Go back to article: Made real: artifice and accuracy in nineteenth-century scientific illustration

Luke Howard’s clouds and the persistence of convention

The meteorologist and chemist Luke Howard (1772–1864) appears, in many ways, a pioneer of mechanical objectivity. He is most famous for his classification of cloud-forms, introduced in an 1802 lecture to the Askesian Society – a practically oriented and largely non-conformist group dedicated to natural and experimental philosophy. Here we have the first successful classification of clouds – previously thought too changeable to be brought into a scientific system. In line with the move from 'truth-to-nature' to mechanical objectivity Howard later turned to longitudinal studies of the weather, making extensive use of a self-recording barometer, whose 'autographic curves'; he reproduced in Barometrographia (1847). What’s more, Howard's clouds have long been taken as exemplary of the intrusion into early-nineteenth century landscape painting of scientific standards of observation – so that just as the real, 'warts-and-all' specimen came to replace the ideal type in scientific depictions of the natural world, so too in fine art the idealised tree turned into an identifiable oak and the cloud into a cirrostratus (Klonk, 1996). Hence the questions that have typically been addressed to Howard's work, in the main by art historians, have tended to relate to Constable's cloud studies and their indebtedness (or not) to the classification (Badt, 1950).

As for Howard's cloud classification itself, analysis has been relentlessly linguistic. One of the major virtues of (and at times obstacles to) the classification was that it was written in what Howard called the 'universal language' of Latin – superseding Lamarck's colloquial French version and giving rigorous definitions of each term, again in Latin. As we will see, the early uptake of Howard's system was muddled by its inconsistent translation into English. In light of the plentiful material on Howard's language, it is not surprising that the only book-length treatment of Howard’s classification – Richard Hamblyn's The Invention of Clouds (2001) – is in the main concerned with the complex rhetorical strategies and personal allegiances that were mobilised in order to fend off competing nomenclatures (Hamblyn, 2001).

But what of the remarkable collection of cloud sketches by Howard, now held at the Science Museum and arguably the richest single source for understanding Howard’s work? As Ron Broglio has shown, Howard used painterly terms in order to convey the exact meaning of his new terms (Broglio, 2008, pp 146 ff). It is the argument of this section that, paralleling this painterly vocabulary, Howard also deployed the conventions of picturesque painting in order to secure the acceptance of his scheme through the images that went along with his texts. Here we find, especially in Howard’s collaboration with the painter Edward Kennion, an ever increasing interdependence of scientific objectivity and generic convention, most notably in the definitive publication of Howard’s Essay in 1865.

Although there is a large literature on the picturesque, and the genre is by no means conclusively defined, it is the term best suited to the effect that we see in Howard’s illustrations. I use it, therefore, in the broad sense of denoting a studied naturalism, in which staple objects (trees, clouds, castles), themselves based closely on natural observation, are placed in a variegated scene (i.e. lacking symmetry and with great depth). This has the benefit of matching closely the definition used by one of my principal actors, Edward Kennion (Kennion, 1815).

Figure 1

A watercolour painting of a cloud entitled light cirro cumulus about sunset

Cirrocumulus, cloud study, c 1803-1811, by Luke Howard.

The location of many of the sketches gives us an initial hint of their Romanticism. For many years Howard travelled between London and the Lake District in order to capture the full range of what he termed ‘cloud modifications’, training himself in the notoriously difficult art of depicting clouds, of fixing them as they changed – sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly – from stratus to cirrostratus, from cumulus to nimbus. These cloud sketches provide a remarkably intense record of Howard’s struggle with the ever-changing atmosphere. Some are barely begun, with just the outline of a scene that perhaps shifted too fast – some very complete, seemingly prepared for presentation or publication, with diagrammatic lines and lettering added.

Figure 2

Simple watercolour painting in blue of a cloud

Cloud study, watercolour, by Luke Howard.

Figure 3

Grey watercolour painting of a cloud formation with pencilled lines and letters

Cloud study, by Luke Howard, perhaps prepared for presentation or publication.

Establishing how these sketches were composed and the purpose for which they were intended is extremely difficult – the phrase ‘further research is needed’ could have been coined for these enigmatic illustrations. My purpose here is merely to begin the analysis, all the while bearing in mind the question of objectivity and how it relates to the making of images. The first thing to note, then, about these sketches is not the clouds themselves, but the preponderance of white space. In many cases Howard sketched in only the upper part of the paper, leaving the rest blank.

Figure 4

Grey and blue watercolour painting of a cloud formation

Cloud study, by Luke Howard, illustrating a preponderance of white space.

Here we have Howard’s first concession to painterly convention, albeit a small one. As we can see from some of the more finished sketches, the landscape itself was to be added after the clouds were finished. Howard, though expert in the depiction of clouds, was not a trained artist, and he needed assistance to complete the scene.

Figure 5

Grey and blue watercolour painting of a rural landscape and cloud formation

Cloud study and landscape, by Luke Howard, possibly with assistance from the painter Edward Kennion.

As I discuss in more detail below, Howard is known to have worked with the painter Edward Kennion, and it is likely that it was Kennion who embellished these early sketches, in one case even beginning a landscape without clouds and thus reversing the order of composition. But though the sketches are intriguing, there is vanishingly little evidence of the eventual or supposed use of most of them – even those labelled as diagrams seem not to have found an eventual published home – and so it is to the convoluted publication history of Howard’s clouds that we must turn if we are to establish the true role of imagery in the success of his classification.

The text of Howard’s lecture to the Askesian Society was published almost immediately in Alexander Tilloch’s Philosophical Magazine, appearing in three parts in the second half of 1803 (Howard, 1803a, 1803b, 1803c). The second of these was illustrated with three engraved plates, in which the seven modifications were shown (Hamblyn, 2001, pp 269–72). Here, perhaps surprisingly given the stylistic complexity of the sketches, details other than the clouds themselves are at a minimum. One of the limitations of copperplate engraving is that chiaroscuro is achieved by cross-hatching, so the great subtlety of the original watercolour becomes the somewhat crude delineation of the print.

Figure 6

Grey watercolour painting of a cloud formation entitled cirrus

Light cirro-cumulus beneath cirrus, 1803-1811, by Luke Howard.

Figure 7

Print of an engraving showing a cirrus cloud formation

Cirrus clouds depiction, engraving, by Luke Howard, appeared in Philosophical Magazine, 1803.

Of course, the virtue of this necessity is that the endlessly variable clouds themselves and the richly textured watercolours become fixed into the seven concrete forms – edges that were indefinable in the sky or on the easel become clear and sharp on the printing plate, suiting the nascent conventions of the encyclopaedic diagram (Klingender, 1947).

Where landscape is used in these illustrations, it is mainly pragmatic. The depiction of stratus clouds is particularly difficult in copperplate, because by convention the blue sky itself is already indicated by close horizontal lines. Here the ruling machine invented by the engraver of the plates Wilson Lowry, which allowed exceptionally fine delineation, proved essential. Howard further differentiates foreground and background by showing clouds among the landscape, with the tip of a hill poking up out of the vapour.

Figure 8

Print of an engraving of a landscape scene with very low lying clouds

Stratus clouds depiction, engraving, by Luke Howard, appeared in Philosophical Magazine, 1803.

But by far the most dramatic of this first set of illustrations is one that shows the transformation of the three main cloud-types into the rain cloud, nimbus. This singular image required no diagrammatic lettering and is not subdivided like the others – already it has a painterly, illustrative appearance. In the foreground that picturesque staple, the castle, gives depth to a view that  includes a lake and a distant hill.

Figure 9

Engraving of a hilltop castle overlooking a lake with a large cloud formation overhead

Cloud study and landscape, engraving, by Luke Howard.

Figure 10

Grey and blue watercolour painting of a cloud formation

Cirro stratus study, by Luke Howard. This sketch may be the basis of the engraving, with the castle added separately, perhaps by Kennion – certainly it shows the same groupings of cloud (reversed) with high cirro-stratus seeming to leap off into the wind, the direction of which is shown by the rain below.

Here it is important to note the functionality of the landscape. The dark clump of trees and sunlit face of the castle give the full range of shade necessary to interpret the clouds. The complexity of the landscape further enhances the differentiation evidence in the sky – as Howard put it in the accompanying text, the ‘principal modifications [of clouds] are commonly as distinguishable from each other as the tree from a hill, or the latter from a lake’, all of which are included here (Howard, 1803a, p 98; see Jacobus, 2012). Finally, the boats on the lake, far from being a kind of painterly tick, give us a clear indication of the direction of the wind, which carries the cumulus clouds into the massed nimbus. But as hinted at by the castle there is generic convention at work here in addition to the more purely diagrammatic elements.

As Hamblyn has shown, Howard’s scheme was quick to catch on, proving far more successful than any previous attempt to classify the clouds, and even attracting the attention of the great German poet and naturalist Goethe (Slater, 1972). Beyond this celebrity endorsement, success for Howard meant primarily that the cloud names were used in the meteorological tables in publications like the Philosophical Magazine, William Nicholson’s Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, and the Gentleman’s Magazine.

It was in the last of these that the sketches made their next appearance, appended to a letter from the most fervent early adopter of the new classification, the young astronomer and meteorologist Thomas Forster. Here we see the simplest presentation of the scheme, engraved after sketches that Forster calls ‘rough, but accurate’ (Forster, 1811). Almost contemporary with this, an updated version of Howard’s essay had appeared in Nicholson’s Journal without any illustration at all. At this point – with Howard’s classification clearly mapping on to Daston’s and Galison’s category of ‘truth-to-nature’, in which ‘reasoned images’ are presented, often stripped of all adornment and colour – we might expect the imagery of clouds to stabilise. The classification was a success, and Forster had supplied a handy identification guide to the extensive readership of the Gentleman’s Magazine.

Quite the opposite happened. Not only did Forster begin to extend the linguistic range of Howard’s scheme, but a bewildering range of new illustrations appeared, taking the clouds ever further into the realm of the picturesque and ever further from simple restraint, let alone mechanical objectivity. The first step was for Forster to produce his own illustrations in a book entitled Researches about Atmospheric Phaenomena (Forster, 1815). The scenes depicted here are clearly inspired by Howard’s collaboration with Kennion, and may in fact consist of Howard’s sketches surrounded with Forster’s landscapes – though the overall effect is quite rough by comparison with Kennion’s paintings. On the other hand, the clouds are reproduced lithographically for the first time, and the sky has been tinted in a rich blue. Here a rural scene is always used – and nor was this anathema to Howard’s cosmopolitan Latin, for even if he did not go as far as Forster, who appended English translations and colloquial names to the original classification, Howard insisted that his work united the ‘two kinds of knowledge’, with natural philosopher on one side and ‘the shepherd, the ploughman, [and] the mariner’ on the other (quoted in Anon, 1819).

Another dramatic alteration of Howard’s original scheme that is first evidenced in Forster’s illustrations is the breakdown of temporal order. Where the rain cloud scene engraved in the Philosophical Magazine expressly showed a moment in the development of the nimbus, Forster’s images now combine cloud modifications that could not possibly coexist, even juxtaposing different weather systems in the same image.

Surprisingly, when Howard had a greater hand in preparing the images the virtues of simplicity and restraint were even more conspicuously absent. In Rees’s finely produced Cyclopaedia, for example, four plates were provided to illustrate the lengthy exposition of Howard’s work. These engravings were based on works by Edward Kennion, and all of them are dramatic landscapes. In these illustrations, the detail, in particular of depicted observers, enhanced the sense of a real scene, even as the sky contained an unreal, systematic range of clouds. Here we can see a tension between Howard’s systematic intentions and Kennion’s usual style. Kennion was not only an expert on the picturesque, but was a pioneer of the accurate depiction of natural phenomena. The dominant presence of foliage – delineated in great detail – is a reflection of Kennion’s obsession with the accurate depiction of trees, the necessary adornment, in his view, of any successful landscape (Kennion, 1815).[2] So now we have Howard’s clouds – drawn directly from observation but combined in unnatural ways, alongside Kennion’s highly naturalistic but formally idealised landscape.

It is in this the Cyclopaedia sequence of works that we can see most clearly the Romantic categories of depiction at play. While Kennion typically sought the ‘picturesque’ or even the calmly ‘beautiful’ in his work, Howard tended to the more extreme ‘sublime’, in which strong emotional responses are inspired, only to be subdued by the reassertion of rational control over the scene. Plate II, for example, features two figures, one in which a sketch by Howard with embellishment by Kennion has been further added to at the point of engraving, eventually printed showing cirrus passing to cirrocumulus above cirrostratus, cumulus, and cumulostratus, all far behind a leafy scene.

Figure 11

Watercolour painting of a rural landscape with a large cloud formation overhead

Rural landscape and cloud study, watercolour, by Edward Kennion and Luke Howard.

Figure 12

Engraving of a rural landscape with a large cloud formation overhead

Rural landscape and cloud study, engraving, by Edward Kennion and Luke Howard.

The second of the two figures is even more informative. Here we have what is almost certainly a full landscape by Howard, one of the few that can be so identified, because the cloud fully shrouds the mountains, which in any case are crudely depicted. This, in the Cyclopaedia and presumably without further work by Kennion, has been engraved by Thomas Milton, who had previously (and appropriately enough) produced engraved versions of Romantic paintings such as The Deluge by Philip James de Loutherbourg. Here we are closer to the sublime landscapes of the period than to a typical encyclopaedic diagram, and another plate in the Cyclopaedia features pitifully small figures gesturing to the skies, reinforcing the comparison with other more famous Romantic works of the period, such as those by the German artist Caspar David Friedrich.

Figure 13

Grey watercolour painting of a cloud formation over mountains

Cloud study, pencil and grey wash, by Luke Howard, c 1808-1811.

Figure 14

Engraving of a cloud formation over mountains

Cloud study by Luke Howard, engraved by Thomas Milton, c 1808-1811.

The clouds of Howard’s sketch have again become more sharply delineated, some ‘distant cirri-strati’ have even appeared between the two mountain ranges – but in Milton’s engraving the mountains have become far more craggy and impressive than in the sketch, details for which de Loutherbourg’s melodramatic painting would have provided ample preparation.

As the classification became established new books or encyclopaedia articles featuring the cloud images appeared with increasing rapidity, typically embellishing Howard’s basic sketches in some new way. One of the Philosophical Magazine group, for example (see Figure 10), was to re-appear in George Harvey’s 1834 Treatise on Meteorology, with a whole new foreground of foliage added, the boats now reduced to mere details, almost along with the clouds themselves – yet the whole was produced ‘under the inspection of Luke Howard’. Even when diagrammatic conventions eventually took over towards the end of the century, this image continued to be reproduced as part of the set.

But the final triumph of the picturesque was to come as late as 1865, when Howard’s Essay was reprinted in its definitive form (Howard, 1865). This publication was arranged by Howard’s grandsons, their father having died the previous year. At last the set of finished Kennion/Howard collaborations was collected together, now reproduced in subtle lithography alongside Goethe’s poem in honour of Howard’s work. In this edition, the images are all reproduced lithographically, allowing the complexity of the clouds to return from their sharply outlined engraved form. This, in combination with the rough nature, the landscape embellishments and the just-classifiable variability of the clouds themselves make this the supreme picturesque version of Howard’s Essay (Gilpin, 1789).

Figure 15

Watercolour painting of a rural landscape with a large cloud formation overhead

Landscape and cloud study, watercolour, by Edward Kennion and Luke Howard, c 1808-1811.

By this time, of course, cloud photography was a realistic alternative (earlier exposure times having been far too long). And in this third edition of Howard’s Essay the editors recommended two sources of images alternative to Kennion’s: the spectacular steel engravings by James Charles Armytage in John Ruskin’s Modern Painters; and the prize-winning stereoscopic photographs prepared by James Washington Wilson of Aberdeen. Here, instead of the expected beginnings of the art/science split described by Daston and Galison, we see Armytage’s and Wilson’s clouds recommended alongside each other as a necessary complement to Howard’s studies.

Yet photography did eventually play a decisive role in cloud classification – as Lorraine Daston has shown, it was the photographic cloud atlas of 1896 that was to begin the standardisation of cloud observations that had become hopelessly fragmented in the intermediate years (Daston, 2008, pp 102 ff). Again we sense the triumph of mechanical objectivity. But photography itself was far from being the straightforward tool of disinterested truth-to-nature that some of its early advocates describe. Where my case-study of Howard and his cloud sketches shows that the conventions of the picturesque persisted for longer than we might expect, my next examples show that even after the advent of photography there could be many, many stages between an observation and its eventual portrayal on the page – and, what’s more, the convoluted production of an image was anything but an obstacle to its acceptance.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140208/003