- Museum number
- Object: A philosopher shewing an experiment on the air pump
Family group in candlelit room gathered around long-haired scientist, demonstrating creating a vacuum with a cockatoo in an air pump; two girls being comforted by their father, one watching, young couple at left, and boy pulling down cage beside window at right; proof before letters, but with scratched production and publication detail; after the painting in the National Gallery. 1769
- Production date
Height: 467 millimetres
Width: 584 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Possibly portraits of the Williams family of Derby (Chaloner Smith).
Extract from Robert Anderson's catalogue entry in S. O'Connell (ed.), "Britain meets the World: 1714-1830" (Palace Museum, Beijing, 2007): The air pump, for removing air from a vessel was first developed in Germany in the middle of the 17th century, and later improved in Oxford by Robert Boyle (1627-91) and Robert Hooke (1635-1703). From 1703, the instrument-maker Francis Hauksbee (1660-1713) was involved in a series of experiments on the properties of the vacuum for the Royal Society of London (the first of these in the presence of the newly-elected President, Sir Isaac Newton). The double-barrelled instrument he designed, cranked in a circular motion with a handle, and similar to the type shown in the mezzotint, became a standard piece of equipment for scientific demonstrations to the public. These would show that air was essential to life and to combustion. An air pump was included among George III's gifts for the Qianlong emperor in 1793 (via Lord Macartney); he was reported to have reacted with the comment: "These things are good enough to amuse children!"
A feature of Georgian Britain was that science lecturers would tour the country with their instruments, giving courses of lectures in towns. These included spectacular experiments. One such itinerant "philosopher" in Wright’s time was James Ferguson, who wrote in 1760: "If a fowl, a cat, rat, mouse or bird, be put [in the vessel], and the air be exhausted, the animal is at first oppressed with a great weight, then grows convulsed, and at last expires in all the agonies of a most bitter and cruel death…this experiment is too shocking to every spectator who has the least degree of humanity…"
The creature who suffers here is a pet cockatoo suffocating as air is pumped out of the container. The variety of responses to the experiment in the picture ranges from curiosity and deep thought, to emotional distress.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2007 Mar-Jun, Beijing, Palace Museum, Britain meets the World
2014 May-June, G90, Highlights of Mezzotint in Britain
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number