The weather glass: journeys through English art and the elements

The English talk about the weather. But what do they say?
Did an Anglo-Saxon in the rain feel the same as we do?
What did Turner mean when he invoked ‘the weather in our souls’?

I am writing a cultural history of the weather in England, the first book to explore the relationship between climate and the arts in this country from the earliest times to present.

According to Genesis, weather came with the Fall. Expelled into time, we were also doomed to a world of warring elements (the connection is remembered in the double meaning of le temps). Sometimes the weather does feel like a curse, but for generations of writers and artists it has been one of the greatest blessings of all. English culture has been shaped by an enduring fascination with the physical experience of warmth and cold, the visual effects of mist and the sudden clarity of sunlight. The weather uplifts and depresses us; it lights things up and blots things out. It has long been the artist’s muse, bearing messages from the gods, occupying the space between heaven and earth.

At first I planned to write about weather in Modernist literature, but it was never going to be an easily containable subject. When Virginia Woolf described the massing of dark clouds in Orlando she was thinking of Ruskin, who was thinking of Wordsworth, who was thinking of Milton, who was thinking of Spenser. I needed, really, to go back to the beginning.

Great Storm 1613 jpg

The storm of 1613 illustrated in a pamphlet called The Wonders of the windie winter.

Thomas Wyke 1683 jpg

The frozen Thames: the great fair of 1683-4 is painted here by Thomas Wyke. Whole streets of stalls were set up on the ice selling souvenirs, entertainments and warming drinks.

The cowled figure of Winter who still looks out sadly from a Roman mosaic at Bignor in Sussex reminds us that, eighteen centuries ago, Britannia was a murky outpost on the chill edge of the Roman Empire. Later, the Anglo-Saxon elegists meditated on the ruins of Roman Britain as evidence that everything in this transitory world will be weathered away. In these very early works of art we see patterns of thought emerging which have shaped our experience of weather ever since. We take it for granted now that there are four seasons, for example, but it was not always so. The iconography of the months, the behaviour of the weather gods, and the characters of the winds: all had to be invented, borrowed or revised to suit conditions in England which were manifestly different from those in Greece and Italy.

The weather can change familiar places into alternative worlds, as with the Frost Fairs which flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries, turning the River Thames into a frozen realm of adventure and enchantment. But I have been just as interested in ordinary weather as in climatic extremes. The most unremarkable skies can be the subject of imaginative transformations, as Hamlet knew when he looked up at what might be a camel, a weasel or a whale. Shelley wanted to become a cloud; Ruskin wondered how he might bottle one.

The weather offers a physical, sensual route back into our history. In understanding its past we will better understand the climate – and its changes – upon which our future depends.

Dr Alexandra Harris
University of Liverpool

Alexandra was awarded a Research Fellowship grant in 2011.