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A day with John Constable on Hampstead Heath

Looking at clouds

Clouds are the often-unnoticed backdrop to every outdoor scene and activity. They are ever-changing, fleeting and transient, and frequently diffuse and ill defined. As a result, they were rarely regarded as subjects either for scientific study or for artistic representation until the early nineteenth century.

The scientific study of clouds began with a London manufacturer of pharmaceutical chemicals and amateur scientist, Luke Howard (1772-1864). Howard was a near contemporary of John Constable (1776-1837). His crucial scientific contribution was a paper on “the modification (i.e., the classification) of clouds”, given to the Askesian Society some time in the winter of 1802-3. Influenced by the recently published biological taxonomy of Linnaeus, he extracted from the confusion and multiplicity of cloud forms three broad genera, namely stratus, cumulus and cirrus. Within each genus, he identified numerous species. His classification has endured to this day in meteorology. Howard gave seven “lectures in meteorology” in 1817, later published as the first textbook of meteorology, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821.

It is hard to imagine that John Constable was not acquainted with Howard’s work. I suspect he may have attended some of Howard’s fashionable lectures, or seen Howard’s watercolour illustrations for his proposed classification scheme. Constable complemented Howard’s scientific observations of these fleeting phenomena with an artist’s eye, making numerous rapid sketches from life of clouds and skyscapes. He recognised the crucial role of the sky in the drama and emotional content of his larger formal set piece paintings.

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