- Museum number
- Object: A philosopher giving a lecture on the Orrery
A group of men and children grouped around a mechanical model of the solar system, after the painting in Derby Art Gallery; a scratched letter proof. 1768
- Production date
Height: 480 millimetres
Width: 578 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- According to Chaloner Smith, "Mr. Jewett...names the lecturer as Mr. Denby, the organist of All-Saints Church, the young woman as Mrs. Sale, the young man taking notes as Burdett the engraver, the young man to the right as Joseph Wright the painter, the other, Mr. A. Winterman and Mr. G. Snowden, and the boy (query if both), as sons of the Rev. Mr. Cantrell of Derby." - but see below for other suggested identifications.
Extract from Robert Anderson's catalogue entry in S. O'Connell (ed.), "Britain meets the World: 1714-1830" (Palace Museum, Beijing, 2007): Lecturers, like the man shown here, travelled the country demonstrating experiments and scientific apparatus. James Dinwiddie, a Scottish scientific lecturer, was taken on Lord Macartney’s embassy to the Qianlong emperor to perform the same role for members of the Chinese court. An orrery was included among the gifts for the emperor. What we are shown here are domestic demonstrations in family residences where children share adult wonder at the workings of nature.
The orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system. The sun is at the centre and the earth and planets revolve around it when a handle is turned. The first example was constructed in about 1709 by the London clockmakers George Graham and Thomas Tompion. The prototype from which others were developed was made in 1712 by another Londoner, John Rowley, for his patron, Charles Boyle, Earl of Orrery (hence the name of the instrument). That first example (now in the Science Museum, London) included only the sun, earth and moon. From 1740 a more complicated variety of instrument was developed which included the planets and was known as a “Grand Orrery”. This expensive type of instrument is shown in Wright’s mezzotint and here the sun is represented by a lamp or candle. Saturn, a planet known since antiquity and furthest from the sun, is depicted, but it was not until 1781 that an even further planet, Uranus, was discovered by the British astronomer of German origin, William Herschel. He first named the planet Georgium Sidum, after king George III. The heavens had become a topic of considerable popular interest and speculation in 18th century Britain. The writer Joseph Addison used the subject as the basis for a hymn:
“The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.”
There has been speculation about the identity of the figure giving the lecture. A likely candidate is John Whitehurst (1713-88), an eminent clockmaker and geologist who lived in Derby, the same town as the artist, Joseph Wright. Two of the viewers have been identified: the man taking notes on the left is Peter Perez Burdett (about 1735-93), a map and printmaker and friend of Wright, and the boy in the foreground is the nine-year-old Laurence Shirley. Shirley was the nephew of Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers who bought the painting on which this print is based. Ferrers was a keen scientist who owned an orrery himself. His country house was at Staunton Harold, only 12 miles from Derby, and this scene may well be set there.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2000 Jan-Apr, Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 'Les Temps Vite'
2000 May-Sep, Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 'Les Temps Vite'
2000/1 Oct-Jan, Barcelona, Centre de Cultura Contemporania, 'Les Temps Vite'
2007 Mar-Jun, Beijing, Palace Museum, Britain meets the World
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number