Landscape and light-alchemical interpretations of light in the works of Joseph Wright of Derby
In the late Eighteenth Century Joseph Wright of Derby produced a body of oil paintings, many of them landscapes, depicting industrial scenes –sometimes described as the ‘Industrial Sublime’ (Hamilton 2001). In these works, as in his chiaroscuro ‘Candlelight’ works, light and the effects of light are prominent or even the subject of the work, which is consistent with Enlightenment theory, as Baxendall (1995) and others have observed. However another prominent theme of Wright’s paintings is the existence, in many paintings, of two sources of light (also seen in the work of his contemporary Phillippe de Loutherbourg). Time and again we see the full moon in one part of the painting, and elsewhere another contrasting source of light – a fire, as in A cottage on fire (1774), a lantern, as in Earthstopper at the bank of Derwent (1773), a candle, hot metal (as in the series of the Blacksmith’s forge), or volcanic fire, as in Vesuvius in Eruption with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples (1776-80). The consistent repetition of this motif of two light sources is at first perhaps puzzling. But it is argued that an explanation may be found in Wright’s interest in alchemy. His critical interest in alchemy is laid bare in his 1771 painting, The alchymist, in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers phosphorous, and prays for the successful conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the ancient chymical astrologers, but perhaps insufficient attention has been paid to the wider alchemical symbolism within Wright’s works. The paper argues that the motif of two contrasting sources of light can be explained by an alchemical reading of Wright’s paintings in which the sources of light are symbolic of the dialectical interplay of the two fundamental alchemical principles, Sol and Luna, (male and female, or sulphur and mercury). This explanation complicates or enriches the Gothic and pre-Romantic interpretations of these works.
Adrian is a lecturer on the BA Hons Illustration, Camberwell College of Arts, UAL, delivering and coordinating theory / contextual studies, and associate lecturer on MA Art and Science, CSM. He is an associate editor on the Journal of Illustration, and member of Illustration Research steering committee. A writer and artist, his research interests include alchemy, media theory, and the relationship between technology and the human.