Why the weather clouds an artist's vision

WORDS OF THE WEEK
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The Independent Online
As we huddle under anoraks from the rain and complain about the drought, a new book tells you everything you need to know about British weather.

More than 5,800 paintings dated between 1400 and 1967 by major artists, whose works were in important art galleries, were once analysed to see what influence climate might have had on art.

In Britain, low clouds (stratus, stratocumulus and nimbostratus) are common, the stratus giving dull, cheerless days and the nimbostratus rain. Convective or cumulus clouds are common in summer and in polar maritime air, as the artists have indicated. It is probable that the number of paintings with cumulus clouds exaggerates the total, because these clouds would often be associated with good weather for artistic work. In the Low Countries, the cloud base is often higher, because the air tends to be drier than in Britain, and this is reflected by the artist. Artists of the German school were attracted by medium and high clouds, including wave clouds over mountains. The infrequency of low cloud in Italy is noticeable.

There was not a single British painting with a completely clear sky, and overcast skies were more frequent with British artists than with other schools.

As the table shows, paintings with clear sky in the background are in a minority in all of the schools. It is not surprising that no artist from the British school has painted a clear sky, because it has to be admitted that totally cloudless skies are not common in the British Isles

One hears the older generation say: "Winters were colder and summers more summery when I was young." The records do indeed show that there was a run of severe winters in the Forties and Fifties, culminating in the notorious freeze-up of 1962-63.

Four outstandingly warm, sunny summers also occurred in the space of 13 years, in 1947, 1949, 1955 and 1959. During the Seventies, 1975 and 1976 were outstanding; in the Eighties, 1983 and 1989. The Nineties began with record-breaking heat in August 1990, 1993, 1994 and 1995.

In the Thirties there were two good summers, in 1933 and 1934, but no severe winter, whereas the Twenties had the famous long, hot, dry summer of 1921 and a severe cold spell in 1929, which was the longest since 1895.

It is certainly true that there was no snowfall of any consequence in many parts of the south from Christmas 1970 up to 1977, but records of snowiness began only in about 1912 - not long enough ago for us to judge whether the climate is changing, or whether such a snow-free spell has happened before.

Most people tend to remember unusual and sensational events, and so it is with weather. Snow and heat are both sufficiently rare to make an impression. The author has heard it said that every day was fine and hot in June, July and August in 1976. A study of records shows that a few days were remarkably cool and cloudy, and even wet. The bad days were forgotten unless a special event was spoiled. Another frequently expressed view goes something like this, and shows some of the problems of relying on people rather than instruments: "The winters always seemed snowier when I was a child. I remember it coming up to my knees." But your knees were nearer the ground when you were a child. It may have been snowier for someone growing up in the Forties, Fifties and early Sixties, but some winters had very little snow.

"We used to swim in the sea every day during the summer holidays, but recently the sea has been much too cold" - implies that the summers of the past in the good old days must have been better. One cool August morning, with the air temperature only 14C, a steady north-easter blowing and only fitful sunshine, a curious sight met the author's eyes on a north Devon beach, deserted save for two people in deck chairs, huddled in warm clothing. They felt an explanation was needed.

Their two children were happily surfing in the sea, while their parents were unhappily "freezing" on land. Would that summer day go down as a poor one weatherwise for those two children?

What is the record for successive days without rain in Britain? In the famous spring drought of 1893, some places in south-east England had no rain for 50 or more consecutive days. Hailsham, near Eastbourne, had no rain for 61 days, from 17 March to 16 May; but the longest drought of all was in London, in Mile End, and lasted 73 days, from 4 March to 15 May.

While watching the 12.55 BBC1 weather forecast on Sunday, 11 October 1987, I was impressed by the very large number of close isobars shown on the forecast chart for Thursday evening. I remarked to my wife that a phenomenal gale could be expected on Thursday night, if they were right.

In the early hours many people were awakened by the noise of the howling wind, and by bright flashes. These flashes were not lightning, but were caused by short circuits. Power lines were thrashing against each other or were brought down by trees. The noise from my garden was frightening. Dawn revealed chaos in the south-east of England, roughly east of a line from Bournemouth to Cromer. The maximum recorded gust was 115mph, at Shoreham, Sussex.

The publicity given to the so-called "hurricane" may have had something to do with the fact that it happened on the doorstep of the media people in London, and, of course, where more people can be affected. Ten million people being inconvenienced by a storm is much more newsworthy than a few thousand in a thinly populated part of the country. There is some evidence that tower blocks may contribute to storm damage by increasing turbulence.

Another factor in the perceived severity of the storm is our dependence on electricity. A storm such as this one would not have caused so much dislocation 50 years ago. Few country-dwellers would have had power to be interrupted, or freezers to be emptied. The fallen branches would also have been looked upon as a bonus by more people as a source of free fuel.

`The Weather of Britain', by Robin Stirling, is published on 21 July by Giles de la Mare, price pounds 19.99.

Relative frequencies of cloud families by schools of artists

Artists High Middle Low Convective

British 5 23 40 32

Flemish & Dutch 5 32 27 32

French 5 36 27 28

German 11 33 27 29

Italian 9 43 14 34

Spanish 6 38 28 28

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