As with the painters John Constable and Turner before him, Ruskin was familiar with the classification of cloud types by Luke Howard into cirrus, cumulus (or nimbus), and stratus. This system, further developed into ‘more minute distinctions’ by Robert FitzRoy, proposed a scientific structure to what had been seen as an elusive natural phenomena.
Ruskin furthered the idea of classification of cloud formation to sketch out overall structure using the principles of perspective.
Meteorology appealed to Ruskin as ‘a science of the pure air, and the bright heaven’ and he had been fascinated by clouds since childhood. He often painted cloud formations using a cyanometer, a device for measuring the colour blue, created by Horace Bénédict de Saussure.
Light in the West, Beauvais (1846) by John RuskinThe Ruskin
In Modern Painters Volume V, Chapter II 'The Cloud-Flocks' Ruskin developed his argument on the laws of perspective for clouds. Elsewhere he reflected that clouds will not wait while we draw them:
Ruskin claimed: ‘You must try therefore to sketch at the utmost possible speed the whole range of the clouds; marking, by any shorthand or symbolic work you can hit upon, the peculiar character of each’.
Ruskin used meteorological imagery to counter his scientific adversaries and offered powerful critiques of the adverse effects of industrialisation. By 1870, in his essay The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, Ruskin had become convinced that the sky was being dimmed by a ‘veil of pollution’ from industry. He concluded: 'that scientists would then be able to create within an experimental tube, a bit of more perfect sky than the sky itself’, anticipating the cloud chamber by 30 years.
Contemporary scientific views on the environment are becoming more aligned with Ruskin’s, which were ridiculed by his contemporaries as ‘imaginary or insane’. His essay The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, outlining observations of changes in cloud properties and shifts in climate, is one of the earliest publications on climate change.
At the same time, he argued that, for all their theories and experimentation, scientists still ‘don’t know much yet about either about rock-beds, or cloud-beds’. For instance John Tyndall’s experiment on atmospheric scattering (or why the sky is blue) is satirised in Modern Painters and both Tyndall and Thomas Henry Huxley came under fire in The Queen of the Air.
Tyndall describes the action of the intense light upon the eye as follows: ‘As the sun's disk came more into view, its rays however still grazing the summit of the mountain, interference-spectra darted from it on all sides, and surrounded it with a glory of richly-coloured bars.’ In his own work, Ruskin discussed Tyndall’s theories that the blue of the sky is the result of light scattering by atmospheric particles favouring longer, bluer wavelengths refracted by light rather than water.
Thunderclouds, Val d'Aosta (1884) by Arthur SevernThe Ruskin
Ruskin's work was part of a growing awareness in the nineteenth century of the ways that human activity could directly affect the atmosphere and life on Earth. This cloud study documents the changing atmosphere resulting from increased industrialisation.
This painting is one of the illustrations to Ruskin's lecture The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century in which Ruskin notes: ‘scientific men are busy as ants, examining the sun, and the moon, and the seven stars, and can tell me how they move, and what they are made of'. By contrast, Ruskin wanted science to examine the new ‘plague-clouds’ he believed to be the result of industrial pollution and to mitigate their effects.
While increasingly out of step with his contemporaries, Ruskin’s concern for environmental issues and the impact of new technologies on the health of the planet speak powerfully to our own era: ‘blanched sun – blighted grass – blinded man’. He used scientific techniques to refine artistic observation of the natural world and to bring to bear an artistic gaze on scientific understanding of the environment.
Curated by Sandra Kemp, The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University, and Keith Moore, the Royal Society, with the support of Sandra Santos and Louisiane Ferlier.
Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future