Learning from An Experiment

I’ve many drawings of groups of people I’d like to work up into paintings or prints but have been having trouble getting started. Composing pictures of a group is a new and tricky territory, especially when you’re personally interested in telling a story or conveying a social hierarchy or relationships between characters. I sulked over some of my efforts, before remembering that I can’t be the only person to have been troubled by this before. I remembered the wise words of the Gentle Author, who after feeding me and watering me on a bleak day, accompanied by the restorative power of a black cat on my lap, advised: ‘ you must study and learn from the best, only the best, of your field’. So on my occasional civilised Friday evenings sketching sessions at the National Gallery I’ve been on the look out for advice from some of the masters. This painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby (1756) never fails to astonish me and every visitor that steps into room 34. It tells the story of a scientist demonstrating a vacuum to a family, with members of all ages gathered round. In basic terms, the fate of the cockatoo (presumably the family’s pet, its cage open to the right) echoes the cycle of life around the table, from innocent children, an excited boy, young lovers, a steady father, to an old man contemplating his own mortality. We have joined the family at a pivotal moment.

I am constantly bored by many modern painters that work from photographs slavishly. Looking at this painting reminds me that something beyond realism, something richer, can be achieved through observation and careful study that can never be captured by a lens in a single instant. Wright’s skill is much more than his technical ability. The true realism in this painting is not just the Caravaggio-like play of light and shadow, skin textures, fabrics or details. Rather, it is the relationship between its characters. I tried to tease it out by sketching the painting.

There is an enormous storm of tension and energy in the room. Virtually every figure is directed towards the bird, yet all are different in their poise and expression. The light from a single flame, hidden behind a glass, ties the family together. If you were to follow each of their respective gazes, there would a tangled web across the room. Only the father and son to the left, and younger sister, are truly watching. The lovers are distracted with each other, the scientist looks out towards us, the viewer, inviting us into the claustrophobic room. The middle-aged man and girls form an intimate and protected ring, the oldest man is lost in thought contemplating a skull. The bird appears to cry in appeal to the audience.

These three are difficult to capture, mainly because of the elaborate arrangement of their limbs. The girls’ hands are especially delicate, the older sister’s draped around the younger’s neck, and the younger’s in return gripping the elder’s sash. The elder’s left arm protects not only her face, but her entire body, from the event. I like that the older man’s body can be seen virtually all the way around the two of them like a protective cocoon. The girls are not unlike my sister and I, I tend to be more emotional about things but I’m fairly sure Eleanor would be brave, if not stubborn enough, to watch the whole thing through.

These two are exquisite. Newly engaged, they only have eyes for each other. I love their shared knowing look. Her black lace choker shows of her milky white neck, it seems a sensual choice of colour against the conservative pale blue. His right hand is hidden, I like to think it is folded under the left and tucked away, perhaps reaching for her hand, out of view. These two sitters married and were later painted by Wright in 1770, here are Mr and Mrs Thomas Coltman below.

There is so much more that could be said about the Experiment and Mr Wright but I’ll leave that to the art historians. But for now I’ve much to muse on and many ideas to try out for myself.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump