Science and Engineering in Derby and Derbyshire
A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun by Joseph Wright, 1766
One of Derby’s most famous sons, and certainly one of the most celebrated, was the artist Joseph Wright. Working during a period of great industrial and scientific growth, much of his work focusses on the fathers of modern science and engineering.
Despite many beautiful landscape and excellent portraits, his two most famous pictures remain those of scientific experiments.
‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump‘ lives in the National Gallery (Derby-ites can see a reproduction of it to the side of the Guildhall). It is a recreation of the sort of demonstration science that was becoming popular in the period. The natural philosophers of the 18th century understood well that the best way to get people involved in science is to show them how things work. Georgian scientists knew that people engage with, and enjoy science when it is exciting. A spirit that the we at the Derby branch of the BSA like to follow, though we prefer our birds in the sky not vacuum pumps.
Similarly ‘A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun‘ shows an astronomer using his orrery to demonstrate planetary movement. Orreries, which were named after the Earl of Orrery, were conversation pieces in grand houses. Strictly speaking they are planetaria, but ‘planetarium’ these days is generally used to mean the spectacular show type with projections.
The Midlands at that time was home to many scientifically interested industrialists, including Wright’s neighbour John Whitehurst (clock maker, pulser pump inventor, geologist). Often thought to be the scientist in the orrery picture, Whitehurst was part of the Lunar Society. A Birmingham based group that counted Erasamus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather, medic, and 24 stone poet), Joseph Priestly (rebellious clergyman, inspiration for Bentham and Mill, and chemist) and even Benjamin Franklin (yes that one) amongst its membership. Science and society were still at war at the time, and not always a bloodless philosophical one; Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (a French chemist) was guillotined during the terror. Since art often seeks to challenge society , it seems not surprising that he would pick such a potentially inflammatory topic. So you might think that now that science is so embedded in society it has little place in art. However, artists have continued to use science as an inspiration.
‘Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid‘ (try saying that after a couple of drinks) is Salvador Dali’s 1963 take on DNA. As a tribute to Watson and Crick, and Dali’s wife Gala, it features Gala looking over figures posed as nucleotide bases. However, unlike Dali’s usual challenging work, this piece, commissioned by a bank, is much less confrontational. Though in title a celebration of one of modern science’s greatest discoveries, you could be forgiven for not seeing the biology in the canvas, which lives these days in Florida.
The work of Luke Jerram however, makes it impossible to ignore the inspiration. Glass Microbiology is a series of blown glass microbes. Not in microbe size, reassuringly, for those of us with less than perfect eyesight. The series includes everything from H5N1 through to spermatozoa. The T4 bacteriophage is particularly adorable. Also working in glass is the artist Josiah McElheny, whose film installation ‘Conceptual Drawings for a Chandelier, 1965‘ is based around creating a chandelier which is also an accurate representation of the Big Bang. Similarly physics inclined is Adam Lilien whose work makes use of string theory to produce canvases such as ‘4-Dimensional Stereoscopic Object Projected through a 32-Dimensional Space‘, and ‘Detail of a 6th Dimensional Form‘, and the nicely fractal ‘Base of Light‘. Whilst ‘Listening post‘ by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, which lives at the Science Museum, makes use of one of physics/maths most adored developments, the internet. If you’ve ever posted in a chatroom, your words might well be part of their art.
If you like your science a bit more embedded in the art then Anna Dumitriu‘s biological pieces might appeal. Her work includes a quilt inoculated with Methicillin resistant and susceptible Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, whilst ‘Lab Coat Flora‘ is a lab coat embroidered with bacterial imagery. Meanwhile Stelarc, former artist in residence at our near neighbour Nottingham Trent University, has taken the concept of embedding science in art and run with it. Not only has he collaborated with polymer scientists to create a quarter scale version of his ear, but has had an extra ear attached to his arm. Finally, also working in biological art is Susan Aldworth, who works out of the Neuroscience department at Newcastle University, currently focussing on schizophrenia her work has included a series of etchings called ‘Apoptosis‘ (the term for planned cell death) and ‘Brainscapes‘.
If you are interested in scientific art there are a few places you can see it in real life:
The Derby Museum and Art Gallery (attached to the library) has the largest collection of Wright’s work including the and currently has an exhibition related to another Derby resident, astronomer John Flamsteed, including an orrery.
To see Wright’s ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ you’ll need to visit the National Gallery in London. The capital is also home to the Science Museum (for ‘Listening post’ and various other science-art works), the Wellcome Collection (for a changing range of generally medical science focussed exhibits) and GV art* (for a variety of exhibiting artists often with a science theme).
Does science inspire art for you?
* The link to the gallery is here, and potentially not work safe depending on your workplace.