The Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery – John Arden of Derby, Bath, and Beverley

The picture entitled A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun is the centrepiece of Derby Museum and Art Gallery’s world-renowned collection of Joseph Wright’s paintings. First exhibited in 1766 and acquired by the Art Gallery in 1884, much has been written about this painting but hitherto there has been confusion about the ‘real subject’ of the Philosopher’s Lecture and agreement on the identity of only one of the people depicted around the Orrery.

The mini-monograph shows how the little girl in the picture can be used to unlock what is actually being said, and why the subject would have been of vital interest at the time, especially to the owner of this particular Orrery.

The author goes on to establish beyond reasonable doubt that ‘the Philosopher’ depicted was John Arden (a four times great grandfather of the famous playwright of the same name). Having been disinherited by his family, Arden set himself up as a teacher of practical mathematics and experimental philosophy near to where Wright was brought up. He married a widow living close by with her brother, an apothecary who sold art materials. Arden and his family subsequently settled in Beverley, where he demonstrated at Burton Constable and is remembered as the teacher of Mary Wollstonecraft. He relocated for a period to Bath, where his lectures stimulated the formation of the Bath Philosophical Society, of which he was a founder member. On finally retiring to Beverley he ensured the discovery of Uranus by his friend William Herschel was subtly recorded on the ceiling of St Mary’s Church. His career as a roving lecturer brought him to and through Derby on a number of identifiable occasions, but ironically his name is all but forgotten in the place where his picture has been hanging anonymously  on the wall of its Museum and Art Gallery since 1884.

This monograph has been developed from a lecture given by the author at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery in November 2015. Further corroborative evidence was included in the original edition, but it has now been extensively revised and enlarged, exploring John Arden’s life and career in more detail.

These ‘Enlightenment Mini-Monographs’ are being specially written and published for the benefit of the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and other regional cultural charities, such as Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. They may be purchased at these venues or on-line as below. The author is Professor Emeritus Jonathan Powers DL DUniv. These little books all contain some new and original material not to be found elsewhere.

First published by iOpening Books 2016

New revised and enlarged edition by Quandary Books 2019

Colour and b/w illustrations

Pages: iv, 71.

ISBN 978-1-913253-00-4

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