Descriptions the beauty we enjoy in nature the same as the beauty we enjoy in art?
A test case is the remarkable series of cloud sketches that John Constable painted between 1820 and 1822 under the influence of the first scientific meteorologist, Luke Howard.
In this video lecture Emeritus Professor Richard Read explores the paradoxical relationship between scientific objectivity and emotional expression in these works.
The talk promotes awareness not only of Constable’s achievement, but also of cloud formations themselves, for so long as there’s a window, we can always observe the beauty of the skies.
Written feedback on online lecture:
Thank you so much for your lecture on John Constable and clouds. As both a long time admirer of Constable’s works and a bit of a weather nerd, I found it the ideal way to spend a morning like today with grey skies everywhere.
As usual, your lecture raised many interesting ideas and instils in me the need to look at the so-called everyday things through a new lens. And, as usual, you ended your lecture with a very thought provoking question, in this case regarding the variety of clouds in different parts of the world and the extent to which Constable’s clouds represent the part of the world with which he was familiar. Your photos from Iceland were incredible and I would agree that they present a different form of clouds than those from the British latitudes. It made me think of the contrast, if any, with tropical skies so I quickly came to my computer to look at my 2017 photos from Vietnam and Cambodia. I’ve attached a few with interesting clouds – two taken along the Mekong River in Cambodia at sunset, one of the Mekong at Pnom Penh and one taken from the sky flying from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. I don’t think they look as different as the Icelandic ones, but still some interesting clouds.
Have you read Peter Moore’s book “The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers who Sought to See the Future”? It’s about the history of meteorology and he has quite a long section on Constable in which he also refers to Luke Howard and Thomas Forster. It’s well written and makes you appreciate the work of the early scientists.
The other good thing about your lecture was that through it I discovered your website, so I will have plenty to explore there. I hope you had a good “attendance” to the lecture. I included a link to it when I sent out an email to PMRG members last week, so some of them may have tuned in.
Thank you again for putting this lecture together. And keep safe!
All the best
Thanks for letting me know about the very interesting online lecture. It’s a medium that lends itself well to art history topics - all those high-quality images to look at while listening to your pensive commentary. I enjoyed not only the main line of discussion re Constable, clouds etc. but also the various visual tangents and associations-of-ideas.
As you may be aware, Constable’s interest in meteorological aspects of skyscapes was shared (though to what extent is a matter of dispute) by Shelley, arguably evident in his poem The Cloud (1820). Desmond King-Hele wrote a book 50 years ago in which Shelley’s knowledge of scientific processes was emphasised - some later critics would say unduly emphasised. Anyhow, S seems to have been cognisant of Luke Howard’s categorisations, and his poem certainly evokes the natural cycle of aqueous changes.
Hello Richard, I greatly enjoyed your lecture and do hope you do more.
I would like to ask you if Constable’s interest in clouds may have been heightened by the eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815.
So glad you enjoyed the lecture and kind of you to say so. I'll pass this on to Lorraine so she can think of commissioning another one!
Thank you for your interesting question. I was going to answer that as an intelligent citizen abreast of current events he would probably have been aware of the Mt Tambora eruption but that his attachment to the countryside of his childhood would not have disposed him to painting volcanic clouds that would anyway have not been available. Volcanos, however, were of the greatest importance to other landscape whose focus was land formations rather than meteorology. There was a huge bunfight between those who believe the earth was formed by the 7 days of creation (well, 6) and Noah's flood, and the vulcanologists who, long before the discovery of plate tectonics, believed the volcanic forces determined the shape of a creation was far more gradual than the age of the planet determined by the bible. Ruth Pullin has written about the influence of these debates on the c19 Austrian-Swiss artist, Eugene von Guérard, who painted volcanic landscapes in Australia (two of which are in AGWA when they ever get round to opening the Centenary Gallery). There is a good podcast on In Our Time on 'Gradualism' that explains the scientific sides in the bunfight. The Americans, too, were big on volcanoes. Take a look at Frederick Church's magnificent Cotopaxi (1862), a real ripper!
There were two other factors that put volcanoes on the map of nineteenth-century paintings. One was the industrial revolution, whose smoke prompted a search for analogies in nature (see paintings of Vesuvius by Joseph Wright of Derby who painted furnaces and bell jars too) and the other was the discovery of archaeological sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Lots of mid-century paintings of that catastrophe and later in the century all the commodities found there turned up in paintings by Alma Tadema and others.
In UK a candidate who is much more likely to have responded to Mt Tambora and volcanoes in general is John Martin, who, like JMW Turner was much more directly attuned to the aesthetic effects of what are called The Sublime, as opposed to the Beautiful, and Constable's favourite, the Picturesque. (Martin was more of a showman than a scientist, however, and his interest in apocalyptic skies was turned into popular diaoramas in London.
However, I was quite wrong about Constable never responding in paint to Mt Tambora. Here is his painting of Weymouth Bay, 1816, whose sky is filled with the residue of the Mt Tambora eruption (see attached image). It turns out that Turner and Casper David Friedrich painted it too. See
Thanks for alerting me to this!
Thank you Professor read for your online art lecture on " Constables Clouds". When I have looked to the East, over the Hills and beyond,
I have often called the Cumulus clouds "Constables Clouds".
When I look at artwork in the future I shall look more thoroughly and objectively.
Phone message (from friend):
Enjoyed it. Very interesting.
I just want to thank you for arranging for Richard Read to present his online lecture via the City of Melville. I have been to a number of Richard’s presentations at the AH Bracks library and I also know him through the Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group. His lectures are always very thought provoking and extremely well illustrated. I’ve actually been in touch with Richard since I watched his lecture on Sunday afternoon to thank him directly.
One of the things I have missed during the lockdown is being able to do things like going to the library talks. The program that you provide is so wide ranging and it’s great to be able to go to such quality presentations locally. I’m looking forward to when we can again gather in the meeting rooms at the library. Meanwhile, though, we have the benefit of presentation’s such as Richard’s which we can enjoy from home.
Thank you again
I enjoyed this format and presentation. Is there any chance of another presentation from Professor Read?
Thank you for this Lorraine; a wonderful way to 'travel',
I enjoyed very much your lecture on Constable – very interesting. I’ve always thought that Gainsborough was much more interesting as a landscape painter rather than a portrait painter, but never pursued this or knew that Constable was influenced by him. I also found many other aspects of Constable interesting including the influence of Dutch landscape painting and the very different intentions of Turner to that of JC.
It was a great pleasure to listen to your lecture and hearing voice and also to see your nice face appearing on the screen. You present yourself so nicely and I adore your British accent and rich vocabulary. Today I learned a new phrase "Blotesque" which I never knew - a major shortcoming in my upbringing as a writer and observer of visual art. Thank you for sharing it all with me. I'd love to listen to more of your lectures.
MA, art critic
Vice president of AICA International
Sortedam Dossering 89, 1.th
M +45 29660063
|Period||26 Jun 2020 → 28 Jun 2020|
|Event title||‘Constable’s Skies,’ , 26- 28 June: online lecture|
|Location||Perth, Australia, Western Australia|
|Degree of Recognition||International|
- Art history
- John Constable