Capturing clouds in science and art

You might wonder what this watercolour is doing in our Making the Modern World gallery. The chalky cliffs, thatched cottage and country children make a pleasant enough pastoral scene, but what does it have to do with science?

Watercolour by Edward Kennion with cloud study by Luke Howard

Watercolour by landscape artist Edward Kennion, c. 1807, based on a cloud study by Luke Howard (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The clue is in the sky, which represents ‘Cumulus breaking up; cirrus and cirrocumulus above’. These were the new names for the clouds, created by the meteorologist Luke Howard.

Portrait of Luke Howard by John Opie

Luke Howard, by the leading society portrait painter John Opie, c. 1807 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Howard was a commercial chemist who rose to fame after lecturing “On the Modification of Clouds” in 1802 to the Askesian Society, a scientific club founded by three young London Quakers. He proposed that, rather than being fleeting and innumerable, clouds could be reduced to just three families: cumulus, stratus and cirrus. Combinations were possible and clouds could change from one type to another. Howard was hailed as a genius who had grasped the clouds and brought them within the reach of science.

Cumulus, by Luke Howard

Cumulus in high wind, c. 1803, by Luke Howard. Howard used sketches to illustrate his talk and publications (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Amongst artists his reception was mixed. The German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, for example, worried that ‘to force the free and airy clouds into a rigid order and classification’ would damage their expressive potential and even ‘undermine the whole foundation of landscape painting’.

John Constable disagreed, arguing that ’Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?’ His cloud experiments have fascinated critics ever since.

British Rail poster, 1990

British Rail poster, 1990. Constable's cloudy landscapes have become emblematic of the British countryside. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

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