Tag Archives: cloudscapes

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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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.

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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