“It is a strange thing,” John Ruskin writes in volume 1 of Modern Painters (1843), his paeon to J.M.W. Turner, “how little in general people know about the sky.” So begins a short tract in Ruskin’s work called ‘Of the Truth of Skies’. Sky is the subject of one of three such Of Truth tracts, along with space and water. In ‘Of the Truth of Skies’ we, the reader, are vividly inside Ruskin’s thought process, scanning a micro-history of skies in society and art in order to feel the revolutionary shock of Turner’s “breaking, mingling, melting” skies described at the end of the piece.
Before arriving at this thrilling apex Ruskin observes how so few fail to give skies due attention. “Who, among the chattering crowd,” he asks, “can tell me the forms and the precipices of the chain of tall white mountains that girded the horizon at noon yesterday?... Who saw the dance of the dead clouds when the sunlight left them last night, and the west wind blew them before it like withered leaves?” If it is noticed, drab generalisations are made: it has been wet; it has been windy; it has been warm (it is apparently not only lack of attention, but inadequate vocabulary too - something we shall return to). For Ruskin the sky “is fitted in all its functions for the perpetual comfort and exalting of the heart, for soothing it and purifying it from its dross and dust”. Every person is the poorer for missing this thing which, importantly, is free to anyone who cares to take pleasure from it. All that is needed is care and attention; spirituality will look after itself. Ruskin’s is an essentially Romantic attitude: accidents of light and shade - the effects of weather - can endow a known and familiar landscape - the commonplace - with significance. “God,” he writes, “is not in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still, small voice.”
cloud is cloud, and blue is blue, and no kind of connection between them is ever hinted at. The sky is thought of as a clear, high, material dome, the clouds as separate bodies suspended beneath it; and in consequence, however delicate and exquisitely removed in tone their skies may be, you always look at them, not through them.
At and through. The distinction urges us to consider where sky begins and ends, not just vertically in a picture (or indeed in an actual landscape) between land and sky, but horizontally between the perceiver and the landscape. For Ruskin the genius of Turner is that with him we are inside it; Turner shows how the atmosphere affects our perception of landscape. Turner paints the air; his canvases have no surface, so that we might plunge into their depth. Turner, it is true, had a special investment in clouds: his sketchbooks are near to bursting with formations abstracted from ground. Walking through the galleries at Norwich Castle it is obvious that the Norwich School of Painters, along with other East Anglian roughly contemporaneous with Turner, too had a special investment in clouds. The paintings of John Sell Cotman, Old Crome, John Middleton, James Stark, and John Constable, among others, help us see the sky and its effects on land. They urge us to pay attention to skies; and affect the perceiver too. In John Middleton’s painting A Fine Day in February we can feel that crazy easterly blow’n a gale; the louring mettled cloud to the top right of the picture is wet - it runs down the canvas, almost wets the viewer.
In the early nineteenth-century Romanticism challenged what a worthy subject for art could be. It no longer seemed necessary to visit Classical scenes: the world at one’s doorstep was rich enough. With it came an evidential increase in attention given to the weather, skies, and most noticeably, clouds, not just in art, but science too. Around this time the flat unassuming landscape of East Anglia became a place worthy of depiction. Old Crome’s largest painting of a gilded Mousehold Heath (1818-20), John Sell Cotman’s Boat House and Trees (1806-08) or Ploughed Field (1808) each depict decidedly quotidian East Anglian scenes. John Constable was busy giving his name to the southern region of East Anglia, inventing ‘Constable Country’. “My limited and abstracted art,” he wrote, “is to be found under every hedge and in every lane”. Is this not an earlier, equally beautiful (secular) echo of Ruskin’s God in the still, small voice? Earlier still, in 1798, the Lyrical Ballads had been written, according to Coleridge, based on conversations between him and Wordsworth
on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of the imagination. The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both.
In the early nineteenth-century meteorology, the science of atmospheres, was still in its infancy. In 1804 the first professional meteorologist Luke Howard published his study and classification of atmospheric conditions called On the Modification of Clouds. Before this there had been attempts at finding an ordinal language to describe cloud formations, most notably the philosopher and architect Robert Hooke’s A Method for Making a History of the Weather (1662), which appeared in Thomas Sprat’s The History of the Royal Society, published in 1667.* “But for the Faces of the Sky,” Hooke writes, “there are so many, that many of them want proper Names; and therefore it will be convenient to agree upon some determinate ones, by which the most usual may be in brief exprest.” “Let Hairy signify a Sky that hath many small, thin, and high Exhalations, which resemble locks of hair,” he proclaims. “Thick, a Sky more whitened by a greater Company of Vapours: these do usually make the Luminaries look bearded or hairy, and are oftentimes the Cause of the appearance of Rings and Haloes about the Sun as well as the Moon.” Hooke’s desire for a standardised classificatory system sought to demystify the sky, or heavens, thought to be home of the deities. And yet he is not quite able to abandon his own animistic impulse.
If clouds were the mere result of the condensation of vapour in the masses of the atmosphere which they occupy, if their variations were produced by movements in the atmosphere alone, then indeed might the study of them be deemed an useless pursuit of shadows, an attempt to describe forms which, being the sport of winds, must be ever varying, and therefore not to be defined. However... the is case is not so with clouds. They are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which affect all the variations of the atmosphere; they are commonly as good visible indicators of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person’s mind or body.
The nineteenth-century French painter Edgar Degas once said that if he wanted to draw a cloud he only had to crumple his pocket handkerchief and hold it up to the light. The significance of the Norwich School painting, and in general East Anglian painting, lies in a realism based on direct observation. “Painting is a science,” Constable told an audience in 1836, “and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, should not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?” Unlike Cozens, Constable did “a good deal of skying”, as he called it - painting skies for their own sake in order to catch “their noble clouds & effects light & dark & colour” (he admired the work of Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael: The Shore at Egmond-aan-Zee (1675) records stunning cloud formations). Working quickly from direct observations in the environment enabled the painter to catch the transience of landscape. In the name of science, Howard provides narrow classificatory types that enable cloud formations to be known. Paintings of the Norwich School proceed from a similar empirical basis of observation - indeed a meteorologist might learn from them - yet their investment, their intended use, is different. The modern science of meteorology is based on Howard’s singular taxonomy, not the paintings of the Norwich School, or Constable. But clouds do not give away their secrets so easily; Weather still eludes us.
What Ruskin describes when he implores us to really look at the sky - its quivering vitality and fulness, short falling spots of deceiving light, dim shades, faint veiled vestiges of dark vapour - is the instability of perception. Direct-observation painting acknowledges a need to be in the landscape, to attend to the temporality of things. Turner found a visual language that denied the viewer’s immediate and unitary apprehension of an image, placing temporality at the very centre of the viewing experience. “[H]is painting of the late 1830s and 1840s,” art historian Jonathan Crary writes, “signals the irrevocable loss of a fixed source of light, the dissolution of a cone of light rays, and the collapse of the distance separating an observer from the site of optical experience”. Turner’s late work announces a new status of the artist-observer, distinct from the scientific-observer. Painters from East Anglian, their dynamic representations of the ever-changing sky, pointed the way forward to new ways of perceptions.
* Sprat’s History details the history, design and progress of the institution, as well as its experiments and disambiguations, including, among other things, inquiries into whether mined diamonds and precious stones grow again after three or four years, whether in Ethiopia there are tortoises so big that men may ride upon them, how to make wine, the history of making gunpowder, and so on.