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  • Art and Skies - WAM at the Tate Britain

    Every December the Royal Meteorological Society holds a special open meeting on a topic that is interestingly different compared to the more normal scientific monthly meetings.  This year was no exception and the meeting ‘Art and Skies’ was organised by WAM (the Weather Art and Music Specialist Group) at ‘the Tate’ in London. The meeting was co-hosted by the Tate itself and the Royal Photographic Society. The Tate has recently acquired Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by the English artist John Constable which was first exhibited in 1831. The painting contains a fantastic representation of weather enveloping the Cathedral with a superb Rainbow, crepuscular rays, bright sunshine, a threatening thunderstorm and a forked lightning bolt.  Art and skies totally encapsulated in one image! In view of the importance of the acquisition, the Tate has established, together with other sponsors, the ‘Aspire’ partnership. They are working, over the next few years or so, to unravel the importance and symbolism of the painting in art and social history. Also the painting is being exhibited at a number of venues in England (Ipswich, Salisbury and at the Tate); Wales (Cardiff and St Davids) and Scotland (Edinburgh) so that as many people as possible can enjoy the view!  I was approached to revisit the weather in the picture - especially the veracity of the Rainbow - following the initial review of the painting in my book John Constable’s Skies. There is much controversy about the ‘truth’ of the Rainbow to such an extent that the Guardian newspaper (tongue in cheek) called into question the purchase of the painting for £23.1 million as the rainbow is meteorologically impossible!  The Rainbow is wrong but it is magnificent[1]! Constable accompanied the picture with a slightly misremembered quote from Thomson’s Seasons (from Summer 1727):

                            As from the face of Heaven the scatter'd clouds

                            Tumultuous rove, th' interminable sky

                            Sublimer swells, and o'er the world expands

                            A purer azure.... Through the lighten'd air

                            A higher lustre and a clearer calm,

                            Diffusive tremble; while, as if in sign

                            Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy,

                            Set off abundant by the yellow ray,

                            Invests the fields, and nature smiles reviv'd.

    When Constable later exhibited the picture in Worcester in 1836 he chose the title Summer Afternoon – A Retiring Tempest. 

    The Tate were therefore open to the suggestion that we should jointly organise a December meeting around the theme Art and Skies to help publicise the Aspire partnership. The meeting was excellently chaired by Pierrette Thomet and the audience were soon captivated. David Brown and Gracie Divall from the Tate opened the meeting with an absorbing introduction to Aspire. This was followed by an enthusiastic Peter Hall who is curator of the Lighthouse Gallery in Woking – which is staging a Constable and the Weather exhibition in the Spring of 2016 (please google and go along and support). Then came my ‘Baconian’ solar geometrical analysis of Constable’s Rainbows followed by Richard Hamblyn who beautifully examined the symbolism of the sky as a ‘mutable screen of clouds’. We then heard Penny Newall scrutinise the poetry of ‘skies as art’ particularly exemplified by her performance of verses from Shelley’s The Cloud. Peter Moore then readily surveyed the importance of Fitzroy’s attempt to forecast the skies.  We finished with Mark Edwards appropriately reminding us that skies are not just meteorological – but they are astronomical and nostalgic too!  All in all a perfect afternoon.

    John Thornes

    [1] For a full discussion of the solar geometry of the Rainbow please see my essay for Aspire and my slides from the meeting on the RMetSoc website.