Light and Enlightenment
in Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Alchymist
The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers (1771) is now seen as one of Joseph Wright of Derby’s most captivating images. Yet in spite of many positive responses to Wright’s other paintings, it was rejected by contemporary viewers. No analysis has yet attempted to explore this paradox; most critical attention has instead been concerned with the larger paintings, The Orrery or The Air-Pump.  Scholars who have analysed The Alchymist mostly declare that the painting displays the light of rational science triumphing over superstition, that the picture demonstrates the thrill of scientific discovery, or that the alchemist’s triumph vindicates chemistry from its alchemical past. However, several clues in the painting, its complex interplay between composition, subject matter, and larger social context, as well as the discomfort it produced in contemporary viewers, would indicate that these interpretations do not tell the whole story.
I wish to propose a new analysis of The Alchymist, combining the analytical tools of the art historian and the historian of science, and taking the painting itself as the central focus of this analysis. While recent trends in the History of Science have led to an examination of images in scientific texts, most of the literature focuses on images in science instead of images about science. As art historians approach the ‘scientific scenes’ by Joseph Wright, many frame these images as celebratory pictures delighting in the intellectual enlightenment of English gentry. But images about science require a complex reading insomuch as they attempt a commentary on contemporary scientific practices: the artist may employ or manipulate a variety of themes, references, and visual tropes, and an understanding of science as a historically situated practice is required in order to grasp the meaning of this particular arrangement of icons and themes. The Alchymist, therefore, lends itself particularly well to an interdisciplinary analytical perspective, combining evidence from the historical record with a significant interpretative element to reconstruct a contemporary viewing. Viewed through this analytical lens, Wright’s painting plays with such concepts as knowledge and enlightenment, theory and practice, spectatorship and discovery, temporality and historicity, and the local and national to suggest a type of enlightenment that raised uncomfortable questions for contemporary viewers.
In an effort to understand eighteenth-century responses to The Alchymist, this essay will approach the painting with the end goal of answering three questions: “Who is enlightened, by what, and why?” The analysis will begin with a focussed discussion of the image itself - its subject, technique and limited context within Wright’s life and works - before discussing two complementary readings of the painting. The first reading arises from the painting’s peculiar treatment of its subject in the context of the history of chemistry. In this reading, the painting plays with sensitive ideas of historicity, theory and practice, rationality and discovery, and precision and egalitarian practice. The second reading starts afresh with a close reading of the painting’s symbols and composition, deriving meaning from an understanding of Wright’s own position with respect to the Lunar Society and the Royal Academy. This reading discusses Wright’s suggested form of knowledge and enlightenment as well as the role for the provincial or fringe practitioner and types of knowledge in the practices of alchemy, chemistry, and painting. Finally, the two complementary readings are tied in a consideration of the painting’s moral message. The ultimate questions of “Who is enlightened, by what, and why?” may yield answers that appeal to viewers today, but which contemporary viewers would have found most unusual.
The analysis presented may raise questions about the role of the artist in art criticism: readers may question the validity of the project insomuch as the proposed understanding of The Alchymist reflects Wright’s intentions. While painters do make significant choices in their compositions and Wright may have had a ‘purpose’ in mind for The Alchymist, this paper is not concerned with Wright’s feelings about his own work. Whether Wright was consciously aware of his manipulation of meaningful themes and symbols or not is irrelevant to this discussion: the resulting image employed current, relevant and recognizable tropes and was open to interpretation to a range of contemporary viewers. It is this paper’s goal to reconstruct this contemporary interpretive experience and approach the meaning The Alchymist had for its audience.
This paper presents a focused, localised study, yet contributes to a wider range of discussion. The interactions between art and science provide a fruitful area of research as they reveal the complexity of contemporary attitudes to science and the way in which art reflects or structures lines of scientific inquiry. Just as Gillian Beer has probed the relationships between Victorian literature and natural history, and Martin Kemp has examined the correlations between Renaissance art and geometry, the present analysis aims to explore a connection between eighteenth-century painting and chemistry. In addition, recent work in Eighteenth Century Studies has attempted to draw attention to the period’s ‘dark underbelly’ and to problematise the possibility of a unified voice for Enlightened Britain; this study reveals another dissenting voice in the discourse of light and enlightenment, adding to the current scholarly understanding of the complexity of these metaphors as they were employed in the eighteenth-century. Finally, The Alchymist is currently enjoying renewed popularity within the field of Science Studies, resulting in an iconic status similar to The Orrery or The Air-Pump. As with any such scientific icon or symbol, it is important that we understand it before we use it.
The Alchymist was painted in early 1771: a letter from Wright’s friend Peter Burdett indicates it was begun in February, and it was exhibited in June. Joseph Wright (1734-1797), the son of a Derby lawyer and a portrait artist trained in Thomas Hudson’s fashionable London studio, expected to sell this oil painting to a high bidder, just as his famous The Orrery had sold for a significant sum to a reputable man of science. However, The Alchymist was not sold at the exhibition, despite an engraving by William Pether to generate public interest, and was continually declined when offered to acquaintances. The painting travelled with Wright to Italy in 1773-1775 and was reworked in 1795, but was not sold until four years after Wright’s death, in Christies’ auction of his material possessions.
The Alchymist’s failure is curious, as Wright was a nationally and internationally recognized artist: exhibition catalogues consistently praised his work as ‘excellent’ and ‘beyond compare,’ and one of his paintings was purchased by Catherine the Great of Russia. He was particularly noted for his skilled portrayal of light and his almost scientific attention to detail in the execution of his works. This applied not only to his precise brush-strokes and capturing of external detail, but also to his precision in piecing a scene together to form a harmonious whole, and to his obsessive exactitude when painting from a literary source; he employed all available resources - from textbooks to correspondence with friends - in order to build images such as Miravan…, The Corinthian Maid, Romeo and Juliet, Penelope…, or Maria, from Sterne. But Wright’s fame was largely due to his A Philosopher Giving That Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the sun (1766) and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air-Pump (1768), in which the intimate details of scientific demonstration are writ large. Nineteenth-century viewers were particularly affected by The Air-Pump, claiming it was ‘clever and vigorous’, Gustave Flaubert on a visit to England commenting especially on its ‘naiveté et profondeur’. Modern interpretations suggest that they display a physical and intellectual enlightenment and that they communicate the pleasures of science; some interpreters suggest that The Orrery demonstrates the worship of science as the Christ child is worshipped at his nativity, or that The Air-Pump employs memento mori tropes to operate as a vanitas painting.
Interpretations of The Alchymist largely present a pro-scientific reading, positive and progressive. Jane Wallis suggests that it ‘stresses the importance of experimentation – no matter how bizarre the original impetus’; Francis Klingender believes its purpose ‘is not to ridicule the superstitions of the past, but to commemorate the birth of modern science from those supertistitions’; while Stephen Daniels claims Wright ‘cleans up the alchemist’s act, … dignifies a low subject, turns a technical operation into a noble pursuit’. As a scene of scientific manufacture David Fraser infuses the painting with moral industrial values, while Marilyn Stokstad points to Wright’s obsession with ‘the romance of science’. Patricia Fara offers a more complex reading, noting ‘the centrality of man-made light’ which ‘hovers between secular illumination and divine transience’, and the philosopher’s disregard for God’s natural light, the moon, ‘preferring to seek progress by artificial processes towards an unrealisable goal’.
As interpretations vary, so do suggested categorisations. As part of Wright’s very early non-portrait work, critics sometimes consider The Alchymist the third of his ‘scientific scenes’ following The Orrery and The Air-Pump, although this category would not have been recognised in 1771. This difficulty with categorisation was acutely felt in the eighteenth century, as it was difficult for exhibitors to decide where and how the painting should be displayed. Critics now as then have considered it a simple ‘candle-light’ conversation piece, a genre painting, or a portrait of sorts, yet it never easily fits into these categorical frames. The Alchymist’s unclassifiable, hybrid genre continues to make viewing the painting a strangely compelling experience: compelling because the painting is certainly striking, yet strangely so because it is difficult to identify why or how it is meant to affect the viewer. But Wright was very much aware of the traditions employed by the ‘high art’ of his day, and his evasion of categorisation is not due to a lack of skill or training but is rather a purposeful blend of motifs and traditions. As Wright works with and around traditional classifications, he employs recognizable tropes as one would employ symbols, manipulating them so as to deepen the allegorical message of the work. It is this kind of manipulation and its resulting message that created difficulties for The Alchymist’s eighteenth-century viewers, whether Associate of the Royal Academy or private chemist.
The Alchymist is a striking painting. In a secluded stone room with high gothic arches, an elderly alchemist kneels in front of a brilliant shining vessel of white light, from which blue-tinged gas illuminates a pile of books on a green covered stove-top. One of his assistants, engaged in making lead from lead ore over a small flame, looks up as his companion directs our gaze towards the alchemist. We glimpse a full moon through a set of gothic windows on the right. Most of the space in the picture is empty or even undefined, with the exception of the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. This echoes the gothic arches’ creation of a sense of spaciousness and ascent. Compositionally, the alchemist occupies the central position in the picture: all attention is directed towards him as his assistants look and point towards him and the ceiling arch descends in a column over his head. He sits at the obtuse angle of a triangle linking three segments of the composition: the glowing receiver and the alchemist, the fire-lit assistants, and the silver moon framed in the window.
The extent of detail captured in paint is extraordinary. The timepiece reads eight o’clock, the lead between windowpanes is delicately rendered, the stonework in the room is regular and smooth, and precisely illustrated alchemical equipment hangs on the rear wall. A horoscope is visible under the pile of papers with clearly delineated figures. The result is an impression of extreme care and purpose that amazes the viewer, much as the phosphorus amazes the alchemist. The canvas also appears controlled, stilled and even posed. None of the characters in the picture appear in motion, none appear even to be speaking. The overall effect is one of silence, a moment frozen in time.
This stillness makes it difficult, from the picture alone, to devise a narrative indicating how the characters arrived in their present position. The only suggested story is in the painting’s 1771 title: The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his Operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers. However, this subject is not strictly a fanciful one: it may be based on historical circumstance. It is often suggested that The Alchymist refers to alchemist Hennig Brandt’s discovery of phosphorus as related in Macquer’s Elements of the Theory and Practice of Chemistry of 1758. It is not unlikely that Wright was familiar with this story, since his friend James Keir was responsible for an expanded version in his translation of Macquer’s popular Dictionary of Chemisty into English in 1771. Although Wright does not explicitly identify the alchemist as Brandt, the story was often printed in popular chemical textbooks and would have been recognised by eighteenth-century viewers.
The painting is remarkable for its muted colours and flat canvas. Unlike many oil painters, Wright’s application of paint on canvas is surprisingly even: there is little if no topography to suggest brush strokes or changes to an original plan. This further contributes to a sense of stillness, pose and purpose in painting. The full range of Wright’s palette is not employed: the colours are instead limited, subdued and controlled. The majority of the canvas is deep brown or blue, but even the seemingly random splashes of colour are perfectly balanced: olive green against fire red, the honeyed furnace against the blue night sky. The result is a canvas that, while certainly striking, is overall chromatically neutral.
It is not, however, neutral in terms of the use of light. Light and shade pervade the piece, distinct from colour effects. Wright’s particular kind of extreme shading is often identified as chiaroscuro, the use of shading to denote three-dimensionality; it is also identified as tenebrism, the use of shadow. However, I believe Wright’s paintings demand a third classificatory scheme. Wright’s paintings do not employ a gentle light source to enhance the three-dimensional aspect of his subjects: the figures appear flattened in the shortened perspective of the room, the extreme contrast between light and dark, and in the flatness of colour and canvas. Further, Wright’s works cannot employ tenebrism as they seem not so much to denote an emphasis on shadow as they do on light. Wright’s works revolve around the display and diffusion of light from different sources and in different circumstances both in terms of composition and subject, whether phosphorus, volcanic eruptions, or moonlight. I would therefore suggest that this painting employs luminism as its technical point of departure.
This new category is supported by Wright’s own unique technique of painting: he began his canvases with a layer of white paint, and employed a significant amount of white lead when mixing the colours for the next layer. This lent his paintings a distinctive quality of light, but was an unusual process according to classical technique; most painters began with a lightened layer where the foreground figures were planned, using a darker shade for the part of the scene that would remain in the background of the composition. For many of his special light effects, Wright used the back of his brush to scrape away at the surface of paint and reveal the white paint underneath. This light therefore feels intrinsic to the object in the scene, whether volcanic fire or the moonlit depths of the Mediterranean.
The Alchymist, however, displays three light sources, each slightly different in their effect and colouring. The white used in the flame is more yellow, the moon clear white and the phosphorus more blue. Similarly interesting is the dispersal of light throughout the room: the light of the phosphorus touches all reflective surfaces in the room. Instead of using his technique of scraping the surface paint, Wright instead places a tiny dab of white paint on top of the existing layers. Such a technique can be read to indicate that the phosphorescent light is an external and unnatural presence as it touches the other parts of the room.
The laboratory in which Wright’s alchemist is at work is also strangely posed and silent. Odd-shaped glass vessels are neatly shelved, the green table-top seems cluttered with books, and a pile of undifferentiated odds and ends is visible in the lower left hand corner. However, the viewer should not assume that Wright’s passion for detail led him to re-construct an idealized alchemical laboratory. Rather, clues in the laboratory’s set-up and equipment are crucial features that contribute to the reading of Wright’s painting.
First of all, several aspects of the painting recall illustrations in alchemical texts. Such illustrations of alchemical laboratories or practices differ from the large body of allegorical alchemical works: instead of two-headed hermaphrodites, demons or cryptic symbols, these images show alchemical work-in-progress. Examples include the bottom plate of Michelspacher’s ‘Spigel der Kunst und Natur’ (1616), the smelting furnace in Agricola’s De re metallica (1556) or the famous Laboratorium published in Ampitheatrum Sapientae Aeternae by Heinrich Khunrath (1602).
Reference is also made to paintings of alchemical practitioners, mainly seventeenth-century satirical images, in the globe and open book, the working furnace, and the laboratory assistants. These elements can be seen in paintings by Hendrik Heerschop, David Teniers, Peter Bruegel or Matthieu von Helmont, which portray the alchemist as a subject of ridicule, his laboratory in a disastrous state with ugly assistants tending bizarre experiments which end in unexpected catastrophe. But Wright’s treatment of the globe and open book recalls particular images by Thomas Wyck, a seventeenth century Dutch artist who depicted alchemists in serious study. Wyck’s work may have had a profound effect on Wright: a painting by Wyck called The Laboratory paintings was sold in the possessions of John Leigh Philips, Wright’s friend and patron, and was apparently originally owned by Wright. Wright’s reference to Wyck implies that The Alchymist is not meant in jest, and that we are to take the picture and its characters quite seriously.
While Wright makes reference to the satirical works, he makes some subtle but important changes. For example, the alchemist is not looking at his books; although some folios are open on the table, not one of the practitioners is looking at the pages. This is unusual as many of the other paintings about alchemy show alchemists busy looking at their books. In fact, their over-emphasis on texts is the reason why, the viewer assumes, their experiments have gone so horribly wrong.
More importantly, Wright places the alchemist and the customs of his ‘Ancient Chymical Astrologer’ directly into what appears to be a modern chemical laboratory. Instead of the broken or simply useless implements typical of a Bruegel or a Teniers painting, Wright’s laboratory, with its shelved glassware and largely clean work space, looks more like the idealised engravings in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, or the private illustrated laboratories of Poncelet or Antoine Lavoisier. What clutter exists in The Alchymist is probably typical of chemical laboratories at the time: Macquer’s Dictionary of Chemistry reveals the disorganised state of contemporary chemical laboratories. Furthermore, the chemical instruments at use in The Alchymist are precisely those used in late eighteenth-century chemistry. Wright appears to have copied them directly from the illustrations available in chemical textbooks such as those by Macquer, or Burdett’s modern chemical laboratory sketch on his 1771 letter with The Alchymist’s preliminary sketch. Wright’s choices suggest that the difference between an alchemical laboratory as satirised in the seventeenth century and the eighteenth-century chemical laboratory was not so great after all.
The Alchymist intrigues the viewer with its masterful treatment of light and careful detail, but presents a challenge in its serious image of a practising alchemist in an anachronistic alchemical laboratory. The first proposed analysis of The Alchymist will explore this unusual portrayal of alchemy as it illuminates the painting’s assertions about chemistry and its history, returning to analyse Wright’s use of light in the second reading.
The subject of The Alchymist is an episode in chemistry’s history: this first reading assesses the painting’s treatment of its historical subject matter, the implications of which would have been highly problematic for eighteenth-century chemists who were interested in producing and maintaining a modern, scientific, and above all progressive story of their emerging practice.
Eighteenth-century chemists faced a central dilemma: how to distance themselves from alchemical quackery, and define and embrace a new concept of chemical practice? The modern chemical science could not deny its alchemical roots; indeed, chemists continued to employ alchemical processes and symbols until the early nineteenth century. Indeed, alchemists still practised in England during this period and were anxious that the Royal Society legitimate their discipline. The promising chemist James Price’s desperate suicide in front of three Royal Society Fellows in 1783, following his failed attempted to impress them with his transmutation experiments, demonstrates the alchemists’ genuine desire for the official sanctioning of their goals and methods.
Most chemists recognized alchemy as the forefather of chemistry, but characterised it as a morally flawed investigation within an unabashedly progressive narrative of chemistry’s history and held it responsible for chemistry’s retarded progress during the Middle Ages. In addition, in their attempt to redefine chemistry as divergent from alchemy, eighteenth-century chemists made what they considered special distinctions between alchemical practice and that of the new chemical science, concerning not only what kind of discipline chemistry was as currently practised, but also what kind of discipline it would and should become. The Alchymist plays on these supposedly crucial distinctions between alchemy and chemistry, uncovering the many tensions within the history that chemists were attempting to construct and the future they were attempting to mould for their discipline. First of all, Wright ties to contemporary chemistry exactly the alchemical communities and practices which eighteenth-century chemists were anxious to avoid. The alchemist is so sympathetically depicted as to border on sainthood, emphasising his legitimacy as discoverer and vindicating unorthodox methodology. The choice of the phosphorus, a popular yet difficult recipe in elementary chemistry textbooks, as subject matter both taps into feelings of nationalist pride and tensions in the concept of discovery and the role of rational inquiry in chemical history and practice. Finally, the painting’s assertions about time and history deny the possibility of a progressive narrative in the history of chemistry, re-evaluating the status of alchemy and its importance to contemporary practice.
Wright’s image of the hermetic alchemist in his gothic laboratory recalls the first, major distinction chemists drew between alchemy and chemistry. This concerned the nature of the communities of enquirers: the alchemical community was closed, hermetic and non-communicative, while chemists boasted that they possessed a discursive community of practitioners and involved an enlightened citizenry to support their endeavours. The signs, symbols and practices of alchemy were so impossible to decipher, claimed eighteenth-century chemists such as Macquer, that its community of practitioners was necessarily limited and narrow-minded in scope. Further, because of the alchemists’ ‘singular madness’, their quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, alchemists were accused of ignoring possibly useful discoveries in their self-serving desire for wealth and fame. This ignorance of practical application combined with the alchemists’ inability to communicate their practices and discoveries to the public ‘rendered their Art useless to mankind, and brought it into deserved contempt.’
On the other hand, ‘rational chemistry’ was portrayed as open, discursive, and communicative, a practice ‘delivered from the obscure jargon of alchemists’. The practice of chemistry encouraged philosophical thought and inquiry, and its open and communicative community was associated with a desire for practical results and for implementation of discoveries towards the amelioration of external society. A working knowledge of chemistry was promised somehow to be useful to ‘Naturalists… Metallurgists, Essayers, Refiners of Metals, Gilders, Dyers Manufacturers of Wines, Spirits, Salt, Soap, Pot-ash, Materials for Painting and Enamelling, Glass, Pottery, Porcelain, [and] Persons employed in the Arts called Economical’, updating their practices with understandable processes and replacing their closed communities of tacit knowledge-bearers with an open communities of philosophically-minded craftsmen. The rhetoric characteristic of such writing bursts with optimism, declaring:
‘We have now the advantage of seeing the best days of Chemistry…the profound skill and ardour of modern Chemists, whom we do not attempt to praise, because they are above our eulogiums seem altogether to promise the greatest and most brilliant success. We have seen Chemistry drawing its origin from necessity and receiving a slow and obscure encrease from avarice. To true philosophy it was reserved to bring it to perfection.’
But Wright’s image of the modern chemistry laboratory as an alchemical space brings these two supposedly distinct practices and communities together, highlighting the disquieting fact that chemistry was full of promises but had so far yielded limited results. The kind of philosophical inquiry propagated by texts such as Macquer’s Dictionary or Elements was still young within the domain of the chemical laboratory, and was not so much an articulation of current chemical practice as a hopeful story of what chemistry could accomplish in its new form, whatever that may be. Chemical facts or practices were so disorganised and incomprehensible that Macquer’s choice of a dictionary format for his textbook was simply an attempt to put this wide body of knowledge into some kind of respectable order. As yet, no greater narrative could explain the relationships between an otherwise disparate body of knowledge, and chemists continued to rely on alchemical distinctions, procedures and explanations, whether in the classification of materials or the physical vessels in use in the laboratory. Further, phosphorus had no practical application: too volatile and dangerous for handling, it became simply an item of display: the alchemist’s discovery therefore isolates the very rhetoric of the useful so often employed in the early Royal Society as well as the hopeful stories employed by eighteenth-century chemists who claimed the ability to improve society at large. Wright’s alchemist, in his modernised medieval laboratory, practising a retarded chemistry with no practical implications, smears the already-fuzzy boundaries between alchemy and chemistry to suggest that chemistry is not as open and progressive as it claims.
This confusion of boundaries is complicated by Wright’s treatment of his alchemist. Just as the alchemist’s laboratory is treated more sympathetically than in images by Bruegel or Heerschoop, Wright’s alchemist himself is also treated with sympathy. Dressed in the robes of a wise magus, he appears a sagacious elder engaged in a sophisticated process, a far cry from the paintings of misguided quacks in rooms filled with useless clutter. Further, the alchemist is not only a magus, he is also depicted as a recognisable saint. In terms of his actions, the alchemist’s physical resemblance to Francis of Assisi’s traditional pose in receiving the stigmata has been noted. However, in facial features the alchemist almost exactly mimics an earlier Wright copy of an image of St. Jerome.
Wright often makes religious references in his paintings, even in his “scientific” scenes. For example, The Orrery is often likened to nativity scene, the crowd’s faces are illuminated by the natural philosophical demonstration rather than an infant Christ. Such a composition brings to mind questions of science worship as well as relating enlightening learning to Christian vision. But these allusions do not merely imply the ‘religious context in which these scientific demonstrations could be perceived in [Wright’s] day’. Rather, Wright employs religious tropes in his compositions as a common currency of recognisable symbols and characters which, to a visually literate audience, held allegorical significance.
In the case of The Alchymist, the saintly appearance of the alchemist emphasises his sagacity and legitimacy as the discoverer of phosphorus. But Saint Francis’ and Saint Jerome’s attributes also become subsumed into the alchemist’s own character. Founder of monasticism, Jerome was the quintessential and original hermit, living in solitary seclusion in the desert where he felt he could best pursue the study of the scriptures and the worship of God. During this time, Jerome completed the famous translation of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate, which remains in use today. Saint Francis also founded a monastic order, famously rejecting his rich lifestyle to live a life of poverty and happy seclusion. The alchemist’s likeness to these saints thus demonstrates his remoteness from mainstream society while sanctioning the rewards of such a hermetic lifestyle. As both these saints devoted themselves to fruitful solitary studies, following their own course in defiance of mainstream religious practices, so Wright claims that the alchemist’s devotion to solitary and remote study is justified and wise. In recalling these two particular saints, Wright claims that despite or even because of the alchemist’s unorthodoxy (in this case methodological instead of religious), the alchemist is able to produce important contributions to mainstream scientific practice.
Eighteenth-century chemical practitioners struggled to establish what could broadly be called chemical orthodoxy, to codify a discipline that was distinct from alchemy. This new chemistry rested on two hinges: a clearly delineated relationship between theory and practice, and a rational or philosophical mode of inquiry. Yet we have seen that when Wright paints modern chemical apparati and processes into this historical and alchemical framework, he places the alchemist’s ancient values directly into contemporary practice. The underlying suggestion is that there is no difference between the alchemist’s practice and the way that modern chemists would hope to make phosphorus. This might be tolerable if the alchemist’s demonstrated techniques were acceptable to modern chemical practitioners: if he were shown to be using what could be considered modern methods alongside his modern equipment, this might justify his unlikely discovery of the element. However, Wright’s choice to depict the production of phosphorus identifies chemistry’s proverbial sore spots and rubs salt directly into the wounds which chemists were attempting to ignore.
The Alchymist is undeniably a painting about discovery, as it depicts the moment of the discovery of phosphorus. However, the alchemist’s experience of discovery does not conform with Wright’s contemporaries’ definition of chemical discovery for several major reasons; one such reason is the methodology employed to elicit the discovery of phosphorus.
Chemists struggling to bring chemistry under the umbrella of natural philosophy drew another distinction between alchemy and chemistry, in a new concept of discovery. True chemical discoveries were the result of a practice dictated by theory or hypothesis and experiment, as in all branches of Natural Philosophy. As “experiments, undirected by theory, are only a blind feeling”, chemists endeavoured to present their art as theoretically sound and verifiable by direct experiment. This harmonious marriage between theory and practice was contrasted starkly with alchemical procedures. Chemical historians argued that the cause of alchemists’ perpetual failure was precisely this lack of theoretically directed practice:
‘Though [Chymistry] cannot be said to have ever existed without experiments, yet it laboured under the same disadvantages with the rest [of ancient philosophy]; because those who studied it made all their experiments with a view to confirm their own Hypotheses, and in consequence of principles which had no foundation but in their imaginations’
But Macquer’s famous and influential 1758 book embraced both the theory and the practice of chemistry, boasting an approach as:
“a Practical Treatise, intended to contain the manner of performing the principal Operations of Chymistry; the operations which serve as standards for regulating all the rest, and which confirm the fundamental truths laid down in the Theory.’
The Alchymist presents an interesting scene, as this distinction between alchemical and chemical discovery was not without significant problems. First of all,it was evident that alchemical practice had some speculative grounding: just how the speculations of alchemy difference from those of chemistry was difficult to articulate. Further, Wright’s image depicts what is clearly a non-theory-related and irrationally-directed discovery, as relayed in the very title of the piece: An Alchymist, in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus… The alchemist is trying to accomplish something quite different when he literally stumbles upon a fortuitous discovery: and yet, it is a discovery nonetheless. The depicted reward of non-theoretically driven practice draws particular attention to those fuzzy boundaries between theory, practice and discovery that contemporary writers attempted to gloss over with compelling rhetoric.
The new reliance on theory and hypothesis in discovery narratives quickly raised the question of what might now be identified as theory-laden observation. The new chemistry lacked clear boundaries about when non-theory related discoveries could be deemed important, and required an acceptable definition of ‘rational inquiry’ that would avoid a practice of discovery as simply confirmation of theoretical results. Here again, The Alchymist manages to incorporate challenging issues in contemporary chemistry.
That chemistry was supposed to be a philosophical branch of knowledge was made clear in a new focus on terminology and a correct use of instruments, again attempting to distinguish chemical techniques from alchemy’s inquiries. But the overall goal of chemistry remained disputed. The influential Elements of the Theory and Practice of Chemistry gives a broad outline of ‘the design of Chymistry’:
‘not only to analyse the mixts produced by nature, in order to obtain the simplest substances of which they are composed, but moreover to discover by sundry experiments the properties of those elementary principles, and to recombine them in various manners, either with each other, or with different bodies, so as to reproduce the original mixts with all their properties, or even form the new compounds which never existed in nature.’
But such a broad statement could not direct a unified chemical practice or classify the wide variety of information designated as ‘chemical’, and by the late eighteenth century chemistry again found itself at a crossroads. On the one hand, Newtonian natural philosophy provided the model of a precise and mathematical science; on the other, natural history described and classified. But while physics (specifically, Newton’s Principia) provided an ideal model of natural philosophy in its application of mathematics to nature, the precision chemistry essential to producing exact mathematical figures could be elitist, as access to precise instrumentation proved expensive and limited. In comparison, a chemistry based on the description of phenomena encouraged a wider range of participation and understanding, but a limited ability to identify or manipulate the base elements of matter. Chemists who were eager to establish a credible domain for their form of natural inquiry faced a difficult choice between these two philosophical options. This choice was critical, as the contemporary chemical sciences were accused of being simply a ‘collection of facts, the causes of which, and their relations to each other are so imperfectly understood, that it is not yet capable either of the synthetic or analytic modes of explanation’, not ‘one regular, connected science’. The choice was also divisive: Golinski argues that Priestley’s rejection of Lavoisier’s decomposition of water was due to a rejection of his methodology as based on precision measurement in experimental practice.
Wright’s The Alchymist again locates a tension within contemporary chemistry, as alchemy was seen as concerned with discovery of the base qualities of matter and their manipulation, much as a mechanistic chemistry might attempt to do. This association of mechanistic philosophy with alchemy may have inspired Keir’s backlash recommendation that chemists restrict themselves to examination and classification of material properties (not base qualities or component parts) so as to ensure an infinite capacity for progress; it was also contrary to Priestley’s professed goals for chemistry. But further, the production of phosphorus itself requires highly precise chemical practice. Recipes for its fabrication outline the vast number of problems and difficulties with the procedure, and underline the requirement for only the highest quality (and most expensive) implements and vessels, a careful regulation of temperature, and an attentive and well-practiced chemist. Making phosphorus, then, is or at least should be ‘precision chemistry’, the closed and elitist form that came to be associated with Lavoisier’s mechanistic laboratory and its results.
Wright’s execution of this moment in chemical history on canvas implies that isolated, atheoretical, mechanistic, elitist, and downright ancient practice is at least a vital and important part of the story of chemistry, if not continually relevant for practitioners today. Contemporary viewers, especially his friends and sometime patrons in the Lunar Society, would have found this an awkward treatment of a particularly difficult subject, in particular during the period when their allegiance to Priestley and his chemical methodology was sorely tested.
As a painter famous for his treatment of light, Wright’s attraction to the opportunity to paint phosphorus is perhaps understandable. However, the element presented a strange chemical substance to immortalise in paint. Phosphorus is not only problematic because it is difficult to make: the substance and its discovery story had nationalist and moral implications as well as subversive claims for chemical history.
In spite of its beginnings with Brandt in Germany, elemental phosphorus was strongly associated with England. One of Robert Hooke’s public lectures relates his meeting with Kraaft and the introduction of phosphorescent material to the Royal Society; following this impressive presentation, phosphorescent items such as fish, pools of urine, or special rocks became special items for display and natural philosophical investigation. This elemental form was originally known as Kunckel’s Phosphorus, but after Godfrey Hankwitze’s refinement of phosphorus production in England, it became known as the English Phosphorus. The element, described as ‘a substance not only luminous in the dark, but also inflammable and burning … a combination of phlogiston with a peculiar acid, and is consequently a species of sulphur’, was exported to the continent as one of the high quality natural philosophical goods obtainable from England in the eighteenth century. By the latter half of the century, therefore, phosphorus was identified as a specifically English contribution to chemistry.
Given phosphorus’ nationalistic associations, it is perplexing that Wright should choose to paint what is assumed to be the German alchemist’s discovery of the substance. This is particularly puzzling in the light of the intriguing story of the German discovery as told in Macquer’s Dictionary of Chemisty, which captivated eighteenth-century historians of chemistry. While it was not uncommon for seventeenth-century alchemists to sell the products of their alchemical researches, the story of Brandt, Kunckel and Kraaft demonstrated the morally questionable behaviour of its actors and contained a warning against those who would ‘sell science’ without understanding. Kraaft, who simply desired to make a fortune by phosphorus, was contrasted explicitly against Kunckel and Boyle, whose philosophical aims and ‘rational inquiry’ into phosphorus’ production brought them both the ‘honor of a discovery’. Kraaft was vilified in Keir’s translated account, especially as he was ‘ignorant of chemistry … [and] was nothing in all this affair of phosphorus, but a trader in secrets.’ Concluding that ‘no credit is to be given to the testimony of such a man’, the phosphorus story demonstrated the kind of behaviour chemists ought to avoid in the dissemination of their ideas.
A far more respectable subject for Wright’s phosphorus painting, then, would be the instance of Boyle’s laudable discovery. Boyle’s methodology was sound, he was upheld during the eighteenth century as a model natural philosopher and important founder of the discipline, and he was, crucially, an English scientific hero. Wright could have painted Boyle’s discovery as a reward after a long process of rational inquiry, rejecting the questionable techniques and goals that plagued the German alchemists. Instead, The Alchymist immortalises the morally (and scientifically) reprehensible behaviour that surrounded its alchemical origins. The contrast to Boyle is also implicit: Wright’s choice to paint an unknown German alchemist discovering phosphorus is equivalent to painting Leibniz inventing calculus!
Its origins aside, phosphorus proved troublesome in the laboratory. Its inutility, mentioned earlier, made it a difficult element on which to justify research within the context of a science that claimed to be ‘useful’ to wider society. But phosphorus proved further problematic during the controversy surrounding the discovery of oxygen in 1780s, when The Alchymist was still without a buyer. The element was observed to gain weight when burned, which Lavoisier explained as a function of its absorption of oxygen. But Priestley was pressed to provide an explanation that involved phlogisticated air. By the end of the decade, these early experiments on phosphorus were seen as the beginnings of the exploration into the properties of water and air which led to the devastation of Priestley’s reputation.
At the very least, highlighting phosphorus’ position as a very English commodity or painting its proper discovery by Boyle could potentially have redeemed the painting from the element’s problematic status. Wright’s image, instead, does not detract attention from phosphorus’ questionable utility and its role in the oxygen debate, and even goes so far as to sanction the morally questionable practices surrounding its discovery, while denying the subject a proper English heritage.
Given Wright’s familiarity with Macquer’s story and his famous eye to historical detail, The Alchymist is surprising in its anachronism. A modern chemistry lab is presented, based on sketches by Burdett and plates in Macquer’s Dictionary of Chemistry. The actors’ costumes are varied: the alchemist himself is dressed in magus robes, while an assistant sports an early sixteenth-century slashed doublet. Since Wright first gained recognition for his detailed portrayal of costume, fabrics, lace and buttons, the characters’ dress is not an insignificant consideration. Finally, the laboratory is architecturally gothic: this is employed not only as a signal of the superstition and irrationality surrounding the scene’s events, but also provides yet another anachronistic feature in the painting. These are not careless choices.
While the presented scene is thus famously difficult to date, most critics assume that the alchemist, in spite of his ancient surroundings, represents a modern scientific inquirer. However, the arrangement of an historical situation in an ahistorical setting is a classic mark of the genre of History Painting, which aims to elevate a historical situation to a level of universal or allegorical meaning, to distance activity from an historical plane in order to gain fresh perspective on the lessons to be derived from a classic story. In doing so, the painter must conceptualise an abstract message to underlie his painting.
Although The Alchymist does not elevate a historical situation of repute such as a Greek myth or an event in British history and is not large enough to be considered a full history painting, Wright does manage to distance the event from its historical setting and transform it on a grand scale. This choice has two important ramifications for the reading of The Alchymist. On one level, Wright suggests that the lessons inherent to the story of phosphorus’ discovery are universal, or at least crucial to modern chemists as intrinsic to their art. On another level, the painting makes an interesting claim for the historical contingency of the discovery of phosphorus and its dependency on a particular time and place.
This second claim is particularly radical within the dominant progressive framework expounded by chemists and indeed most natural philosophers at the time. The discipline traced its history to Tubal Cain’s crude technical accomplishments described in Genesis; its progress was impeded during the dark ages of the alchemists, but its glory days had finally arrived and in its new form as a natural philosophical discipline it would soon enable the gradual perfection of mankind’s many pursuits and his quality of life. Such stories were not unique to chemistry, but were borrowed from a Baconian concept of time that dominated the Royal Society’s historical narratives. Writers such as Sprat and Glanville were quick to point out that the past ‘rubbish’ needed to be removed to make way for the almost infinite progress possible through philosophical investigations, and that the use of instruments for Adamic vision would enable great discoveries and adventures for future philosophers, exceeding the experiences of the ancients. For Joseph Priestley too, whose belief in scientific progress was tied to his belief in man’s moral perfectibility, it was ‘evident from the very first view of things … how inferior the ancients were to the moderns’ not only in their ‘conveniences of life’ but especially in terms of their scientific and religious knowledge.
However, this was not the only possible conceptual structure for understanding the passing of time: aside from cyclical stories or the end-of-days scenario, another view compared the moderns with the ancients and ruled in favour of the latter. Such an anti-progressive story argued for the denigration of man since his fall from grace, pointing to the moral, literary or artistic superiority of the ancients and decrying the modern wave of optimism and consumption as somewhat reminiscent of “Rome before the fall”. Although this view was expressed in the coffee houses or salons of the eighteenth century, often as a critique of the Royal Society’s agenda, it was criticised by mainstream natural philosophers and Fellows of the Royal Society.
The Alchymist at once distances the alchemist and his discovery from the progressive, streamlined narrative popular in chemistry’s history at the same time as it glorifies an ‘ancient’s’ achievements over those of the moderns. It is therefore anti-progressive in two senses: its anachronism and history painting status removes the discovery of phosphorus from its context in a progressive history of chemistry; and the subject appears to uphold the temporal perspective of the superiority of the ancients with an associated concept of mankind’s decline and denigration. The eighteenth-century chemist would not have applauded these perspectives.
But The Alchymist also presents an important understanding of the function of time in chemical discovery: as καιρός, instead of χρόνος. While χρόνος refers to a long duration of time, καιρός is a distinct term meaning an exact or critical time, an opportunity or ‘the right time’. The Alchymist’s favouring of καιρός is indicated in the eighteenth-century clock on the wall and the cast horoscope, half obstructed by other objects on the green-covered table. The fictional horoscope’s carefully delineated symbols, shared by both astrological and chemical phenomena, demonstrates the planetary alignments required for an astrological ‘right time’, while the exact positioning of the clock’s hands on the hour support the concept that this is not an arbitrary time, but a special time. The emphasis on the ‘right time’ implies external intervention in the discovery of phosphorus, tying into discussions of the compass, gunpowder, or printing as held back from mankind by God, reserved for special revelation. In any case, it is no wonder that it is difficult to construct a narrative for how the alchemist and his assistants arrived at their present positions: they are not in control of their own moment of discovery. Discovery here is distant from chronological, historical narratives, and is rather due to an instant of time, a combination of fate and opportunity, instead of chemical methodology or historical progress.
These concepts of temporality and historicity make the universal message proposed by The Alchymist in its guise as a history painting highly radical. The suggestion is that the picture is true for chemistry for all time. Chemistry is, always has been and always will be, dependant on its closed, hermetic, mystical history. It is not always ‘useful’. It thrives in elitist experiments, unguided by theoretical concerns. Its discoveries are not reserved for those who follow an orthodox method, but may arbitrarily occur as the result of the ‘right time’ instead of the right methods. Chemistry will not conform to a progressive narrative and has certainly not reached its perfection in England. The Alchymist, in sum, suggests that chemistry is not so distinct from alchemy, and puts forward as universalist claims the exact antithesis of the messages expounded by eighteenth-century chemists about and for their developing discipline.
The second proposed reading of The Alchymist is based on light as the central compositional aspect of the piece, and the significance of the alchemist’s illumination in relation to Wright’s self-defined place in English society. Although Wright is famous for his remarkable light effects in the majority of his canvases, The Alchymist employs light both as part of the painting’s basic composition and as meaningful metaphor which structures its allegorical reading. This metaphor assumes special meaning when re-placed within the broader contexts of eighteenth-century concepts of enlightenment and social change.
Two signals herald the use of light as a metaphor. The first cue is the evocation of the sublime by means of light within the painting. The alchemist is clearly experiencing a sublime moment: his posture exudes the fear, astonishment, reverence and suspension of motion Burke associates with the sublime experience. The moment’s sublimity is caused by the extreme contrast of light against a darkened and un-homely background, corresponding to the ‘shock of the modern’. In essence, the light in the painting functions as a device to elicit the sublime: it is neither ‘shewing other objects’, nor is it an opportunity for chiaroscuro to define the three-dimensionality of the scene. As the lights already play a role within the work other than straightforward physical illumination, their role in The Alchymist can also be seen as allegorical.
But secondly and most importantly is the portrayal of the lights themselves. Wright presents three lights in plena facie, each with their own qualities while incorporated into the same scene. The Alchymist is unique in its directly visible lights, including an open, single flame: Wright usually and characteristically hides or reflects his light sources. Moreover, this is this the only extant Wright painting, to my knowledge, with three light sources; only one cursory nineteenth-century reference remains to another triple light-source painting, a portrait of Amelia Opie, which Wright’s friend Hayley admits “is curious as attempting to give the three effects of moonlight, fire light and twilight in the same piece.” This lost portrait, however, differs from The Alchymist in that these natural sources of light are not contrasted with an artificial source.
No other critic has yet commented on the triple-light structure of this painting, yet the three lights form the points on which the angles of the compositional triangle or inverted pyramid rest. Their compositional centricity at least suggests their critical role in unlocking the symbolic message of the work. Attention is drawn to the lights and between them by straight lines in the piece: the pointing assistant directs the eye from the flame over the alchemist’s shoulder to the phosphorus, the glowing handle of the receiver and wafting light from its unplugged top move the eye towards the moon, and a diagonal outlined by foreground elements links the flame and moon as it passes across the a slope of shapes on the tabletop over the globe towards the window. Although linked, the three lights are distinct, differently coloured and characterised: the cool white of the moonlight does not reach far into the room, but is blocked by a few clouds and by the globe and books on the counter; the flame illuminates one corner with a wash of dark red, while the bright white-blue phosphorus paints the foreground in a flattening wash of whitened pigments. As the three lights provide the axis along which the painting is composed, they also form the painting’s central concern, its metaphor and its message.
The crux of The Alchymist’s metaphor for light lies in its triple structure, which recalls to the viewer the Holy Trinity in much the same way that the clustered admirers in The Orrery recall the nativity. Moon, flame, and phosphorus are specifically linked to the Holy Trinity by iconographic reference. The single, lit, open candle flame is often symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit, as in, for example, The Betrothal of the Arnolfini (1434) by Jan Van Eyck, or as tongues of flame hovering over apostolic heads during the Pentecost (Acts 2:3). The moon, the (lesser) light of the world, can be linked to Christ, the famous “light of the world” and son of the Father. The phosphorus is the most overwhelming of the three lights: it alone inspires the quality of the sublime in both the painting’s own characters and its external viewers. It is the only light which touches every part of the room with its presence, indicated by tiny dots of white-blue light on every reflective surface in the room, from chemical glassware to the figures’ own eyes. This presence ascribes the Father’s lordly position in this trinity of lights to phosphorus.
The phosphorus’ position as God in the trinity of light is strengthened in several painted references. The first is the noted Laboratorium by Khunrath. Wright’s alchemist’s pose echoes that of Khunrath’s, in which a bearded and gowned alchemist kneels in a corner of his laboratory in front of an altar with the tetragrammeton inscribed above. In front of him hangs a framed inscription: Ne Loqua Ds Deo Absq Lumine (do not speak of God without light). As Khunrath’s alchemist worships God through light, so Wright’s alchemist invokes the divine in his new, artificial light. Yet further attention is drawn to the deistic qualities of the phosphorescent light through references to theophany in the painting’s composition. The pointing attendant looks more like the attendant angel or John the Baptist in his gesture towards the theophany, the centre of the action. The rising stream of phosphorescent gas is set directly against what appears to be a Jewish or Kabbalistic prayer shawl draped significantly over the green tabletop, indicating that the alchemist’s prayers have already been answered. The alchemist himself recollects the moment of St. Francis’ reception of the stigmata in the presence of the angel of God; the unnatural type of light also reminds the viewer of Moses and the burning bush. The alchemist is awash in and overcome by phosphorescent light in the same way as Caravaggio’s paintings of the conversion of Saul depict the New Testament apostle overcome by the light of God. And Wright’s The Alchymist plays on the convert’s famous words, as he does not see through a darkened glass, like the vessels stacked against the wall, but rather is face to face with an unusual, unexpected, and inexplicable light.
Phosphorus’ place in the trinity of lights can be further resolved through the lens of Masonic symbolism, particularly in the Masonic symbols of the Three Great Lights. While the Freemasons incorporate many ‘trinities’ of often overlapping symbols and concepts, explicitly, ‘Light is a symbol of knowledge’. Early Masonic discourses took the Three Great Lights as a common theme, spelling out three forms of knowledge as light: the three lights in order of increasing potency are nature, reason, and the divine (either in revelation or in salvation). Wright would have been familiar with the Three Great Lights and their associations with these different types of human knowledge and means of understanding, as would his patrons. Several of his friends were Freemasons, through whom Wright sold many works including a forge scene to Catherine the Great of Russia, and a rash of Masonic Exposures published in the 1760’s ensured that the general public recognized the Masons’ basic principles or symbols.
In his trinity of lights, Wright combines many contemporary allegorical meanings for light, and the resulting play between his trinity of lights invokes a new relationship between sources of knowledge as well as the process or meaning of enlightenment itself. But the words ‘light’ and ‘enlightenment’ are often used as metaphors in conjunction with inquiries in and into the eighteenth century. An overview of a few of their entangled meanings is necessary before the viewer can identify and disentangle The Alchymist’s unique contribution to this discourse of enlightenment.
Contemporaries and historians employ many metaphors of light and illumination to discuss the eighteenth century as a self-contained period in history: it is the ‘age of enlightenment’, the ‘siècle des lumières’, or ‘die Aufklärung’. However, while light and enlightenment, particularly contrasted with darkness, were powerful and popular metaphors in the period, these metaphorical meanings shifted and were difficult to elaborate. This was made particularly apparent in 1784 when the Berlinische Monatschrift offered a prize for essays on the topic “What is Enlightenment?”: what emerged then, as now, is an assortment of concurrent, inter-related and sometimes conflicting meanings for light and enlightenment.
Light had many metaphorical meanings in this language of enlightenment. Its primary association was with God or the experience of the divine, a relationship expressed in the Bible, but this association expanded as God’s power was believed reflected in man’s ability to think, to reason, and to understand the world around him. Reason was God’s gift: lumen animae, the light of the soul. In addition, God had created a Book of Nature which enabled seventeenth- and eighteenth-century enquirers into the natural world to better understand His laws and His powers. The Renaissance twin lights of Reason and Nature dominated discussion of natural philosophy as a way to understand God’s universe.
Other metaphors elaborated the process of intellectual understanding as a secular kind of illumination, as light became illuminating because it was ‘thought-kindling’. Enlightenment therefore could also signal a style of knowledge acquisition in a quest for knowledge governed by reason. Enlightened people were not simply well educated in history or the classics, as past generations had been; they were educated to exercise their rational faculties in their everyday lives in order to explore and understand the world around them. ‘“Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason!” – that is the motto of enlightenment’ claimed Kant in 1784, echoing this prevalent meaning for enlightenment which both grounded educational ideals and provided a scale of ‘rationality’ which dominated the eighteenth-century Englishman’s appraisal of foreign cultures encounters.
Aside from representing a rational approach to learning, light came to represent knowledge derived from such study. This was particularly evident after Newton’s analyses of white light in Optics, which renewed fascination with light, colour, and optical metaphors in poetry. But science and scientific knowledge also became conceived as a type of light as well as a source of enlightenment, as articulated by Akenside in his Hymn to Science of 1744:
Science! Thou fair effusive ray
From the great source of mental day,
Free, generous and refined!
Descend with all thy treasures fraught
Illumine each bewilder’d thought
And bless my labouring mind.
Although the definition of ‘science’ in the eighteenth century should not be confused with the word’s current meaning, the term had changed from its association with strict book-learning (scientia) to encompass the experimental approach (ars). In Akenside’s and other poetic works, then, light could stand as a metaphor for science as both scientia and ars, both πράξις and τέλος: the practice and the end in itself. Thus the rational procedure through which one gains natural knowledge, the apostrophe’d form of that quest for knowledge (“Science!”), and the end result of scientific processes are all three encompassed within this metaphorical language of light and enlightenment.
The allegory of enlightenment only made sense within the context of illuminating something which was previously darkened. The extreme contrast offered by light in the dark was metaphor for sudden and vivid understanding. Light against a dark background not only recalled the illumination of rationality and knowledge against the darkness of medieval superstition, but was also a cause of the sublime if ‘attended with some circumstances, besides its bare faculty of shewing other objects’. The solitary, uneasy, fearful darkness associated with an emerging aesthetic of the uncanny was required to effect the ‘quick transition from light to darkness, or from darkness to light’ that would invoke the sublime. But intellectual light, when contrasted with intellectual darkness, was also realm for the operation of the sublime.
The ever-presence of light as allegory coincided with a physical infiltration of artificial light into the public and private spheres. Following the Parisian example, public street lighting was introduced in London in 1738, while feu d’artifice formed the centrepieces of royal entertainments and public festivities. Electrical machines in public demonstrations produced sparks on demand, illuminating dark corners of rooms in much the same way as they were supposed to illuminate the spectator’s mind. Grand houses installed hundreds of mirrors so as to reflect candlelight in their halls and brighten the room, as well as to afford multiple views of guests’ glittering jewels and silver-embroidered clothes. And as instrument makers began to appeal to a larger market of upper class enlightened gentlemen and their families, Akenside’s ‘lamp of science’ was translated into physical form in the entertainments offered by private scientific spectacles instruments displayed in the home.
These qualities of enlightenment, light in the dark, private and public lights, science and the sublime are synthesised in a telling scene in Benjamin Martin’s The Young Gentleman & Lady’s Philosophy: 
Euphrosyne: But, pray, Cleonicus, can you, by any Experiments, shew me this Matter of Electricity; for otherwise it is talking to me in the Dark?
Cleonicus: Yes; come with me into this dark Room, and then you will view it in its proper Light –
Euphrosyne: -- Well! It is dark enough sure. – What am I to see here?
Cleonicus: You will now see in the Dark what you could not before perceive in the light. I rub the Tube with a Piece of Silk, and you see the Sparks of Fire… Flashes many Inches in Length, and very much resembling the forked Lightening of the Skies.
Euphrosyne: I do; and it is amazing, as well as very entertaining to behold… these Coruscations and Explosions are very surprising indeed.
As Euphrosyne learns about electricity from her brother, she is physically illuminated by the electrical machine producing artificial light. But she is also illuminated by her brother’s explanation of the phenomenon. The image is made more powerful as the experience takes place in a darkened room, metaphorically linked to the darkness of Euphrosyne’s previous understanding of electricity, which is illuminated by example. Just as she is entertained and delighted by the spectacle, she is also intellectually enlightened. Further, the contrast between the light and darkness, both intellectually and physically, accompanies her expressions of surprise and amazement as indication of a sublime learning experience. Euphrosyne’s electrical experience thus brings together many of the common threads in enlightenment thought about light and enlightenment, while demonstrating the complexity of the metaphor.
Wright manipulates these metaphorical associations of light – as divine, natural, artificial or scientific in knowledge and discipline – to create his own message about light and enlightenment in The Alchymist. First of all, the trinity of lights does not directly recall the holy trinity in the sense that we are to believe in their presence in the room. It instead imparts meaning to the three lights, setting up a relationship between the different light sources and indicating a pattern of meaning that can be gleaned from the painting. As the flame is often symbol of the faculties of mind or spirit, whether the God-given candle of reason or the supernatural mental or spiritual powers, and the moon is a natural source of light, it is not difficult to associate the flame in The Alchymist with Reason and the moon with Nature as sources of both physical and intellectual illumination. Masonic imagery also specifically identifies the moon with the Light of Nature, the type of knowledge that is drawn directly from natural inquiry.
But Wright introduces a third, new form of light into the picture, the phosphorus. This has often been interpreted as the Light of Reason: critics point to its overwhelming power and assume a single Enlightenment metaphor for light as reason overwhelming superstition in an age of scientific optimism. But rather than uphold a single, unified concept of ‘Enlightenment’, Wright’s phosphorus teases apart the above-mentioned entangled concepts of enlightenment to suggest a dubious position for phosphorus. First of all, Wright’s phosphorus is artificial, a human creation: elemental phosphorus was unknown in a natural form in the 1770’s. Like fireworks and light machines, the phosphorus in The Alchymist is a human artifice that provides physical light within a darkened space; unlike Euphrosyne’s electrical experience, however, no one present can rationally explain the phenomena so as to ensure an accompanying illumination of dark intellectual space. Secondly, the alchemist did not create the phosphorus through the rational process upheld by eighteenth-century chemists as the correct path towards scientific discovery. Yet, in spite of its irrational origins, phosphorus is undeniably a scientific item, a product of chemical manipulation. As such, the light of phosphorus is indeed the apostrophe’d ‘Science!’, but only as τέλος , not as πράξις, and paradoxically only as ars, not scientia. Phosphorus is an artificial light, a light of science as technology or artifice, in which reason – whether rational understanding, explanation or procedure – is strictly excluded.
Reading Wright’s trinity of lights as a trinity of nature, reason, and artifice lends special significance to the irrational artifice of ‘Science!’ The light of artifice is given primacy as the alchemist focuses solely on its phosphorescent glare, ignoring both the traditional, God-given sources of knowledge previously upheld by philosophers. Further, this light of reason-less artifice is made analogous to the light of God in theophany or divine revelation due to its positioning and associations within the trinity of lights. It derives its power from this metaphorical relationship to the light of God, assuming the His properties with two results. First of all, the Trinitarian arrangement suggests a hierarchy of knowledge in Wright’s arrangement of artifice, reason and nature. As the Holy Trinity presents the three faces of the single God, Wright’s painting also suggests that these three lights are valid approaches to natural knowledge. Yet in its association with the power, primacy, and sublimity of theophanic revelation, the light of artifice becomes powerful and primary, dominating the lights of reason and nature which can only weakly illuminate the scene.
Secondly, phosphorus’ analogical relationship to God makes the miracle of revelation part of the chemical scene. Just as divine revelation is a miracle, not directed or impeded by human devotion, the appearance of phosphorus is similarly miraculous. While man may indeed have created the artificial substance, the implication is that this discovery is no more humanly controllable than the visitation of theophany. Method and theory become irrelevant in the face of a discovery which is truly miraculous: in other words, a moment of divinely ordained καιρός, not the glory of human scientific or rational procedure.
The Alchymist therefore presents us with a hermitic discoverer of an artificial light, devoid of the content of reason required by philosophical practice, dominating other God-given or traditional sources of knowledge and indicating a miraculous intervention into the laboratory. This artificial light plays with ideas and ideals of scientific practice and enlightening knowledge, yet does not conform to them. Such a strange juxtaposition of symbols and new allegorical suggestions is extended and clarified when the The Alchymist is re-placed within the framework of its broader socio-historical context.
The Alchymist recalls a larger eighteenth-century cultural divide: between nationally sanctioned practices and local or fringe practices. Provincial centres such as Birmingham, Manchester, or Derby owed their new-found prominence to economic and industrial growth, and to a large extent defined their local identity as distinct from that of the dominating capital of London. Wright’s own scientific and artistic associations placed him between the proudly regional and the nationally sanctioned. An understanding of Wright’s relationships with the Lunar Society of Birmingham and the Royal Academy in London plays directly into the major message of The Alchymist, as Wright’s relations with these organisations demonstrate his self-professed location on the edge of marginalized cultures and practices in art or in science.
The Lunar Society of Birmingham needs little introduction. Studies of the Midlands group of natural philosophers and industrial leaders have indicated the group’s complex blend of science and industry, their experimental knowledge of nature, their dissenting and often radical politics and religious ideas, and their lasting impact on the industrialisation of Britain in the eighteenth century. One of a rising number of regional groups of philosophically-minded gentlemen, the Lunar Society involved such men as the poet and natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, the chemist Joseph Priestley, the inventors James Watt and Matthew Boulton, the geologist John Whitehurst, the porcelain factory owner Josiah Wedgewood, and the glass manufacturer James Keir. Although Wright was not a member of the Lunar Society, he was highly involved in their lives and their world in his close friendships with Wedgewood, Whitehurst and Darwin. He was also a friend of Derby’s own Philosophical Society, founded in 1784.
Wright’s location on the fringe of the Lunar Society certainly ensured his current information about exciting events in technological research. But more importantly, it also nurtured his strong sense of regional identity and independence from London as, in spite of its active members who effected real changes in English life, many Royal Society members considered the Lunar Society (and other such groups) a fringe organisation if they considered it at all. The tensions between these regional groups and the royally sanctioned society of gentlemen philosophers were not so much embedded in “purely scientific” controversy as it was in the groups’ local status and in the validity of middle-class and practically-biased practices. The regional philosophical societies are therefore often represented as moving away from the esoteric centre towards the practical margins, where change could be implemented from the bottom up.
The tension between the royally sanctioned society and the regional practitioner was also reflected in Wright’s own profession; the foundation and direction of the Royal Academy proved a significant impact on Wright’s life and career, and this history is fundamental to a complete reading of The Alchymist. The Academy was founded in 1768 and was initially directed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had trained in the same studio as Wright, but upon return from his Grand Tour in Europe he developed a more classically influenced style which he brought to the leadership of the Academy. Just as the French Académie des Beaux Arts established a hierarchy of artistic forms and a monopoly on public opinion, Reynolds’ professed goal was to elevate English art and artistic practice to this continental level. The Royal Academy aimed to provide excellent examples to young students, to promote history painting, and to ‘elevate’ the lower arts of portraiture and landscape to incorporate picturesque or classical influences. Yet while portraits and landscapes may have suffered from a distinct lack of classicism, which Reynolds considered in poor taste, they were a recognised British specialty. Therefore, Reynolds’ plan to import the Grand Style into England aimed, essentially, to make the provincial into the cosmopolitan, an aim which many established artists such as Wright strongly resented.
Bitter dissent surrounded the Academy’s foundation as it grew out of several competing associations of artists in London at the time, each championing radically different causes for and visions of British art: a ‘Society of Arts’ (founded 1754) encouraged association between artisans, craftspeople, and industrial or technological societies, a group interested in classicism established the ‘Society of Artists of Great Britain’ in 1760, and those in direct opposition to these neoclassical guidelines became ‘The Free Society of Artists’ in 1761. But although the Society of Artists of Great Britain became the Royal Academy by charter in 1768, this followed a major coup in its leadership, the resignation in disgrace of several members, and masterful manipulations executed by key members. Thus even the Academy’s own history is fraught with bitter dissent about the future for British art.
Although a painter of some repute, Wright did not become a member of the Royal Academy until late in life. On the classical scale supported by Academy rhetoric, portrait painting, candlelights, landscapes and local artisanal knowledge were inferior forms of art in need of correction. This hierarchy, along with Wright’s hybrid genre-history paintings such as The Alchymist, put Wright’s works on the lower side of the scale in spite of his talent and acclaim. As a painter with a famous traditional and personal style, Wright found the elevating rhetoric of the Royal Academy offensive, particularly when accompanied by derogatory comments about his own work: Wright complained in 1776 of the Academicians’ condescending report “that I paint fire-pieces admirably”, and when Fuseli reviewed Wright’s paintings in evaluating his membership he declared them unclassifiable, as what could be considered landscapes or history paintings showed ignorance of the poetic and heroic forms which the Academy praised. Indeed, the Academy’s treatment of Wright was punctuated by neglect and humiliation. He was not acknowledged with an Associate membership until 1781, unusual considering the popularity of The Orrery and The Air Pump. But 1783 saw the election of mediocre painter, Garvey (known as ‘Garbage’ to his critics) to Academician status instead of Wright, who discovered that his own paintings were hung so far beneath the line that they sustained considerable damage from visitors’ feet. Understandably extremely angry, Wright refused the conciliatory gesture of Fellowship, writing the following to his friend Hayley:
‘If the balance [respecting my rejecting or accepting being an Academician,] hung in equilibrium before, when I knew your sentiments up flew the Beam, & I refused the honor, if it is one. I felt no inclination to become a Member of a Society from whom I had repeatedly received the most humiliating treatment, the most flagrant abuses, & from wch being an Academician woul’d not have protected me, from “Envy, Hatred, Malice & etc.”’
Wright boycotted the Academy until 1789, when he exhibited only a few paintings on Italian subjects. But 1791 saw an intense quarrel again, preceding descent into his final illness and Reynolds’ death in 1792. Wright at his own death in 1797 was officially a Fellow of the Royal Academy, but he refused contact with them, declined their offered diploma and would not exhibit at their events.
It is crucial to note that the tension in Wright’s relationship with the Academy ran deeper than personal grievances with its members: it reflected a tension in Wright’s own life and work. Wright swayed between an identity as a nationally recognised artist in a royally sanctioned professional association, and an identity as a local practitioner whose remarkable works were the result of such an isolated and traditional practice. While he may have attempted to incorporate the fashionable neo-classical ideas into his works after his trip to Italy, the most famous results were images of Vesuvius in eruption which employed the sublime and extreme light effects on an even grander scale. Upon his return to England Wright attempted to work in the fashionable eighteenth-century resort town of Bath alongside mainstream popular artists, but moved back to his home town of Derby in 1777. In fact, time and time again, Wright decided to avoid the Academy and remain tied to Derby. He continued to paint landscapes and portraits in his own, inimitable style, rejecting the grander classical projects that the Royal Academy supports. He exhibited with the artistic associations with strong ties to rural and midlands communities, avoiding Academic classicism and dedicated to discourse between fine, applied and mechanical arts. And he remained firmly attached to Derby until his death, addending the epithet ‘of Derby’ to his own name and selling paintings often fresh off the easel through a network of friends in the Lunar Society or the Freemasons. The acquisition of one of his forge scenes by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia established external recognition and respect for his work, a sentiment not echoed or perhaps not understood by the Royal Academy in London.
Identifying art with science, The Alchymist can be read as Wright’s personal justification of his choices, his art and his contributions. Not only does The Alchymist compositionally reject the high classical art upheld by the Royal Academy, choosing to uplift a bizarre historical subject and inverting the typical compositional pyramid so that the eye is drawn down instead of up; more importantly, the painting thematically explores same the tension between aristocratic elitism and the validity of the regional that Wright faced over the course of his life.
The alchemist is a solitary provincial explorer, following an ancient tradition instead of joining in the new wave of natural philosophical inquiry. He asserts his independence as an artisanal practitioner, following a lost hermeneutic associated with incommunicable knowledge instead of the kind of open and rational science upheld by the Royal Society. His guiding light is the light of artifice, his phosphorus the result of tacit knowledge and practices, undirected by scientific rationality and overlooked in the academic constructs of reason and nature as the only viable sources of knowledge about the world.
The alchemist’s solitary status directly reflects Wright’s identity as a provincial painter. Wright too is specifically located and definitively local, choosing to pursue art that he and the people in the Midlands found meaningful and relevant not only in terms of subject but also in technical execution. Wright’s practice of painting is a craft, not a high art: it is that which is taught demonstrated by master to apprentice, not that elevated in published discourses or the discipline taught to hundreds of students at a royally sanctioned Academy. The paintings of light which made him so famous were due to his own technique built through trial and error in his own studio, not due to careful study of old masters. Wright faces his canvas as the alchemist faces his glowing receiver, the τέλοι of arts whose procedures cannot be conformed to the narrow and problematic description of ‘rational’.
In The Alchymist, the alchemist is the practitioner who is rewarded. In spite of his backward ways and stubborn adherence to his local craft, he is the one who attains the unusual and unlooked for enlightenment that others are clamouring to find; he is the one to whom scientific discovery descends; he is the one who, symbolically speaking, is permitted to see God. And just as the alchemist’s light of artifice is validated as a scientific product, a valid discovery in spite of unorthodox methods, Wright’s light of artifice, his painting (as noun, not verb), is validated as an important contribution to art, in spite of his refusal to paint according to the Academicians’ methods or their rationalising and naturalising styles.
Ultimately, then, Wright through The Alchymist insists on his own value as a fringe practitioner, justifying the local artisan or secluded traditionalist and the importance of his otherwise neglected contributions to science and to society. This message is finally strengthened as The Alchymist communicates its message in true artisanal fashion: through demonstration, not articulation: through the craft of painting, not in stylised writing. In this project, Wright touches upon truly universal themes in a way that no Grand Manner history painter could hope to accomplish.
This paper began with the questions “Who is enlightened, by what, and why?” The complementary readings of The Alchymist bring their interconnected themes of enlightenment and discovery, theory and practice, temporality and locality to bear on these questions. The enlightened alchemist is a regional practitioner holding on to his traditions in the face of the new chemical science; he is the ghost of alchemical inquiry in modern chemistry, bringing elitism, hermeticism and irrationality into contemporary discourses about chemistry’s theory and practice. The phosphorus that enlightens him embodies a concept of timely and God-given discovery and justifies a heightened appreciation for artefacts produced within non-rational practical frameworks. One question remains: why is the alchemist enlightened?
The goal of history painting is to impart a moral value to the viewer, to relay an underlying message associated with the plot and the theme of the painting. The moral question of why the alchemist deserves this enlightenment would have been paramount to the viewer in trying to make sense of this complicated piece. In The Alchymist, the ‘moral of the story’ arises from its statement about enlightenment, particularly as related to display and understanding, and an implicit comparison with The Orrery and The Air-Pump.
Display and understanding formed the crux of the philosophy behind public enlightenment which resulted in the popular philosophical lectures. While major lecturers operated regularly in London, itinerant lecturers brought their displays to the countryside, and this type of itinerant lecture forms the subject of Wright’s The Orrery and The Air-Pump. Both paintings comprise darkened settings in which an upper class familial audience is physically and intellectually enlightened while learning about the wonders or horrors of natural philosophy and its power. In both pieces, the roles of spectator and demonstrator are clearly defined and well played by their actors, indicating the correct code for the practice of eighteenth-century enlightenment: the philosopher in both paintings is elevated through his God-like power to negotiate life and death or to put in motion the gears of the miniature solar system, while the audiences’ varying attitudes and responses reveal enlightenment in process. The role of discovery in scientific endeavour is subsumed into the background of the piece, as the demonstrators present the famous discoveries of Newton and Boyle without the presence of either philosopher. Finally, the didactic trope employed by The Orrery and The Air-Pump imparts moral values to the viewer: the teacher is the imparter of wisdom, while the spectators receive knowledge and enlightenment at his hand due to his explanations and their attentiveness. The paintings demonstrate the correct way to learn about natural philosophy, and their didactic setting keeps intact the moral associations with enlightenment both as πράξις and τέλος.
The Alchymist, however, turns these roles of demonstrator, discoverer and spectator upside down, causing significant confusion in the moral implications of the painting. The alchemist is as much the discoverer of phosphorus as he is its demonstrator to the viewer and to his assistants, and as phosphorus is an accidental discovery in place of the philosopher’s stone and is completely unexpected, he is also its spectator. We are granted the view of the discovery process as καιρός: miraculous, unregulated, uncontrolled and indeed simply irrational according to the contemporary standards of chemistry. The discoverer himself is anonymous, as compared with The Orrery and The Air-Pump’s portrayal of discoveries by famous English scientists: the title specifically does not identify the alchemist as Hennig Brandt, and the ahistoricity of the setting makes the situation even more difficult to place. And if the discovery process is not rationally governed or part of celebrated English science, phosphorus’ demonstration and spectatorship is even farther from English enlightenment values. While phosphorus was frequently employed as an educational item for display in natural philosophical lectures throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is clearly not on display in an educational context in The Alchymist. In fact, while the alchemist and his assistants see the phenomenon, they do not understand it. The processes employed by the alchemist are not rational, and he is so overwhelmed by the sublimity of his experience that he could not possibly employ reason to explain it, as the enlightened citizen ought to be able to do. Furthermore, his assistants, engaged in a technical metallurgical process, appear so unperturbed as to suggest that they do not even understand that the experience is sublime or out of the ordinary. This suggests that the only form of understanding required in order to appreciate artifice as ‘Science!’ is the recognition of the τέλος : the moment of discovery, not the process leading up to it.
The lack of a didactic context and the confusion of the traditional roles of discoverer, teacher/demonstrator and enlightened spectator inherent in its narrative produce a message which is simply against contemporary moral understandings of the process of enlightenment. Although the alchemist does not understand what he sees and has arrived at the discovery by miracle if not by theoretically driven practice, he clearly is enlightened through his understanding of the value of the end instead of the process. The resulting message is that one can be enlightened by the results of scientific or artistic practice without having to understand that practice rationally. Indeed, judging from the extreme sublimity of the moment depicted in The Alchymist, one perhaps can better appreciate science or art without this rational understanding. Yet this is strongly against the current of many of the contemporary metaphors of enlightenment as tied to rational thinking and understanding: many viewers would have seen the alchemist as undeserving of enlightenment, or at least as enlightened in the wrong way. In any case, The Alchymist depicts the highest possible reward – a powerful discovery and a view of the wonder of science ‘face to face’ as one would hope to see God – being granted for illaudable and irrational practice and poor understanding.
It is difficult for a modern viewer to fully grasp the discomfort this painting afforded to an eighteenth-century audience. We stand as the inheritors of a broadly nineteenth-century concept of discovery which linked scientific illumination to a singularly enlightened genius, misunderstood by his peers and employing unconventional methods; like images of Cavendish, Herschel or Newton, The Alchymist has become yet another artefact of eighteenth-century natural philosophy that has been reinterpreted through this lens. Modern interpretations are also indebted to Gothic or Romantic criticisms of scientific progress, or to the popularity of the apocalyptic sublime. In ascribing new relevance to the painting, however, we have overlooked The Alchymist’s meaning for its intended audience. This paper has attempted to recover that contemporary interpretation, revealing a complex voice in the discourse of enlightenment. The Alchymist’s unorthodox messages about enlightenment, its proposed relationship between scientific practice and discovery, and its associations with the regional, the irrational and the artisanal, made it the kind of conversation piece that gentlemen with respectable scientific or artistic interests politely refused to take home.
INDEX OF IMAGES
----- (1760) Three Distinct Knocks (London: H. Sergeant) in A.C.F. Jackson (ed) English Masonic Exposures 1760-1769 (London: Lewis Masonic, 1986), pp.53-116.
----- (1762) Jachin and Boaz (London: W. Nicoll), reprinted in A.C.F. Jackson (ed) English Masonic Exposures 1760-1769 (London: Lewis Masonic, 1986), pp.17-176.
----- (1765) Shibboleth (London: J. Cooke), reprinted in A.C.F. Jackson (ed) English Masonic Exposures 1760-1769 (London: Lewis Masonic, 1986), pp. 195-238.
----- (1767) A critical examination of the pictures … exhibited in the Great Room in Spring-Gardens, Charing Cross, April 22, 1767. Intended for the Use of those who would understand what they see. (London: Griffin).
----- (1801) Catalogue of the Genuine Collection of pictures being a selection of the most Capital performances of that esteemed artist, Mr Joseph Wright, of Derby, deceased… Christie’s auction in Pall Mall on Wednesday May the 6th 1801 at 12 (London: Smeeton in St. Martin’s Lane).
Aarsleff, H. (1982) From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History (London: Athlone).
Abraham, L. (1998) A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Ashworth, W. B. (1989) ‘Light of Reason, Light of Nature: Catholic and Protestant Metaphors of Scientific Knowledge’, Science in Context 3, 89-107.
Ashworth, W. B. (1990) ‘Natural History and the Emblematic World View’, in D.C. Lindberg and R.S. Westman (eds), Re-appraisals of the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 303-332.
Baigrie, B.S. (1996) Picturing Knowledge: Historical and Philosophical Problems Concerning the Use of Art in Science (London: University of Toronto Press).
Baker, C & Henry, T. (1995) The National Gallery Complete Illustrated Catalogue (London: Yale University Press).
Bemrose, W. (1885) The Life and Works of Joseph Wright, ARA…(Derby: Bemrose & Sons).
Beretta, M. (1993) ‘The Role of Symbolism from Alchemy to Chemistry’, in R.G. Mazzolini (ed) Non-Verbal Communication in Science Prior to 1900 (Florence: Leo S. Olschki), pp.279-320.
Beretta, M. (2000) ‘Chemical Imagery and the Enlightenment of Matter’, in W.R. Shea (ed), Science and the Visual Image in the Enlightenment (Canton, MA: Science History Publications), pp. 57-88.
Borsay, P. (1989) The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town 1660-1770 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Burke, E. (1759) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 2nd edition, republished 1972 (New York: Garland publishing).
Burke, J. (1976) English art, 1714-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Busch, W. (2000) ‘Joseph Wright of Derby: Art, Science, and the Validity of Artistic Language’ in W.R. Shea (ed), Science and the Visual Image in the Enlightenment (Canton, MA: Science History Publications), pp.25-38.
Cantor, G. (1987) ‘Weighing Light: the role of metaphor in 18th century optical discourse’, in A. E. Benjamin, G.N. Cantor & J.R.R. Christie (eds), The Figural and the Literal: Problems of Language in the History of Science and Philosophy, 1630-1800 (Manchester: Manchester University Press), pp. 124-146.
Cantor, G. (1996) ‘The Scientist as Hero: Public Images of Michael Faraday’, in M. Shortland & R. Yeo (eds), Telling Lives in Science: Essays on Scientific Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Cross, J.L. (1819) The True Masonic Chart or Hieroglyphic Monitor (New Haven), Early American Imprints 47753.
Dalton, J. (1958) ‘The Painting of Artificial Light: Joseph Wright of Derby and his Forerunners’, Country Life, April 24, 893-4.
Daniels, S. (1999) Joseph Wright (London: Tate Gallery Publishing).
Dear, P. (1987) ‘Mathematical Science and the Reconstitution of Experience’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 18, 133-175.
Denvir, B. (1983) The Eighteenth Century: Art, Design and Society 1689-1789 (London: Longman Press).
Dorment, R. (1987) ‘A provincial painter in Italy’, Weekend Telegraph, 5 September, 8.
Eamon, W. (1994) Science and the Secrets of Nature (New Jersey: Princeton University Press).
Egerton, J. (1990) Wright of Derby (London: Tate Gallery).
Eklund, J. (1975) The Incompleat Chemist: being an essay on the eighteenth-century chemist in his laboratory, with a dictionary of obsolete chemical terms of the period, Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology no. 33 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press).
Fara, P. (1996) Sympathetic attractions: magnetic practices, beliefs, and symbolism in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Fara, P. (1998) ‘Images of a Man of Science’, History Today 48:10, 42-49.
Fara, P. (2000a) ‘Faces of Genius: Images of Isaac Newton in Eighteenth-Century England’ in G. Cubitt & A. Warren (eds) Heroic Reputations and Exemplary Lives (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
Fara, P. (2000b) ‘Images of Newton’, Endeavour 24:2, 51-52.
Fara, P. (2002) Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Eighteenth Century (London: Icon).
Fara, P. (forthcoming) ‘Marginalized Practices’, in R. Porter (ed), The Cambridge History of Science, vol. V: Eighteenth Century Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Fawcett, T. (1985) ‘Self-Improvement Societies: the Early ‘Lit. and Phils.’’, in Life in the Georgian Town: papers given at the Georgian Group Symposium (London: W.S. Maney & Son Ltd).
Forbes, P. (1984) ‘Science By Candlelight’, Country Life, Sept 27, 854-5.
Fraser, D. (1988) ‘’Fields of Radiance’: The scientific and industrial scenes of Joseph Wright’ in Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels (eds.), The Iconography of Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) pp.277-312.
Fraser, D. (1990) ‘Joseph Wright of Derby and the Lunar Society: An essay on the artist’s connections with science and industry’, in J. Egerton (ed) Wright of Derby (London: Tate Gallery).
Gage, J. (1993) Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (London: Thames and Hudson).
Godwin, W. (1799) St Leon (Oxford: The World’s Classics, 1994).
Golinski, J. (1989) ‘A noble Spectacle: Phosphorus and the Public Cultures of Science in the Early Royal Society’, Isis 80, 11-39.
Golinski, J. (1992) Science as Public Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Golinski, J. (1995) ‘‘The Nicety of Experiment’: Precision of Measurement and Precision of Reasoning in Late Eighteenth-Century Chemistry’, in M. N. Wise, The Values of Precision (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press) pp.72-91.
Gombrich, E.H. (1950) The Story of Art, 16th edition, 1999 (London: Phaidon).
Gouk, P. (1999) Music, science and natural magic in seventeenth-century England (London: Yale University Press).
Hamill, J. (1986) The Craft: A History of English Freemasonry (London: Crucible Press).
Hartog, P.J. (1896) ‘Price, James’ in S. Lee (ed), Dictionary of National Biography (London: Smith, Elder & Co) pp.328-329.
Harvey, E. N. (1957) A History of Luminescence From the Earliest Times Until 1900, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 44 (Philadelphia: the American Philosophical Society).
Hill, C. R. (1975) ‘The Iconography of the Laboratory’, Ambix XXII:2, 102-110.
Hooke, R. (1677) ‘A short Memorial of Some Observations made upon an Artificial Substance, that shines without any precedent Illustration’, in Gunther (ed) Early Science in Oxford, vol. VIII (Oxford: Printed for the Author, 1931) pp. 273-282.
Hunter, M. (1990) ‘Alchemy, Magic, Moralism and Robert Boyle’, BJHS 23, 387-410.
Iliffe, R. (2000) ‘The Masculine Birth of Time: Temporal Frameworks of Early Modern Natural Philosophy’, BJHS 33, 427-253.
Jacyna, L.S. (1983) ‘Images of John Hunter in the Nineteenth Century’, History of Science 21, pp.85-108.
Januszczak, W. (1979) ‘Joseph Wright’s baptism of fire’, Guardian, 4 June, p.8.
Jay, M. (1993) Downcast Eyes (London: University of California Press).
Jones, C.A. and P. Galison (1998) Picturing Science Producing Art (New York: Routledge).
Jones, R. (1990) ‘Wright of Derby’s Techniques of Painting’, in J. Egerton (ed), Wright of Derby (London: Tate Gallery).
Jones, W. P. (1966) The Rhetoric of Science: A Study of Scientific Ideas and Imagery in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).
Jonson, B. (1610) The Alchemist (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1966).
Jordanova, L. (1999) Nature Displayed: Gender, Science and Medicine 1760-1820 (New York: Longman).
Josten, C.H. (1966) Elias Ashmole, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Kant, I. (1784) What is Enlightenment? trans. L.W. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill Educational Publishing, 1980).
Kemp, M. (1990) The Science of Art (London: Yale University Press).
Kemp, M. (1998) ‘Wright’s Ruptions’, Nature 391: 645.
Klingender, F.D. (1947) Art and the Industrial Revolution (London: Carrington).
Klossowski de Rola, S. (1988) The Golden Game: Alchemical Engravings of the Seventeenth Century (London: Thames and Hudson).
Lynch, M. and S. Woolgar (1990), Representation and Scientific Practice (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press).
Macquer, M. (1758) Elements of the Theory and Practice of Chemistry, trans. A. Reid (London: Millar & Nourse in the Strand).
Macquer, M. (1771) A Dictionary of Chemistry. Containing the Theory and Practice of that Science; its application to natural philosophy, natural history, medicine and animal economy: with Full Explanations of the Qualities and Modes of Acting of Chemical Remedies: and the Fundamental Principle of the Arts, Trades, and Manufactures dependent on Chemistry,3rd ed., J. Keir (trans.) (London: Cadell & co.in the Strand).
Martin, B. (1781) The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Philosophy, in a continued survey of the works of nature and art; by way of Dialogue, vol. 1, 3rd edition (London: W. Owen near Temple Bar).
McEvoy, J.G. (1979) ‘Electricity, Knowledge, and the Nature of Progress in Priestley’s Thought’, British Journal for the History of Science 12, 1-30.
Meynell, R. (1958)’Wright and the Royal Academy’, Derby Evening Telegraph, 4 September.
Miller, D. (1999) ‘The Usefulness of Natural Philosophy: The Royal Society and the culture of practical utility in the late eighteenth century’, British Journal for the History of Science 32, 185-201.
Miller, D. (2002) ‘The Natural Philosopher as Icon: the Production of Henry Cavendish in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Britain’, paper delivered at Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 24 May.
Moore, J. & Clarke, C.L. (1808) Masonic Constitutions, or, Illustrations of Masonry (Lexington, KY), Early American Imprints 15051.
Neve, Christopher. (1979) ‘The light of science: Joseph Wright at Derby Art Gallery’, Country Life, July 5, 30-31.
Nicolson, B. (1968) Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light, 2 vols. (New York: Pantheon).
Nicolson, M. H. (1946) Newton Demands the Muse: Newton’s Opticks and the Eighteenth Century Poets (New Jersey: Princeton University Press).
Oliver, G. (1853) A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry (London: Richard Spencer).
Outram, (1995) The Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Paley, M. (1986) The Apocalyptic Sublime (London: Yale University Press).
Pang, A. S.-K. (1997), ‘Visual Representation And Post-Constructivist History Of Science’, Historical Studies in The Physical And Biological Sciences 27, 139-71.
Pollard, F.E. (1997) An Analysis of the Emergence of Early Masonic Symbolism (M.Phil. Dissertation, SOAS, University of London).
Porter, R. (1982) English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Penguin Press)
Porter, R. (1990) The Enlightenment (London: Macmillan Press).
Rée, J. (2002) ‘The Brothers Koerbagh’, review of J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, London Review of Books, 24 January 2002, 21-24.
Reynolds, J. (1797) Discourses on Art (London: Yale University Press, 1975).
Richards, G. (1806) Light Against Light in Three Ranks: A Masonic Discourse, June 24, 5806, (Gloucester, Massachusetts) Early American Imprints 11287.
Roberts, G. (1994) The Mirror of Alchemy: Alchemical Ideas and Images in Manuscripts and Books from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).
Rudwick, M. J. S. (1976) ‘The Emergence Of A Visual Language For Geological Science 1760-1840’, Historia Scientiarum 14, 149-95.
Salatino, K. (1997) Incendiary Art: The Representation of Fireworks in Early Modern Europe (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities).
Schaffer, S. (1983) ‘Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century’, History of Science 21: 1-43.
Schaffer, S. (1986) ‘Scientific Discoveries and the End of Natural Philosophy’, Social Studies of Science 16: 387-420.
Schivelbusch, W. (1988) Disenchanted Night: the Industrialization of Light in the 19th Century, trans. A. Davies (Oxford: Berg Publishers Ltd).
Schofield, R. (1963) The Lunar Society of Birmingham (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Secord, A. (1994) ‘Science in the Pub: Artisan Botanists in Early Nineteenth-Century Lancashire’, History of Science xxxii, 269-315.
Shelley, M. (1818) Frankenstein, in B. Bennett & C. Robinson,The Mary Shelley Reader, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
Smith, P. (1994) The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire (New Jersey: Princeton University Press).
Solkin, D. (2001) Art on the line: The The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780-1836 (London: Yale University Press).
Spadafora, D. (1990) The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth Century Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press).
Sprat, T. (1667) The History of the Royal Society of London, The Third Edition Corrected (London: S. Chapman, 1722).
Stokstad, M. (1995) Art History, Vol.2 (New Jersey: Prentice Hall).
Tauber, A.I. (1996, The Elusive Synthesis: Aesthetics and Science (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers).
Thomas, D.O. (1987) ‘Progress, Liberty and Utility: The Political Philosophy of Joseph Priestley’ in R.G.W. Anderson & C. Lawrence (eds), Science Medicine and Dissent: Joseph Priestley (London: Wellcome Trust), pp.73-80.
Tufte, E. R. (1983) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Connecticut: Graphics Press).
Vidler, A. (1992) The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press).
Wallis, J. (1997) Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-1797 (Derby: Derby Museum and Art Gallery).
Wells, R.A. (1991) Understanding Freemasonry (London: Lewis Masonic).
Wright, J. Account Book (copy in Derby Art Museum, original in National Portrait Gallery Archive).
I am grateful to the support and assistance of my supervisor, Patricia Fara; also to Nick Jardine, Lauren Kassell, Anne Secord, and Marie Mønstad for helpful comments on earlier drafts. I also thank the staff at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery and the Derby Local Studies Library for facilitating my research at their institutions.
 Figs.2 & 3.
 J.Burke (1976), Busch (2000), Dalton (1958), Egerton (1990), Forbes (1984), Fraser (1988, 1990), Januszczak (1979), Klingender (1947), Meynell (1958), Neve (1979), B.Nicolson (1968), Stockstad (1995), Wallis (1997).
 For a general overview of art in science see Ashworth (1990, 1989), Baigrie (1996), Gage (1993), Jones & Galison (1998), Jordanova (1999), Kemp (1990), Lynch & Woolgar (1990), Rudwick (1976), Pang (1997), Tauber (1996), Tufte (1983).
 Burdett refers to ‘your purpose’ in his letter about The Alchymist to Joseph Wright, 4 February 1771. Cat. #89; Derby Museum & Art Gallery (DMAG).
 Fara (2002), Outram (1995), Porter (1982, 1990), Israel (rev. by Rée, 2002).
 Burdett to Wright, DMAG.
 His account books suggest the base price of £105; the 5th Earl Ferrers paid £210 for The Orrery in 1766.
 Josiah Wedgewood explicitly turned it down in a letter of 5 May 1778: “I should like to have a piece of [Mr. Wright’s] art, but I think Debutades’ daughter would be a more apropos subject for me than the Alchymist…” Klingender (1947), p.43.
 No records remain of what changes Wright made in 1795.
 On May 6th 1801, it sold as Lot 62 under the title “The Alchymist in his Elaboratory with Assistants” for £80.17.0; Catalogue of the Genuine Collection… (1801).
 A critical examination of the pictures… (1767).
 Romney’s Newton making Experiments with the Prism (1797) presents a surprisingly similar case in many respects; A comparative study of this painting with Wright’s Alchymist would be a fascinating topic for further study, but is beyond the scope of the current paper.
 Egerton (1990), no.21.
 Fraser (1990), p.19; Egerton (1990), no.18; Schupbach in Egerton (1990), no.18.
 Wallis (1997), p.69; Klingender (1947), p.54; Daniels (1999), p.30.
 Fraser (1988); Stokstad (1995), p.943.
 Fara (2002), p.35.
 On display and stylistic hierarchies see J.Burke (1976), Gombrich (1950), Solkin (2001).
 This process is identified in DMAG’s Wright room guide.
 Daniels (1999), Egerton (1990), B.Nicolson (1968).
 Macquer (1771), pp.527-528.
 Full details on Wright’s palette are in his Account Book.
 On the use of colour see Dalton (1958), Gage (1993).
 Wright’s home studio enabled him to paint dark scenes while capturing the effect of light. It contained two rooms, one capable of being completely darkened while opened to the other, lit chamber. He often placed his candle-lit figures into this dark room while observing and painting from the adjoining, well-lit room. Dalton (1958) p.894.
 The term luminism, I believe, places the emphasis on light in the painting without anachronistically confusing Wright’s works with those of the Luminarists a century later, concerned with a slightly different approach to light in painting.
 R.Jones (1990).
 DMAG, room guide.
 Solkin (2001) has commented on the dual light effects in many Wright paintings as reminiscent of theatre lighting.
 On paintings of alchemical laboratories see Hill (1975).
 Fraser has identified the painting among Leigh Philips’ collection: see Wallis (1997), p.69; Fig.12.
 Beretta (2000), p.68.
 Beretta (1993).
 Hartog (1896); Fara (forthcoming) on alchemy and other marginalized practices.
 See Preliminary Discourse, Macquer (1771), compare M. Waldman in Shelley (1818) pp.35-37; on the immorality of alchemy, see Godwin (1799).
 Macquer (1771), pp.v-viii.
 Macquer, (1758), p.ix.
 Keir’s Translator’s Preface, in Macquer (1771), p.iii.
 Translator’s Preface, in Macquer (1771), pp.v-vi.
 Macquer (1771), p.xii.
 On phosphorus see Hooke (1677), Golinski (1989); on utility and the Royal Society see Sprat (1667).
 Fraser (1990); Compare Fig.19.
 Fig. 21.
 Fraser (1990), p.20.
 Macquer (1771) p.xi.
 Macquer (1758) p.vii.
 Macquer (1758), p.203.
 Priestley was particularly concerned with this problem: see Golinski (1995).
 On chemical language see Aarsleff (1982); on instruments and practitioners’ sense of disciplinary identity see Beretta (2000).
 Macquer (1758), p.209.
 Translator’s Preface, in Macquer (1771), pp.ii-iii.
 Golinski (1995); Many of Wright’s friends, members of the Lunar Society, were involved in the debate between Priestley and Lavoisier.
 Golinsky (1995), p.82.
 Schoffield (1963), pp.289-300.
 On phosphorus in the early Royal Society see Harvey (1957); Hooke (1677), pp.273-282; Golinski (1989); Schaffer (1983).
 Macquer, 1771, p.527.
 Smith (1994).
 Macquer (1771), p.527-528.
 Busch (2000), p.30.
 B. Nicolson claims the alchemist as ‘not a relic of a pre-scientific age but a modern scientist’, just as Cummings believes that this is a scene ‘from ages past rather than a contemporary event’; in Egerton (1990), no.39.
 The canvas is too large for a genre painting, which were considerably smaller than history paintings.
 My discussion of historical temporal frameworks in this section is indebted to Spadafora (1990) and Illiffe (2000).
 Freemasonry also traces its origins to Tubal Cain; a brief discussion of Masonic imagery in The Alchymist follows in §3.1.2.
 An excellent example of this type of narrative is in A preliminary discourse…, Macquer (1771).
 Priestley (1793), in Thomas (1987). See also a discussion of Priestley’s interconnected concepts of determinism in science and religion in McEvoy (1979).
 Wright’s choice not to paint Boyle, the English hero of the phosphorus story and a modern natural philosopher, implicitly contributes to this statement.
 Liddell & Scott (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925).
 On the evolution of chemical signs from alchemical origins, see Beretta (1993); see also table of symbols in Josten (1996), p.306.
 Fara (1996), p.167.
 The sublime can generally be understood as a type of transcendent awe, which may be induced by astonishment and horror, fear without immediate physical danger, or an appreciation of vastness of God’s creation or majesty among other causes; see Burke (1758).
 Vidler (1992), p.9.
 While it is true that Wright’s blacksmith forge paintings do show fire, the explicit symbolism recalled by a single candle flame is distinct from that of a raging furnace.
 Undated letter from Hayley to Amelia Opie, Derby Local Studies Library (Wright folder).
 Fig.21. Recall the significance of religion in Wright’s works, §2.1.2. Trinitarian references are identified in The Air-Pump by Busch (2000).
 Refer to §1.2.2 on the significance of this technique.
 Compare I Corinthians 13:12.
 On Masonic symbols see Cross (1819), Hamill (1986), Moore & Clarke (1808), Oliver (1853), Pollard (1997), Richards (1806), Wells (1991).
 See Three Distinct Knocks (1760), Jachin and Boaz (1762), Shibboleth (1765).
 Ashworth (1989).
 Smart (1756), in M.Nicolson (1946), p.21.
 On science and poetry in the eighteenth century see M.Nicolson (1946), W.P.Jones (1966).
 Akenside (1744), in Fraser (1988), p.124.
 The changing concept of scientia is elaborated in Gouk (1999), pp.9-11.
 Burke (1759), p.144.
 Burke (1759), p.145; on the uncanny see Vidler (1992).
 Schivelbusch (1988).
 Salatino (1997).
 (1744), in M.Nicolson (1946), p.32.
 I am indebted in this discussion to Fara (2002).
 Martin (1781), p.296.
 In spite of its strong ties to theophany, however, it is dangerous to read phosphorus as the light of God itself. Natural theologians may have hoped to understand God through his Great Book of Nature, but phosphorus is man-made, not natural. While seeing God in nature is not blasphemy, seeing him in artifice and the resulting implication that God is a human creation is problematic and, I believe, not part of The Alchymist’s greater message.
 On tensions between miracles and universal types in the seventeenth century, see Dear (1987).
 Schofield (1963); on eighteenth century philosophical societies see Borsay (1989), Fawcett (1985), Porter (1982); on nineteenth century societies see Secord (1994).
 Darwin moved to Derby to aid Wright through his last years of illness. On Wright’s connections with the Lunar Society see Fraser (1990).
 Most of the Lunar Society members were Fellows of the Royal Society by the 1780’s: see Miller (1999).
 Miller (1999,2002).
 Reynolds (1797).
 Burke (1976), Porter (1982), Stokstad (1995).
 Wright did not join the Academy until after Reynolds’ death.
 On ‘the line’, see Solkin (2001).
 Wright to Hayley, April 1784 (Derby Local Studies Library, Wright folder).
 On Wright’s involvement with the Royal Academy, see Burke (1976), pp.287-292; Daniels (1999); Meynell (1958).
 Dorment (1987).
 R.Jones (1990).
 Schaffer (1983); Golinski (1992).
 The use of a didactic motif is distinct from the dilemma of didacticism in scientific poetry identified by W.P. Jones (1966).
 Sublime astonishment and fear can ‘rob the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning’: E.Burke (1759), p.96.
 On nineteenth-century narratives about scientists, genius and discovery, see Cantor (1996), Cubitt & Warren (2000), Fara (1998,2000a,2000b), Jacyna (1983), Miller (1998,2002), Schaffer (1986).
 Shelley (1818); Paley (1986).