Free Institute of Physics talk at the University of Leeds by Professor John Thornes
To what extent can we use works of landscape art as proxy data for what the environment was actually like at the time of painting?
Artists like Monet and Constable can be trusted if care is taken to understand what the artist was trying to achieve. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was first exhibited in 1831 at the Royal Academy by John Constable. The depicted rainbow is totally out of place considering the solar geometry of the scene. Art historians have suggested that perhaps the rainbow was added just before the painting was exhibited - to symbolise hope, as the storm threatening the Cathedral, and by implication the Church of England, was nearly over.
However solar geometry tells a different story. The depicted rainbow rests on John Fisher's house – the house of his best friend where Constable had often stayed. Careful examination of the rainbow shows that it represents a full rainbow which would have been possible on the afternoon of the 25th August 1832 the day when John Fisher unexpectedly died. It is now clear that when the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1831 it did not contain a rainbow. Indeed none of the many critics describing the picture mention a rainbow. Constable therefore added the rainbow sometime after his best friend had died as a remarkable tribute to him. It is impossible to know exactly when Constable added the rainbow but it is likely to be early in 1834 before he exhibited the painting in Birmingham in September 1834.
Constable believed that '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?' Constable studied the accepted physics of rainbows at the time which enabled him to create the remarkable rainbow in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. He wrote elsewhere 'we see nothing truly till we understand it'. However he was quite happy to introduce an inconsistent symbolic rainbow in this painting. Hence we need to understand the history of the painting as well as the solar geometry!
Professor John Thornes, Emeritus Professor, University of Birmingham.
* Free tea, coffee and biscuits from 6.30pm