The Orb‘s 1990 track ‘Little fluffy clouds’ famously samples an interview with musician Ricki Lee Jones:
‘Interviewer: “What were the skies like when you were young?”
Jones: “They went on forever – They – When I w- We lived in Arizona, and the skies always had little fluffy clouds in ’em, and, uh… they were long… and clear and… there were lots of stars at night. And, uh, when it would rain, it would all turn – it- They were beautiful, the most beautiful skies as a matter of fact. Um, the sunsets were purple and red and yellow and on fire, and the clouds would catch the colours everywhere. That’s uh, neat ’cause I used to look at them all the time, when I was little. You don’t see that. You might still see them in the desert.”‘
I too have always loved clouds- and not just because I did geography and meteorology at university. From an early age I’d lie on our lawn and watch the clouds above, or press up against the side of the house and, with the clouds whizzing past in the wind, enjoy the sensation that the wall was toppling. As I described in my autobiographical novel, Freak or smoothy?, I spent a good part of my teens gazing out of my bedroom window at our back garden in Barnsley and the clouds over the Dearne valley; cirrus (mares’ tails) have always been a favourite, but towering cumulus and flat topped thunderclouds, dark and threatening but with sunlight illuminating the crowns, have always impressed me too. At university in Southampton, I was amazed by the vast cloud streets stretching away north over Hampshire- row after orderly row of white clouds marching west. What attracts me, I think, is the combination of motion and constant changes; a cloud’s form is never fixed but always shifting and impermanent. Form and light continually change, so that it becomes addictive, as you don’t want to want to miss any aspect of the evolving display.
Studying geography, especially for A-levels, reinforced my innate love. I discovered in Barnsley library that there were such things as cloud dictionaries, with beautiful illustrations of all the possible forms- and some are very remarkable indeed: long rolls, giant lenticular shapes and conglomerations of strange udders hanging from dark rain-clouds. Thirty five years on and I still love looking at the photos in similar books. My recommendations are Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s Cloudspotter’s Guide and Cloud Collector’s Handbook and Storm Dunlop’s How to identify weather, published by Collins.
Photographs of meteorological effects are all very well, but sometimes you need an artist to capture the real mood of a cloudy sky. Samuel Palmer’s Bright cloud is a favorite evocation of an English skyscape. I can’t help suspect, too, that Palmer, an acolyte of William Blake, is referencing in his title a line from the Second Night of Vala, or the Four Zoas: Blake described how Urizen looked “Like a Bright Cloud in harvest” and Palmer gives us a quintessential depiction. In his biography, Visionary & dreamer, David Cecil repeatedly commented that Palmer was very responsive and sensitive to clouds and moonlight. This is amply confirmed by the Tate Gallery catalogue to the Palmer exhibition, Vision and landscape, in which clouds, moons and stars are regular and significant features of many of the works.
John Constable was especially fascinated by the mutability of the English cloudscapes and throughout his life he produced numerous studies, such as this one, in which he tried to capture the texture and light effects.
One of my greatest loves in British art is the 20th century painter Paul Nash. He was a war artist in both wars and I find the symbolism and angularity of his work very appealing. Clouds appear in his pictures, very stylised and significant, as in the two pictures below. The first ‘Battle of Britain’ creates a stunning skyscape of human and natural elements, finding beauty and mystery even in the violence of dogfights and the blitz. The second ‘Cumulus Head’ (1944) has been in a private collection since 1971 and I can only find a sepia reproduction online. The original is a menacing, towering mass of browns- highly evocative of an approaching storm on a hot summer’s day.