But the real reason that I went there was to see this painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby. He painted it in 1768.
In it, candlelit, a scientist with wild grey hair, an image that was to become the very archetype, shows to a group of family and friends the effects on a fluttering, panic-stricken white cockatoo of using an air-pump to create a vacuum.
Will the bird live? The children are frightened – reassured by their father(?). The boy on the left is absorbed in the experiment, but the young couple (extreme left) are fascinated only by each other. Is the seated pensive grey-haired man (extreme right) a second image of the scientist?
Through the window (top right) we see a full moon. This has been interpreted as a reference to the Lunar Society, a group of men in the English Midlands (centred on Birmingham) engaged in exploring the practical potentialities of science.
They were friends of Joseph Wright and would together be a major catalyst for the Industrial Revolution – among them the pioneering manufacturer Matthew Boulton, Scottish engineer and inventor of the steam engine James Watt, the great potter Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles. Another member was Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen just a few years after Wright painted this picture.
By the way, the painting has now returned to its proper home, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.