To mark our selection as a Finalist in the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015 we’re embarking on a unique and ambitious tour of the country – the Dodo Roadshow.
Beginning at Land’s End on 8 June and concluding in John O’Groats one week later, the famous Oxford Dodo will visit more than 20 museums and galleries along the way. At each stop the Dodo will ‘interview’ one of the venue’s star objects.
Derby Museum: ‘The Alchymist’
So, tell me about yourself – who are you and where do you come from?
I’m Joseph Wright of Derby’s famous painting of an ‘Alchymist’. I have a very long title “The Alchymist, 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 Chymical Astrologers” that very few people can remember. Painted in 1771, I came to the Derby Art Gallery after they launched a public campaign to buy me in 1883 and the people of Derby raised the money for me to take pride of place in the gallery where I still live.
What is it that makes you so special?
Paintings that show alchemists in a good light are rare – many pictures of alchemists poked fun, but Wright’s is more respectful. I show that sometimes it is possible to discover something by accident. As I search for the magic ingredient to turn base metal into gold I find phosphorus. Only the most forward thinking and controversial philosophers believed it was possible to discover things by accident when I was painted.
Who looks after you in this place?
My guardian is the Senior Curator of Art, Lucy Bamford. She makes sure that I am cared for and studied so that I am better understood in the future.
Do you remember life before the museum?
I was painted in 1771 but no one bought me. Joseph Wright took me to Italy to try to sell me there but I was still in his studio when he added to me in 1795 and remained there until he died. I was never really loved until I came here.
What does the future hold for you?
I have never been so happy as in 2011, when Derby Museums included me as part of the collection that Arts Council England recognised as being of national importance. Since then the collection has been redisplayed and Joseph Wright’s drawings like the sketch of me are available in a study room. I’m now planning to be part of a big touring exhibition with lots of other paintings by Wright and will hopefully travel all the way to America in a few years time.