John Ruskin, Clouds over Camp Santo Venice, Ashmolean Museum
“Do you know the balancings of the clouds?” Job, 37-16
I was not long ago in Waterstones, buying a present for my wife. They were as usual, offering a three books for the price of two, so along with what I had chosen for her i ended up getting myself a present too. That book was Weatherlands by Alexandra Harris. It is a study of the interaction between British artists and writers with the weather of our islands, over the entire recorded history of our culture. For an ex-geographer and lover of art and literature, it has been a treat and is highly recommended.
Harris quotes extensively from prose and poetry, as well as drawing parallels with contemporary painting and illustration. Here are a few of my favourites.
In book 2 of The Excursion, Wordsworth describes the sky seen descending from the Lake District peaks:
“O, ’twas an unimaginable sight!/ Clouds, mists, streams, watery rock and emerald turf,
Clouds of all tincture,rocks and sapphire sky,/ Confused, commingled, mutually inflamed,
Molten together and composing thus,/ Each lost in each, that marvellous array
Of temple, palace, citadel and huge/ Fantastic pomp of structure without name,
In fleecy folds voluminous enwrapped.”
In Ode to autumn Keats observes how “barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,/And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue,” a far calmer, stiller scene that contrasts with Wordsworth’s grand vistas and is entirely suitable to the drowsy, pastoral mood he evokes. When I read of barred clouds, I can’t help but think of some of the more stylised representations in visual art. For example, these three pictures by Paul Nash, Month of March, Landscape at Iden & Three Rooms, which take regimentation to an extreme- though not without striking and satisfying results.
Later in the nineteenth century, Harris notes Ruskin’s dedicated sky studies. He devoted hours to absorbing and recording cloud-scapes, in one instance reckoning that there were about fifty thousand streets of high cirrus visible one winter dawn. He wrote extensively on the art of clouds and even tried to devise grids to help artists accurately record them. Of course, they had been trying for centuries. In this painting, The foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore, Italian Renaissance painter Masolino has a bash at cloud streets (plus ‘a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me’) with very curious results- more like a fleet of flying saucers. In truth, a lot of his contemporaries tended to produce equally odd sky-scapes, which may explain why they often chose to leave the top parts of their canvases dark.
Lastly, entering the twentieth century, by way of the mud, rain and cold of Flanders (and the war art of Paul Nash) Harris offers us this brief quote form poet Stevie Smith (which I have as yet to attribute to a source):
“Complicated feelings … come to those who walk alone on the damp.”
A deeply English sentiment from that quintessentially English poet. It harks back amusingly to Ivor Gurney’s refrain quoted n an earlier posting: “Only the wanderer, knows England’s graces.” Indeed, and its downpours and its misty wet.