Joseph Wright’s Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

The third of my mini-monographs on Joseph Wright’s scientific paintings is now with the printer. The curious title ‘Experimentising the Bird in the Air Pump’ is taken from the writings of someone I suggest could have been the distressed young girl in the picture. However, unlike with the Orrery painting, I do not have overwhelming confidence in my proposal for the identity of the lecturer. Nevertheless much that was unexpected has come to light in the course of the search. For those who want material which is securely demonstrated the book traces the use of live animals  – and attempts to find alternatives – in air pump demonstrations from the time of Robert Boyle onwards. The first creature to die in this way was a lark whose wing had been broken by a musket ball. The cover design imagines the spirit of this poor bird, inside an air pump made by Boyle’s successor, soaring towards the light of the moon. Wright’s picture seems to ask what price sentient creatures should pay for our Enlightenment.

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