One of the cardinal clichés about the English is that, as a nation, we are obsessed with trivial fluctuations in the weather. Lamenting the onset of a sudden shower could happily occupy two strangers on a railway station platform for several minutes – or, at least, that is the perception. Yet Weatherland, a beautiful new book by the British cultural historian Alexandra Harris, suggests that this cliché is a fair reflection of reality.

Moreover, the argument of the book, which examines how scores of great writers and artists have been inspired by English meteorological phenomena over the past two millennia, goes even further.

It also suggests that far from simply monitoring and recording subtle shifts in our changeable weather, writers and artists have often subjected the weather to the idiosyncratic yoke of their particular vision – to the point where, as Harris states with epigrammatic simplicity, “we make the weather up”.

As a nation, we are obsessed with trivial fluctuations in the weather

It’s a bold idea – but surely one to which the Met Office, with all its tools for measuring weather with precision, would object. Snowfall, of course, isn’t sunshine. Drizzle is a demonstrably different phenomenon from a gale. So what does Harris mean?

“Of course you can’t underestimate the objective force of the world outside,” says Harris, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool, and the author of the prize-winning Romantic Moderns (2010). “The need to keep producing crops and farming livestock through difficult conditions has clearly made us. But at the same time I do think we have made the weather, in that we have made it meaningful in more than a practical sense.”

To illustrate her point Harris offers a simple example: rain. “Rain should only symbolise forms of fertility – in the ordinary sense that we need this water to feed our crops to produce food,” she says. “But instead we have an entire mythology around rain. Rain to us can be tears – there’s nothing practical about that. It has the power to depress us: this is something that we have made.”

Mood music

In fact, reading Weatherland,  it becomes clear that different ages have been drawn to contrasting weather conditions depending on the preoccupations of the times.

One of the pithiest examples of this is the transition from the Anglo-Saxon period to the Middle Ages. “From the very earliest Anglo-Saxon writing – the first writing in what we might recognise as English – there is a deep fascination with weather as an analogy for mood,” Harris explains. “So the weather is not only what’s outside the window but also it gets into you – it’s a way of describing your heart and your mind.”

Weather is a way of describing your heart and your mind

Anglo-Saxon literature is remarkably austere, full of desolate images of ice and snow evoking melancholy psychological states. Indeed, Old English boasted an impressive array of distinct words associated with winter: ‘winterbiter’, ‘winterburna’, ‘winterceald’, ‘wintergeweorpe’.

“But then amazingly after the Norman Conquest,” Harris continues, “you suddenly get more interest in warmth, sun and spring. And you realise that this is the manifestation of a Mediterranean culture – Latin via French – coming into England. So the whole political make-up of the country is mirrored in the kinds of weather for which there seems to be a taste.

In other words, medieval poets were less interested in winter than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors. Instead they preferred to write about spring – a concept that didn’t even exist in the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries. This was, of course, how Chaucer began his Canterbury Tales, by referring to the “shoures soote” (sweet showers) of “Aprill”.

“Then the next really obvious shift in terms of weather taste is the Enlightenment,” Harris says. “As the word itself suggests, Enlightenment weather has to be bright. The best weather in which to be rational and to search out empirical knowledge is a fine, clear, sunny day. One thinks of the 18thCentury water-colourists like Sandby, painting low horizons and open vistas, or the builders in Bath laying out long terraces with sparkling stucco: that was a way of thinking about the weather as an encouragement to human investigations of the world – a sense that everything could be lit up.”

Masters of weather

It was the aftermath of the Enlightenment – during the early decades of the 19th Century – that threw up the two English artists most closely associated with capturing fleeting effects of weather. “That double crown has to go to Constable and Turner,” Harris says. “But in fact they were doing very different things.”

We have an entire mythology around rain

In 1821-22 Constable spent a great deal of time at Hampstead Heath, painting studies of particular cloud formations while noting down specific conditions such as the direction of the wind. His aptitude for depicting accurate weather became such a commonplace that it inspired a wisecrack by the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli that a landscape by Constable “makes me call for my great coat and umbrella”.

Meanwhile Turner, says Harris, “was in love with the energy of the weather. He wanted to capture all that natural energy for himself – he was jealous of nature for having such force in it. And so he paints the sea surging up, the sky curving down to meet it. He is in this constant competition – himself against the weather. He thinks that his job as a painter is to make his canvas burn if it is a sun, to make it drown if it’s a storm. That pleasure in immersion is Turner’s. Constable tends a little more to stand back and examine what nature is doing.”

Indeed, Turner was so besotted with the English weather that he saw it as his advantage over the Old Masters of southern Europe. “He was very explicit in saying that the infinite variability of English weather was prime subject matter for artists,” Harris says, “and that the relentless blues of the Mediterranean were nothing compared with all our mists.”

As it happens, the way that Turner rendered mist is a good illustration of Harris’s thesis that we make the weather up. “When I see a mist, I see what I see because I have Turner in my mind,” Harris says. “Perhaps I also have [the Victorian artist] Atkinson Grimshaw in mind, as well as a series of films. I think we all carry a reservoir of visual imagery that points out to us what’s actually directly in front of us.”

She adds: “I can’t imagine what it would be to have an innocent blank mind as I walked through mist – what would I make of it? I would have no way of processing it and shaping it. What we actually see all the time is a series of half-remembered pictures. And so I think that we go through a world that is partly, at least, a human creation – created by our own memories.”

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph

Weatherland is published on 14 September by Thames and Hudson.

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