John Constable, Meteorologist

This review originally appeared in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society, vol. 54: 2 (2000).

John Constable’s Skies: A Fusion of Art and Science. By John E. Thornes. Birmingham, University Press, 1999.  Pp. 288, £40.00 (Paperback).  ISBN: 1-902459-02-4

The landscape painter John Constable was a devoted observer of the dramatic unfoldings of the weather and skies of Britain. His most productive summers were spent working in the open air, high up on the natural observatory of Hampstead Heath, from where he could watch unimpeded as an unending series of cloud formations gathered and dissolved before his eyes like images on a photographic plate. Clouds were to become his principal route towards an extended observational range, and although his Hampstead sky studies were training exercises rather than finished works of art in themselves, they have since taken their place among the most valued of Constable’s oeuvre.

Yet there was more to these plein-air studies than the demands of painterly observation. As John Thornes shows in this authoritative, deeply-researched and magnificently illustrated book, the artist kept himself unusually up-to-date with current meteorological theory. Constable regarded painting as a branch of natural philosophy, once claiming in a lecture that ‘painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature’ (p. 51). But how much could he actually have known about the then nascent science of the atmosphere? Thornes devotes the best chapter of the book to answering this question. Most of Constable’s sky sketches featured weather notes recorded on the back, written, presumably, long after they had had time to dry. Most of these notes were descriptively simple, but a number were detailed enough to suggest a knowledge beyond his own solitary observations, and, sure enough, among the volumes of his copiously annotated library was a copy of Thomas Forster’s 1815 book Researches About Atmospheric Phenomena. Forster’s book began with a verbatim account of Luke Howard’s famous essay on clouds, first published in 1803 and reprinted many times thereafter. Constable was therefore fully aware of Howard’s classification of clouds, with its now-familiar terminology of cirrus, stratus, cumulus and nimbus.

Constable seems to have been particularly interested in Forster’s material on the modifications of clouds, given that his annotations ended with that chapter, but, as Thornes points out, the comments and underlinings reveal his meteorological knowledge to have been ‘considerable’ (p. 78). He was able to pick out ambiguities within the cloud classification and to dispute a number of Forster’s conclusions. Indeed, when he wrote to a friend offering to lend him some books on the subject of ‘clouds and skies’, he made the insightful comment that ‘Forster’s is the best book – he is far from right, still he has the merit of breaking much ground’ (p. 57).

John Thornes has worked on the subject of Constable’s skies for well over twenty years, and the present volume is the culmination of his researches. The main body of the book charts developments within both meteorology and landscape painting in the early nineteenth century, and follows a well-documented path to show how scientific thought has always had the power and the presence to shape the wider culture. This narrative section of the book succeeds well, and is highly informative, although a lengthy Appendix, which sets out to account for the ‘accurate dating’ of a number of Constable’s skies, seems a less satisfactory exercise in the science of attribution. Nevertheless the book as a whole makes a major contribution to the histories of art and science. And in revealing some of the ways in which meteorology, like easel painting, is not an exact science, it is a model of interdisciplinary fusion.

Richard Hamblyn


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