than to an artistic synthesis of the essence of Vesuvius’s grandeur within the drama of world history. The granular globs of white paint which comprise the jet and
bedeck the fiery slopes stand for rather than literally describe the phenomenon.
Yet Wright’s vision does strike to the very heart of the vitalistic and animistic enthusiasms which did so much to convince European scientists like Luigi
Galvani, Antoine Lavoisier, Alexander von Humboldt, and Humfrey Davey that the great key to the mystery of life lay in the kinds of universal electro-chemical forces which twitched a frog’s leg into life and
breathed the life of ‘Oxygenated Air’ into every living thing. Wright’s firey images strike to the heart of the visual and intellectual fires that fuelled so much Romantic science.