Observing the Weather: The Lightbox to explore John Constable and the science of clouds

By Richard Moss | 23 November 2015

John Constable's scientific approach to capturing the nuances of clouds and weather conditions will be explored in an exhibition at The Lightbox in Woking in 2016

a painting of a golden sunset falling behind a green vale of gently undulating hills
John Constable, Dedham Vale Evening, oil, 1802 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
More than half a century before Claude Monet planted himself before Rouen Cathedral to capture the differing effects of light and weather, John Constable was improving his artwork by painting in the same place at different times of the day and in different weather conditions.

Constable would return on numerous occasions to his favoured locations - such as Hampstead, Salisbury Cathedral and Dedham Vale and quickly sketch the same landscape to demonstrate the dramatic effect differing conditions have on light and colour.

The sketches were not intended to be shown publicly but were for use as a reference for his large finished works.

Constable even recorded his thoughts on the weather on the backs of many of these studies such as on Cloud Study, Hampstead  (1821, oil on paper), where he noted with all the poetic brevity of the shipping forecast: "morning under the sun – clouds silvery grey, on warm ground sultry. Light wind to the S.W. fine all day – but rain in the night following".

a painting of a pond next to a small hillside with clouds skeeting above
Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead, oil on canvass, John Constable, 1819 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Land, sea, clouds, weather and more clouds – it might seem all too easy to reduce the great canvasses of John Constable to what was going on in the heavens, but clouds and the weather were certainly a passion of Britain’s great Romantic landscape painter. And, as this new exhibition at Surrey’s Lightbox will reveal, he went to great lengths to capture their elusive qualities.

Constable produced the majority of his weather studies in the early 1820s when he was living in Hampstead, a location that greatly influenced his scientific approach towards painting cloud formations as it was an open space to the North of the capital that offered a wide expanse of sky.

But as well as tramping the countryside around the Heath with oils and easel, he deepened his scientific knowledge of the weather by reading published pamphlets such as Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1803) by Luke Howard and Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena (1815) by Thomas Forster.

a watercolour study of white nimbus clouds
John Constable, Study of Clouds, oil on paper, 1822© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Original copies of these influential essays will be displayed in the exhibition next to examples of his cloud studies which, say the gallery, will provide visitors with “an exclusive insight” in to how the academic studies influenced his art.

The exhibition will also bring together an impressive collection of works loaned from national institutions such as the V&A, The Royal Academy and The National Gallery, to demonstrate the detailed artistic processes that Constable went through to show how different types of weather can transform a landscape.

Different mediums, including works in pencil, watercolour, mezzotint and oils on both paper and on canvass, will feature in the exhibition which will include Dedham Vale: Evening (1802, oil on canvass), Study of Clouds (1822, oil on paper), Salisbury Cathedral from Across the Meadows (1829-31, oil on canvass), and Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead (1821-22, oil on canvass)

On the latter Constable noted "we have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & colour - as is always the case with such seasons as the present".

John Constable: Observing the Weather is at The Lightbox from February 13 2016 – May 8 2016. For more information visit www.thelightbox.org.uk

an oil painting of trees with a cloudy sky above
John Constable, Study of Sky and Trees, oil on paper, c.1821© The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
a painting of Salisbury Cathedral seems across a flooded meadow with a team horses pulling a cart in the foreground
John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, from the Meadows, 1831© Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Corporation
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This article about John Constable painting cloud studies is interesting to me as I am studying landscape painting for my artwork. Here in Florida the sky and clouds are every changing, sometimes the clouds are dramatic, varied. I hope to catch some of these scenes of the sky and clouds just as John Constable explored the sky and clouds in his paintings.
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