Public scientific lectures became popular during the Age of Reason. When the Enlightenment was addressed to various levels of the nation, such lectures were attended by very mixed audiences. The Scottish scientist, astronomer and lecturer James Ferguson undertook a series of lectures in Derby in July 1762. In order to illustrate his lectures he used various machines, models and instruments.
The Orrery is a mechanical model that shows the motion of planets around the Sun, the Moon around the Earth, or both. It was named after Charles Boyle, Earl of Orrery, who supported the design of an early planetarium by George Graham. James Ferguson himself designed several astronomical clocks and orreries for use in his lectures. Wright possibly attended Ferguson’s lecture.
The full title of the painting – “A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun” – reveals its scientific subject: the demonstration the movement of the planets around the Sun, and an explanation of eclipses of the Sun. The painting was bought by the 5th Earl Ferrers, an amateur astronomer, who was himself the owner of a complicated orrery.
The painting is full of meaning and is open to many interpretations. The spectators in the painting respond to the new idea with fascination and wonder.Their illuminated faces, emerging from the darkness of the room, show the illumination of their minds by the light of Science. They are literally experiencing the Enlightenment, both physically and mentally.