Pelago Director Stuart Gillis on connections between landscape and art. The ideas in this journal entry will be explored in our 2018 Making of History tour ‘Landscapes of Industry & Enlightenment”.

Versuvius in Eruption, Joseph Wright of Derby

In his book of 1964, The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler recognised how all great insights came as result of making links between different disciplines or ‘matrices’ of thought.  This ability to cross-reference, then make something new, is probably unique to our species – leading to the development of language and so much more.  It turns out Aristotle had the same idea (not so creative after all then, Arthur?) – he called it mimesis, and saw the imitation of things, and the transference of an idea to another realm, as being the foundation for humanity’s achievements: like listening to a bird sing, then whistling to try and copy it. Aristotle aligned this to another concept, technes, which I think is the human application of an idea into something physical, practical, material: like fashioning an animal bone into an instrument to blow, with flute holes to better mimic the birdsong.

John Whitehurst, Joseph Wright of Derby

Following this theme, I’m fascinated by the way the physical landscape of a place can inspire new ways of thinking.  I love the way too, that the paint – the materials to make art – are the ground-down, re-constituted elements of the earth, perhaps of the very same landscape.  In a gallery at Norwich Castle, I once saw a Joseph Wright painting of Vesuvius in eruption.  The painting stood out with its yellow-white molten brilliance.  Wright was one of the pioneers of a (then) new idea called the sublime – something about being in thrall to the power of nature – safe, but just one step away from falling into the precipice.  The curator’s label mentioned that Wright’s spectacular Vesuvius lighting effect had been made from the ground-down sulphur picked off the mountain by the artist.  Art that fizzed with the energy from the birth of a landscape, made from the materials of the same landscape – I liked his Vesuvius even more.

There weren’t so many active volcanoes for Wright to paint back home in Derbyshire.  But he was swimming in a tide of revolutionary thinking all the same: using art and landscape to leap across the different disciplines of knowledge.  In Derby Museum & Art Gallery, there’s a portrait by Wright of John Whitehurst, his close friend, neighbour, some-time landlord and life-long collaborator.  Whitehurst was a polymath, a Lunar Man – a disciplined thinker of great imagination who strode across Koestler’s matrices of thought.  His trade was clock-making, where he pushed back the boundaries of a practical knowledge within his mechanical universe.  But Wright paints him as geologist, in the new science that Whitehurst helped to pioneer.  In the portrait, Vesuvius puffs away in the landscape middle distance, framed through an open window, like in a Leonardo.

This is what John Whitehurst was drawing

Whitehurst is caught up in his own contemplation – connecting the volcanic birth of land with his own deep investigation of place.  Pen in hand, the close detail in the foreground shows that Whitehurst has drawn a labelled topography of rock strata as it is exposed at Matlock Tor, the spectacular limestone cliff, scoured out over millennia by the River Derwent, fifteen miles up-stream from Wright’s and Whitehurst’s Derby homes.


Whitehurst’s work is shown by Wright to be its own form of the sublime – the revelation, achieved through scientific observation, that the rocks of the earth are formed over multiples of millions of years.  Whitehurst is caught in contemplation of the weight of this discovery.  I guess it blew his mind.  And his attempt to reconcile this scientific knowledge with his own personal bedrock of religious faith was something that Whitehurst never quite resolved.  So, he’s an incomplete hero.  But I remember from an old description in the museum, something about Whitehurst coining the term ‘millstone grit’, and something else about him working out that coal (the third Derbyshire rock of this blog) is, in fact, organic in origin.

Matlock Tor by Moonlight, Joseph Wright of Derby

Science, spirituality and the sublime are mixed together on Wright’s palette, and landscape is the emulsion that binds these elements together – until for Whitehurst they could hold no more.  We travel with Wright on his Grand Tour and back again – fusing ideas from Italy into provincial Derbyshire: a place where the Age of Reason had arrived, and was spilling over into Industrial Revolution.  Landscape is the repository of ideas.  Landscape art is the means to mimicry – a way to transfer knowledge from one realm and ignite another.

An old friend once showed me where Whitehurst’s old Derby workshop is – it’s still in situ, right next door to the dilapidated place that Whitehurst owned, where Wright lived, where Benjamin Franklin visited, where Erasmus Darwin popped in from around the corner and jollied everyone along, and where John Flamsteed – first Astronomer Royal – had grown up before any of them.  Deep Time, Space Time – big ideas from the same foundations.  There hasn’t been enough time passed for us to value these places yet.

Stuart Gillis, May 2017

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