Talk about the Weather

Kate Flint

In his series of black-and-white images, Bad Weather (1980), English photographer Martin Parr captured some recognizably damp, gray scenes. Shot across northern England and Ireland, but largely in Yorkshire, Parr used flash and an underwater camera to light up thick falling raindrops or wet snow. Behind these, one sees a sodden street; a tea towel flapping on a washing line; a deserted park bandstand; pedestrians under umbrellas or holding newspapers and cardboard boxes over their heads; a Jubilee street party abandoned under a downpour, with a thin glimmer of light illuminating only a backdrop of industrial decay. These photographs reinforce the question of how weather relates to national identity. It’s no surprise that “mizzle,” a Devonshire word for a thin drizzle, is the name chosen for a dull gray-green paint color manufactured by Farrow & Ball: nothing could be more quintessentially English.

What was, and is, English weather? How does this weather relate to national identity? And will that weather, and therefore this identity, ever be the same again? Three books each tackle these questions from different angles, but all are grounded in the belief that how we talk about the weather reveals much about how we view ourselves.

We always seem to view the British Isles as caught in a perpetual downpour. But contrary to reputation, it doesn’t always rain in England. In the Victorian age, the painter and printmaker Samuel Palmer—the subject of William Vaughan’s recent scholarly biography—created iconic pastoral landscapes suspended in a golden summer haze: they are a nostalgic and idealized antithesis to the damp streets Parr photographed just over a century later. Farther afield, the Scottish writer Peter Davidson meditates on the particular qualities of northern twilight, in a work that extends beyond national borders but has deep resonance for the English environment. Davison considers light and atmosphere’s role in defining cultural depictions of mood. If sometimes flat and gray, this twilight can also be a long instance of luminous suspended time, albeit one underscored with the inevitability of transience and loss. Most ambitiously, Alexandra Harris’s cultural history of English weather compellingly describes over a millennium of literary representations of weather foul and fair. While noting long-term climatic changes, Harris analyzes why writers and artists in certain periods appear to take particular notice of bright springtime, or frost and chill winds, or mutable clouds, or Mediterranean-style sun. In her hands, predominant associations of weather, landscape, and nationhood prove as unstable as the English climate itself.

<i>Beach volleyball at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London</i>. Photograph by cdephotos / Flickr

Vaughan’s Samuel Palmer, with its many gorgeously reproduced images, shows Palmer’s deeply rural world. Palmer painted the golden corn of Shoreham; the luminously pink, billowing blossoms of a fruit tree; the undulating land and blue misty headlands of North Devon. Painting from the 1820s through the 1860s, Palmer was an artist of an imaginary, unspoiled Arcadian England that nonetheless referenced contemporary costume and details of domestic architecture. There is a great plenitude in his harvest scenes. And yet there is also a strong pull of melancholy in Palmer’s work, deriving both from the dominant shades of russet and sepia and ochre, and from the contemplative, gazing, or sleeping figures these colors contain.

Palmer also appears as a touchstone in Peter Davidson’s The Last of the Light: About Twilight, as an artist whose work exemplifies the nostalgic spirit of the waning day. Taking Davidson’s analysis one step farther, it is instructive to hold Palmer’s visionary spirit against that of a later, and far less romanticizing, English artist like Parr. The two clearly make an improbable pairing. Palmer produced sun-drenched idylls and, occasionally, sublime, Turner-esque stormy skies; Parr gives us the soggy gray quotidian. Palmer’s early evening light serves to stretch out or suspend time, whereas in Parr’s climate, things mostly get colder or wetter. But the work of both men raises similar questions about how national identity can depend upon the climate; how light and cloud and precipitation can interact with feelings of nostalgia; how weather relates to personal mood; how the elements have always been translated and transformed by the humans who experienced their power.

The meaning of English weather changed as the English themselves changed.

Such questions are also at the heart of Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, which explores the slow growth of weather consciousness in English writing and image making. Like Davidson charting the history of twilight, Harris takes the long view, and like him also avoids writing a mere chronological survey. Weatherland has the potential to serve as a quirky introduction to English literary history. Harris makes the inspired move of using Virginia Woolf’s Orlando as a structuring device, borrowing the novel’s sustained conceit of invoking weather to characterize an epoch. “As cultural preoccupations change,” notes Harris in explaining her own work’s debt to Woolf, “we find affinities with different kinds of weather.” Thus the waning of the 18th century, for Woolf, is signaled when “a turbulent welter of cloud covered the city. All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion.” The weather itself is not Harris’s subject; rather, she investigates weather’s effect on the imagination. In her case, this imagination is a specifically English one, although she leaves open the possibilities for exploring the rich weather cultures of other countries as well.

Davidson’s book, however, is notable for not taking a national perspective. Instead, he adopts what might be termed a latitudinal one: Davidson’s light is to be found for 10 degrees on either side of the 60th parallel, whether in Scotland or Japan. The book meditates on Ingmar Bergman’s long Scandinavian summer evenings while exploring the painter Vilhelm Hammershøi’s calm gray interiors (as well as one remarkable work by him, Street in London (19056), which shows a crepuscular Bloomsbury). Davidson discusses how Fernand Khnopff depicts a darkening, sinister twilight closing in over Bruges’s “cold, charcoal-dark canals”; and also how twilight’s ambiguities fill the shadowed spaces of the great European railway stations in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Davidson makes a strong and plausible case for the existence of twilight music, locating it above all in the melancholy, sometimes dissonant strains of William Lawes’s (1602–1645) music for viols. That the quality of light might so deeply influence such a wide range of art speaks to the power of atmosphere and environment as surely as the actual weather examined in Harris's and Vaughan’s works.

Harris’s Weatherland brings home how the ways in which literature and art responded to weather have transformed remarkably across time. The book moves from the Old English fascination with cold and bracing air—weather that underscored conditions of endurance and exile—to the medieval emphasis on liturgical and agricultural cycles that celebrated renewal epitomized by bright springtime weather. Harris brings out the Romantics’ preoccupation with weather’s aesthetics and moods—whether one turns to Shelley’s love of the wind, or Wordsworth’s apprehension of the natural miracles of cloud and breeze, or Keats’s devotion to mellow autumn—and the simultaneous growth in that era of detailed empirical observation. Certain familiar scenes in Victorian novels, Harris reminds us, revolve around weather: the drip, drip, drip on the terrace at Chesney Wold; the impassioned determination of Catherine and Heathcliff to be one with the wind on the Yorkshire moors. Harris again returns to Woolf’s Orlando, whose narrator observes that “Damp swells the wood, furs the kettle, rusts the iron, rots the stone.” This, as Woolf herself knew, points to the rainy atmospherics of Bleak House. But also, as noted in The Last of the Light, such a persistent dampness is what helped Auden label Tennyson “the saddest of the English poets,” all adding up to what Davidson terms “the drenched sorriness of nineteenth-century England.” This sun shines again, for Harris, in the 20th century with the interwar taste for hot sun and fresh air, juxtaposed against modernism’s alternative penchant for the frozen north.

<i>London Road, Liverpool, 2013</i>. Photograph by Radarsmum67 / Flickr

A major theme of Harris’s book is how weather, subjectivity, and mood are interconnected. For even if we chronicle our climate objectively, our response to it is highly personal. In the simplest of ways, we respond to temperature and pressure, making everyone, to quote Ted Hughes, something of a “natural barometer.” By the same token, Davidson’s twilight writing comes across as something of a barometer for time of day, for twilight. His acute eye, registering tiny gradations of light and tone, shares common ground with the contemporary English environmental observers whom Harris calls up in her conclusion—Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Tim Dee—as well as with the ethos that informs Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. Davidson’s is a bravely unfashionable book, its cadences relentlessly slow. The book contains some intensely affective evocations of a recently vanished postwar Britain, such as the portrayal of Cambridge in the 1970s with its “concentrated sadness of the bells, the spires in the fog, the lonely scatter of lamplit windows.” Yet somehow, he manages to evade mawkish nostalgia. Davidson knows that there are aspects of this postwar era that one might be glad to see swallowed by night; and he acknowledges that writing autobiography may also mean writing about the feelings that our environments prompt in us.  

Belatedness, as Davidson shows us, is the very essence of dusk, of the melancholy light of the fallen world. This belatedness belongs not just to “late arrival at a place, with the light already going, but of coming to a place after a lapse of time when circumstances have changed.”

These days, the dread of a different type of belatedness is upon us: are we already too late to save the climate as we know it? Harris’s book continually prompts us to ask this question. Over the stretch of a millennium we see the impact of previous weather cycles—periods of extreme cold, of drought, of floods, of time when the Thames froze over—and the impression made by such momentary oddities as meteors or rainbows. In past centuries, these might be read as signs from God: tokens of punishment or reminders of the need for fortitude. By the later 19th century, Hardy could use the rain that falls on a grave as a pointer to nature’s indifference; an indifference that is there, too, in the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The meaning of English weather changed as the English themselves changed.

But as Harris says, “the years to come … may be the last years of English weather.” Nature might be indifferent, in a strictly theological sense, but we ourselves cannot afford to be. The warning signs have been there for a while, of course. Implicitly giving an early start date to the Anthropocene, Harris notes how air pollution in English cities was already a concern from the 1660s onwards. Both she and Davidson turn to John Ruskin’s prescience in 1884, when the art critic and social thinker delivered two anguished lectures called “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” which warned of the forthcoming breakdown between man and nature, a modern “plague-wind.” Both Harris and Davidson also look to Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings of the 1880s because of their weird yellow-gray skies, which probably record how the sky became increasingly hazy following the huge eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Davidson claims that the Royal Society volume of 1888 recording that eruption’s meteorological effects “gives the same sense as Ruskin does that awareness is growing that weather phenomena worldwide form parts of a single system, one which can be affected by both natural disaster and human activity.”

Samuel Palmer, <i>Old England’s Sunday Evening</i>, 1874. Photograph by Sotheby’s London / Wikimedia

Samuel Palmer, the painter with whom we began, was an acute observer of clouds. In this way he proved himself very much a man of his age, alert to developments in the natural sciences and the premium now placed upon observation. His etchings employ tiny cross-hatchings that accurately suggest the swirling movement of vapor in the sky. But his precision of observation was augmented by a devotion to the forms of nature itself: repetitive depictions of everything from sheep’s backs to piled corn sheaves that speak to his belief in the cyclical endurance of the natural world. This combination—of the highly personalized and careful attention to the empirical—characterizes not just Palmer’s artistic output, but some of the strongest representations of the environment, whether in his period or our own.

Palmer’s gaze, however, was a backwards one, indebted to a form of mythmaking harking back to Virgil and his vision of elongated evenings. Faced with the possibility of dramatically altered weather in the future, such nostalgia is a luxury that we can only afford today if we also turn it into a provocation. For nostalgia’s powerful emotional impact can bring home a needed pain: specifically, the threat of a place losing its endearing specificity, and beyond that, the imminent loss of the whole climate system that makes such specificity possible. As Harris points out with painful, necessary bluntness at the beginning of her book, summoning the cloud that hangs over its whole, “things will not stay the same; we will never again stand in the same relation to our weather.”