Speaker: Professor John Thornes (University of Birmingham)
John Constable’s powers of observation and his thirst for meteorological knowledge propelled him to paint more natural-looking skies than nearly all other English artists before or since. In his own words:
‘Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?’
This experimental approach was certainly applied to the clouds and weather in Constable’s paintings, but it was not the case with all of his depictions of rainbows. Unlike clouds, rainbows are seen much less frequently in his work and may be considered more mysterious in their symbolic function.Although Constable knew that the sun must be directly behind the observer of a rainbow for the rainbow to be visible, this is plainly not so in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (first exhibited in 1831), in which the sun’s rays emerge from the right of the composition. Why should Constable be such a perfectionist about the weather in his scenes – his accurately depicted clouds, the effect of wind and harmonic daylight – and yet be content to introduce a meteorologically inconsistent rainbow? It has been suggested elsewhere that the original 1831 exhibited version of this painting did not have a rainbow. Furthermore, my theory is that Constable’s remarkable scientific knowledge enabled him, at a later date, to add a rainbow that corresponds to the time of his friend Archdeacon John Fisher’s death on the afternoon of 25 August 1832.
Resting on Fisher’s house, ‘Leadenhall’, the rainbow in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows has been painted into a sky that is lit by sunlight coming from due west, which is confirmed by the way light illuminates the west front of the cathedral. A rainbow produced from this solar geometry and resting on Leadenhall would only have a height in the sky of up to about 22 degrees, and would occur in early August at around 5pm (GMT).
Constable has magnified the size of the cathedral and rendered the rainbow much taller than would have been possible. Solar geometry confirms that from the artist’s viewpoint close to the Longbridge, a full 42-degree rainbow resting on Leadenhall and arching over the cathedral would have been visible during the late afternoon of 25 August at around 7pm (GMT). This reasoning suggests that Constable expressly choseto add the rainbow to a painting in which the sun is not directly behind the viewer as a magnificent remembrance of his best friend John Fisher.
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