It has been a superb year for cloud formations and cloudscapes. Spectacular towering cumulo-nimbus and deep-red sunsets have been more frequent than average in 2014. I can’t remember a week when I haven’t aimed the camera skywards to record the latest phenomena.
The skies at the end of the 18th century were even more spectacular, thanks to a period of heightened volcanic activity, and captured the imagination of a boy whose work in later life would inspire one of Britain’s great landscape painters: John Constable.
Before the 19th century meteorologists thought of clouds as unique and transient and therefore unclassifiable. This changed when Luke Howard, who once lived in Plaistow, presented his Essay on the Modification of Clouds to the Askesian Society in the winter 1802/03.
The impact of the lecture was immense, and catapulted the subject of cloud formation as a serious scientific study. The cloud types: cumulus, Latin for ‘heap’; stratus, Latin for ‘layer’, and cirrus, Latin for ‘curl of hair’ are words still used today.
Although by trade Howard was a chemist, his pharmaceutical chemical factory located nearby on the banks of the River Lea, his passion was meteorology. His pioneering observations recorded in three volumes of The Climate of London provide a fascinating insight into this area’s weather all those years ago.
Following his presentation on Clouds Howard’s standing among the science community became more and more elevated. He presented seven Lectures in Meteorology in 1817. Within a year Constable, who was four years younger than Howard, made a decision to start painting six-foot landscapes which marked a significant turning point in his career. The son of a landowner Constable had a keen understanding of the weather from his time spent as an apprentice windmiller in his native Suffolk.
Historians of art and science have argued that Constable probably attended Howard’s fashionable lectures which were complemented by a number of watercolour illustrations for his classification method.
Although it could be argued that artists such as Gainsborough painted clouds decades previously it was Constable, his search for truth in painting nature leading him to Howard’s work on clouds, who took the art to another level.
The artist adapted Howard’s scientific observations of these transient phenomena with an artist’s eye. A popular method of the period was the use of the rapid oil sketch out in the field. Constable then used these sketches to help him bring to life the drama and emotional content of a scene for his larger set-piece paintings.
Constable completed and submitted to the Royal Academy The Hay Wain, arguably his best-known masterpiece, in 1821 – the same year that Howard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Many more paintings and sketches followed of landscapes around Suffolk, Hampstead Heath and Salisbury and the achievements of both men in their chosen fields continued. Howard in business and his beloved meteorology, publishing a third volume of The Climate of London in 1833 – among the first studies that recognised the urban heat island effect. His Seven Lectures were published in 1837, becoming the first textbook of meteorology. Constable died the same year but did not receive the recognition he deserved until after his death.
Constable is the focus of a new exhibition at the V&A museum that begins on Saturday, September 20.