2 An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768 An exercise in narrative writing with the pupils of Papadopoulou Language School, Litochoro, Greece, by Lisa Murray.
3 An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768
4 About the painting“An Experiment on a Bird in the Air pump”, by Joseph Wright of Derby,1768.The painting depicts a scientist giving a demonstration to an audience in a private house. As the title of the painting tells us, he is demonstrating the effects of air deprivation on a live bird. To demonstrate the animal’s reaction, air is pumped out of a receptacle to create a vacuum, if air is readmitted in time, the animal will revive, if not it will die. In Wright’s picture the experiment is under way. The bird has been taken from its cage and placed in the glass receiver. Air has already been pumped out and the suffering bird lies at the bottom. The lecturer’s left hand is poised at the top of the receiver, will he admit air to revive the bird, or will the bird die? The fate of the bird is what the painting hinges upon.Wright has used the drama of the demonstration to show the impact of the experiment on ordinary people. The reactions of the audience vary greatly. Moving clockwise from the front left of the table, we see a young man holding a watch, he is timing the experiment. Perhaps he is timing the bird’s convulsions and ultimate death, or maybe he is responsible for indicating to the lecturer the exact moment to readmit air into the receiver. On his left a young boy watches with genuine curiosity. Behind him, a young couple, although aware of what is happening, have eyes only for each other. Beside them, the central figure of the dramatically lit lecturer appears as much a sorcerer as a man of science. To the right of the lecturer, a man comforts two girls who are quite possibly his daughters. In front of them an older gentleman holding a walking stick sits pensively. Behind the group by the window a young boy is responsible for the bird’s cage, either he is lifting the cage down so the revived bird can be put back in, or he is setting it up for it will no longer be required.A single candle, placed behind a large jar of liquid on the table, lights the audience in a large oval shape. In the jar of liquid is a skull. Skull and candle are symbols of death, with the candle demonstrating the consuming passage of time, and the skull its effect. The presence of a full moon and heavy clouds glimpsed through the window, the dramatic use of light and shade, and the tightness of the group around these memento mori create an ominous feeling.The compelling figure of the scientist, the tallest and central figure, plays a psychological game with us, he looks directly at the viewer and extends a hand towards us, the candlelight intensifies the drama. The front of the table is left open for the viewers’ participation, as if on a stage, and the lecturer beckons us to take part. The tension has been built, the suffering of the bird is being timed to within an inch of its life, and there is a mixture of emotions in each member of the cast. The fate of the bird leaves us with a cliff-hanger, we are left to decipher whether the bird will live or die.
5 Student Question Sheet The LessonFirst of all, the pupils are presented with a copy of the image. Working in pairs, they are given time to consider a set of questions about the painting. The range of questions require them to describe, analyse and speculate.Student Question SheetLook at the painting for a short time. Which words describe your initial impression and feelings evoked through the painting?What is most noticeable – the setting or the characters?Where is the scene set?What atmosphere is created? How?Who are the characters?Is there a central character?How are the characters arranged in the painting?What are they doing?What do their expressions and gestures tell you?What do you hear in the room?Can you step into the picture and take up the empty place at the table? Are you able to interact or listen to the characters?Why are they gathered together? What is happening in the scene?What is the apparatus on the table?There are other items on the table – what do you think they are?Are they significant in any way?How is the viewer involved in the painting?How does the painter keep the focus and attention of the viewer?Is there an ending?
6 The date and title of the painting are not given to the pupils, nor is any other information. The pupils need to observe carefully, search for visual clues, and interpret the work. The questions draw their attention to certain aspects of the painting and should help make connections with the interpretation and meaning of the image.Once the pupils have made some notes on the question sheet and discussed the work in pairs, the class can then exchange their ideas and findings. Knowledge of the painting can then help the teacher to ask further questions and give some prompts to guide the pupils in the right direction in order to interpret the work correctly. None of the pupils’ answers should be deemed wrong unless they cannot justify their interpretation. Additionally other pupils can discredit each other's interpretation through careful observation and analysis. This ought to be an enjoyable activity for the pupils, like solving a puzzle.Throughout the class discussion, pupils should be given plenty of opportunity to describe, using adjectives and adverbs. New vocabulary can be introduced by the teacher and written on the board.Once all the describing , analysing and speculation have finished, the teacher can give the title of the painting to the class, explain the painting and give some historical background to the work and the events taking place. Further information on the piece of work can be found at the National Gallery websiteNext, the pupils are given a writing task. Each pupil chooses a character from the image and narrates the events shown in the painting from the perspective of that character. It is important that the image has been explored as fully as possible in concern to setting, atmosphere, mood, characterisation, emotions and gestures, and of course the reactions of the characters to what is happening. This will help the pupils give voice to their character.