The Discovery of Phosphorus

Interpretation of this Drawing (by John Read)

One of the most famous alchemical paintings of the eighteenth century is “The Discovery of Phosphorus” by the English painter, Joseph Wright (1734-1797), of Derby, England. In essence, Wright continued the tradition of Schalken and van Bentum by painting the effects of light. He was fond of placing a strong source of light in a central part of his composition and tracing the highlights and shadows created in this way. In such studies the figures stand out in strong relief. He began experimenting with candlelight and firelight pieces, eventually producing such masterpieces as “Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight” (1765), “A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp Is Put in the Place of the Sun” (1766), “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” (1768), and “The Discovery of Phosphorus” (1771). He also painted “A Blacksmith’s Shop,” “An Iron Forge,” “Miss Kitty Dressing,” and other subjects.

Some of these paintings were beautifully engraved in mezzotint — a process to which they are peculiarly responsive — by the renowned English engravers, William Pether (1731-1795), Richard Earlom (1743-1822), and Valentine Green (1739-1813). The early impressions, in particular, are distinguished by an exquisite velvety quality. This work owed much to the incentive of John Boydell (1719-1804), a skilled and energetic engraver who raised English engraving of the eighteenth century to a very high level, and incidentally became Lord Mayor of London towards the close of the century (1791).

Wright’s interest in alchemy and science finds repeated expression in his paintings, but most notably in “The Orrery ” and “The Discovery of Phosphorus.” In the first of these subjects, the central figure is a philosopher, in the second an alchemist. The venerable philosopher of “The Orrery” stands in the mid-background of the composition, behind the instrument, from which vantage-point he demonstrates the motion of the planets to an audience of seven members. He is a commanding figure in a handsome brocaded gown; his head is massive and intellectual, his face furrowed and seamed with lines of thought. Below his pointing right hand, the full glare of the hidden lamp lights up the smooth cherubic countenances of two children, who peer intently between the brass hoops of the orrery at the moving models of the planets. Facing them in the foreground, a third childish figure, eclipsing the lamp, is shown in darkly silhouetted outline. To right and left the light streams away to disclose four other figures, each characteristically intent upon the demonstration.

The full title of Wright’s “The Discovery of Phosphorus” runs as follows: “The Alchemist 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 Chemical Astrologers.”

The scene is a dark, vaulted room, at night, in the crypt of an ancient building. Here, an alchemist, after “long labor unto aged breath,” is making yet another Distillation, in the midst of a gloom lightened only by faint moonbeams from without and the feebler rays of a candle from within. The moon rides ever higher above the lofty mullioned window, revealing its tracery in stark outline. Midnight draws nigh. The aged adept — for he is no mere puffer — watches and prays.

Suddenly a dim glow begins to steal into the dark receiver. The alchemist and his two acolytes shade their eyes and watch the strange sight with wonder and awe. The glow lives, and grows, and spreads, till it illumines every corner of that drear and dunky chamber with an unearthly light. The ancient alchemist raises heavenwards eyes that have long since grown dim with gazing on earthly fires. It is surely his Nunc Dimittis (“Send out word now,” which means announce his enlightenment to the world), as described in an essay by Victor Hugo:

“The sun is born of fire, the moon of the sun. Fire is the soul of the Great All. Its elementary atoms are diffused and constantly flowing by an infinity of currents throughout the universe. At the points where these currents cross each other in the heavens they produce light; at their points of intersection in the earth they produce gold. Light-gold; it is the same thing — Fire in its concrete state. What! this light that bathes my hand is gold? All that is necessary is to condense by a certain law these same atoms dilated by certain other laws! Flamel considers it simpler to operate with terrestrial fire. Flamel! there’s predestination in the very name! Flamma! Yes, Fire — that is all. The diamond exists already in the charcoal, gold in Fire. But how to extract it? What! I hold in my hand the magic hammer!” Nunc dimittis, Domine! (“Send out word now, Master!”)