Constable’s Clouds

Last weekend I attended an exhibition by the English romantic painter John Constable. Born in 1776, the beautiful pictures on display showcased his 1821-1822 “skying period”. Self-named by Constable, in these two years he undertook more than a 100 observational studies of the sky, with a particular focus on the formation and structure of clouds. For Constable, the sky was the key light source within his landscapes but, more than that, his interest coincided with the emerging pioneering studies of meteorology.

From the soft fluffy variety, to the angry heavy ones, clouds get classified into 10 types, divided into “high”, “medium” and “low” altitude groups. What I hadn’t appreciated was the accuracy to which Constable painted them! Whether he used watercolour, crayon or oil, Constable worked fast to scientifically record the atmospheric conditions, detailing on the back the time, wind and weather conditions.

Many of his skying works feature scenes from around his home, looking out across Hampstead Heath. In one entitled “View of Hampstead Heath looking towards Harrow, August 1821”, on the back is written, “‘5 o’ clock afternoon: August 1821 very fine bright and wind after rain slightly in the morning”. The painting lacks a date… but the accuracy of the sky combined with weather records, allow estimates to predict it to be August the 14th! The sky shows both thin, wispy strands of Cirrus (Ci) clouds alongside a flattened mass of Stratocumulus (Sc). Cirrus clouds often appear before the arrival of a weather front but do not produce rain themselves (they are made of icy crystals so can create icy streaks which evaporate before they reach the ground); stratus clouds on the other hand can generate a light drizzle. During August in 1821, several days had rain all day and some experienced rain in the afternoon, however only the 14th had rain in the morning.

Whether the clouds or the inscription provide the stronger evidence I’m not sure, but in any case I found both the perspective and colour of Constable’s skies fascinating. Staring at the pictures you really could feel yourself looking up at the sky. I love the combination of art with scientific accuracy and I am definitely now appreciating the clouds above me in a new light!

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