Category Archives: Clouds

How the cloud man inspired Constable

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.

Distant rain cloud looking east on Wanstead Flats
Distant rain cloud looking east on Wanstead Flats

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.

Sunset on Wanstead Flats
Sunset on Wanstead Flats

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.

The site where Luke Howard's Chesterton House stood in Balaam Street, Plaistow is now the West Ham ambulance depot. The property that boasted a rooftop observatory where he made many observations, has long gone though the boundary still remains.
The site where Luke Howard’s Chesterton House stood in Balaam Street, Plaistow, is now the West Ham ambulance depot. The property, which boasted a rooftop observatory where he made many observations, has long gone though the boundary still remains. It is not known if Howard and Constable ever met though the painter often visited and wrote to his sister, Martha Whalley, in East Ham, which is 2 miles west of Howard’s Plaistow residence
A selection of sketches Luke Howard used to illustrate his Clouds lecture
A selection of sketches Luke Howard used to illustrate his Clouds lecture

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August 2014 – cool, wet and dull

Anyone hoping for a continuation of June and July’s hot weather would have been left sorely disappointed by last month which was characterised by frequent rain and the coldest August night for over 20 years.

A stunning example of sunlight illuminating the underside of cloud at sunset was seen mid-month
A stunning example of sunlight illuminating the underside of cloud at sunset was seen mid-month

August 2014 was the first month this year to be cooler than average; the mean temperature of 17.2C was 1C below average, making it the 89th warmest August since 1797: 1.6C cooler than last August, the coolest for 7 years.

The month was marked with thunderstorms and heavy downpours, contributing to what was a much wetter than average month – some 76mm fell which is 152% of the monthly average and the wettest for 4 years.

The hottest day occurred on the 7th with 27.3C recorded – nothing special for August and a date that heralded the end of the hot spell during June and July.

A couple of nights were notably cool for August: 5C was recorded during the early hours of the 23rd – the coldest August night since 1993.

Sunshine was below average with 161 hours recorded – that’s 83 per cent of mean. The sunniest day was on the 3rd when 12 hours of sunshine were recorded. Throughout the month there were just 2 days with 10 hours or more of sunshine. There were 4 days with thunder recorded – the average for August is 3.

To view full stats follow this link:http://1drv.ms/1kiTuzv

Looking further afield there were many thunderstorms around the UK though many places missed out on the big downpours. It was yet another month where rainfall totals could vary greatly in the space of just a few miles.

On the 9th a station in Woodford Green recorded 24.4mm, double what fell in Wanstead. The legacy of TS Bertha coincided with the end of our extended hot spell – an excellent analysis of this storm can be found here.

There were some spectacular cloud formations not far from here. A particularly good one was seen in Witham. 

Squally storm line approaching Witham, panoramic shot!

Prolonged heavy rain on the 11th caused extensive flooding in Scotland.

On the 14th ‘Biblical’ flooding affected Lewisham in south east London.

On 25th a perfect curl could be seen on a depression centred off the west coast of Irleland. The rain associated with this low pressure brought the month's highest daily rainfall total: 23.4mm (the system bringing 27.5mm) - a thoroughly miserable Bank Holiday Monday where it rained ALL day, from 6am until 9.30pm. It was yet another example of how much even frontal rainfall can vary over a small area.
On 25th a perfect curl could be seen on a depression centred off the west coast of Irleland. The rain associated with this low pressure brought the month’s highest daily rainfall total: 23.4mm (the system bringing 27.5mm) – a thoroughly miserable Bank Holiday Monday where it rained ALL day, from 6am until 9.30pm. It was yet another example of how much even frontal rainfall can vary over a small area.

On 25th a perfect curl could be seen on a depression centred off the west coast of Irleland. The rain associated with this low pressure brought the month’s highest daily rainfall total: 23.4mm (the system bringing 27.5mm) – a thoroughly miserable Bank Holiday Monday where it rained ALL day, from 6am until 9.30pm. It was yet another example of how much even frontal rainfall can vary over a small area with St James Park recording 38.2mm. The top 30 totals for that day can be seen here.

sunset overlooking Wanstead Flats 2nd August
sunset overlooking Wanstead Flats 2nd August

Looking even further afield four people were killed in a flash flood at an Italian festival early on in the month.

 

June 2014: warm and dry

June 2014 continued this year’s theme of being milder than normal; the mean temperature of 17.1C was 1C above average, making it the 22nd warmest June since 1797.

little fluffy clouds
June was marked by some spectacular cloudscapes and sunsets. This was the view across Wanstead Flats from Centre Road looking toward Ilford on the 21st

June, like  March and April, was dryer than average with just 15.2mm of rain, that’s just under 30 per cent of average.

The driest June since 2000 started off unsettled with frequent rain – 6mm falling on the 3rd. The following day was cool with the temperature reaching just 16.2C.

Though there were nine days when over 10 hours of sunshine was recorded the magic 80F was surpassed just once: on the 9th when 27.5C was reached under 6 hours of sunshine. This sunniest day was the 10th when 14 hours of sunshine nudged the thermometer to 24.5C. Overall there were 214.1 hours of sunshine – that’s 120% of average, the sunniest since 2011.

On many days during June, including the 30th shown here, the sky turned dark but just spits and spots of rain were often produced
On many days during June, including the 30th shown here, the sky turned dark but just spits and spots of rain were often produced

Despite plenty of potential no incidents of thunder were recorded – the much-hyped weekend of the 7th / 8th saw less than 2mm of rain – all of the action staying well to our east in the France, Germany and the Low Countries. Further thundery potential on the 13th failed to produce anything in this area though a disturbance over Berkshire saw thunderstorms develop in the Oxford, Reading, Basingstoke and Wokingham region, with up to 38mm of rain falling over a wide area.

It is a typical feature of summer that rainfall can vary a great deal across a small area. The nearest official station to Wanstead, St James’s Park 8.4 miles to our south-west, recorded 33.8mm – more than double what fell here.

Some nights were chilly when the sky cleared but there was no air frost or ground frost.

To view full stats follow this link:http://1drv.ms/1kiTuzv

Yet another occasion of impressive cloud formation during June included this example of late evening cirrus. The formation, seen at ground level, seemed similar to a display of the Aurora
Yet another occasion of impressive cloud formation during June included this example of late evening cirrus. The formation, seen at ground level, seemed similar to a display of the Aurora
Circumhorizontal arc over Aldersbrook
Circumhorizontal arc over Aldersbrook

Captivating clouds and superlative skies

Considering we had no thunder to speak of and the threatened thunderstorms failed to materialise in this region we still saw some amazing skies at the weekend. Testament to the fact that the weather is never boring…

I took this yesterday evening. Windless, still and humid at ground level it was fascinating to look skyward and see the multi-level cloud continue to build into strange shapes, illuminated from below by the setting sun. A wonderful weekend for cloudspotting.
I took this yesterday evening. Windless, still and humid at ground level it was fascinating to look skyward and see the multi-level cloud continue to build into strange shapes, illuminated from below by the setting sun. A wonderful weekend for cloudspotting.
Wanstead Flats sunset
Wanstead Flats looking west
little fluffy clouds
Little Fluffy Clouds over Wanstead Flats. The contrast of the deep blue, white clouds and green grass never fails to disappoint as we approach the Solstice
shard
A walk along the foreshore on the north bank of the Thames revealed this vista. The Shard looks very other worldly and looks like I’ve Photoshopped it in. Love it or hate it, the thing is there for good now…

swirl

Looking south from Borough
Looking south from Borough

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