Return to the Rainbow

John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1830-31. Tate Britain, London.

I’ve been meaning to come back to this painting for a long time, having originally written about it in May 2020 as Picture of the Day 47, and now is the time to do it, given that I will be talking about the Royal Academy’s Late Constable exhibition this Monday, 17 January at 6pm. Today I am basically just re-posting an old blog, but I needed to correct a mistake I made, which is all the more embarrassing, because somewhere, in an admittedly obscure publication, I committed this error to print. But more of that when we get there. After Late Constable, I will move on to Treasures from Buckingham Palace and then some Pre-Raphaelite Sisters but there are more details about them on the diary page. Or there will be. Soon. I’m a bit busy… Meanwhile – what was I thinking about Constable near the beginning of the pandemic? Let’s have a look (queue the ‘going back in time’ music…):

Sometimes a painting is asking to be talked about. I heard on the radio – yesterday morning I think it was – that the foundation stone of Salisbury Cathedral was laid on 28 April 1220 – 800 years ago last Tuesday. This, in itself, made me think about today’s painting, but then I was reminded of it again yesterday while writing about the Pathetic Fallacy (Picture Of The Day 46). Having said that, it was already in my mind, I suppose. Last week I was challenged to include three words in my blog – ‘crepuscular’, ‘vicissitudes’ and ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. I succeeded with the first two in POTD 41 and 42. This is the only painting I can think of for the third.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 John Constable 1776-1837 Purchased by Tate with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Manton Foundation and the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and Tate Members in partnership with Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, National Galleries of Scotland; and Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum 2013

On October 23, 1821, Constable wrote to his friend, John Fisher, saying that, ‘It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment’ – by which he meant that the sky would set the emotional tone of the painting. This is, as close as you could reasonably want, a statement acknowledging something that would not be named for another 35 years: the Pathetic Fallacy. It was defined, and discussed at length, by John Ruskin in the third volume of his Modern Painters, published in 1856. We use the word ‘pathetic’ in such a different way now. Back then it was related to feeling, as in pathos, and not to being weak. It was a mistake, or fallacy, Ruskin said, to attribute feelings (pathos) to inanimate objects – such ideas would be the imaginings of an unhinged mind. However, he did go on to say that, poetically speaking, this was not a bad thing, as long as the emotion it produced was genuine: ‘Now, so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight, which it induces’. Even if it gets the name of an error, the Pathetic Fallacy is one of the essential tools of the artist’s – and poet’s – craft.

It came into play a decade after Constable’s letter, when he worked on this particular painting. His wife Maria had died in 1829, and Fisher wrote to him suggesting that he might want to paint Salisbury Cathedral as a way of occupying himself during his grief – effectively a form of therapy – saying, ‘I am quite sure that the “church under a cloud” is the best subject you can take’. 

Before I go any further, I should clear up a potential source of misunderstanding. Constable had two friends called John Fisher, one of whom was also a patron, and both of whom lived in Salisbury. One, the patron, was Bishop of Salisbury, and the other, with whom Constable corresponded more regularly, and in whom he confided, was the nephew of the Bishop, and was an Archdeacon at the Cathedral. This can only have led to confusion in the 19thCentury, and it still does today.

Constable’s letter of 1821 had been written after a summer of ‘skying’, as he called it – going out onto Hampstead Heath and painting the sky, so he could get better at it, and it would become easier, and more natural for him.  He was already familiar with the weather. He was the son of a corn merchant who owned mills, and young John often had to man them himself. You need to know when a storm is coming, because if you don’t disable a windmill it could be destroyed. As a result he was entirely adept at reading the weather. By the autumn of 1821, he was also adept at painting it. He favoured a contrast of light and dark, of blue sky and cloud, so that the ground itself would be a patchwork of sunlight and shadow. But the sky in today’s painting is more than usually stormy: he really does seem to have taken Fisher’s suggested title, the “church under a cloud” to heart. Indeed, so bad is it, that lightning is striking the roof of the North Transept – the part of the church to the left of the crossing if you are looking at the High Altar.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 John Constable 1776-1837

Is this an autobiographical reference? I would say ‘yes’, particularly given that Fisher had suggested this very subject in his letter of August 1829. But other things were going on at the time, things in which both Johns – Constable and Fisher (Jr) were particularly interested. In 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed, and both thought this might pose a threat to the Church of England, the Established Church. Not only that, but debates were already underway for what would become the Reform Bill of 1832, one result of which was to give the vote to a large number of nonconformists. Another threat, perhaps, to the Established Church. Indeed, one subject for debate was that the church should actually be disestablished, a notion strongly contested by both Constable and Fisher, who were both ardent supporters of antidisestablishmentarianism. The church was under more than one cloud. In the painting it appears as a physical storm, with lightning striking the roof of the church. Constable himself was undoubtedly going through ‘Stormy Weather’ after the death of his wife. And ‘The Church’ as a whole – not just this building – was going through its own political storm, a result of changes in political thought. Would the Established Church survive? 

The answer would seem to be given to us by the rainbow. As we saw in POTD 37 the rainbow is a symbol of hope and optimism, given to Noah as a sign of God’s covenant that he will never again destroy the earth, as he had with the deluge. Constable acknowledges this symbolism, and with it, tells us that not only will he personally be alright – he will survive his grief – but also that he knows that the church will ride the political storm. However, the rainbow was not part of Constable’s original plans for the painting: it was not in his first sketches. It is an idea which came to him later on. It is certainly not something he witnessed first hand. No one ever has – nor ever could. [Or that’s what I thought when I first wrote this post – and I’m going to leave the next paragraphs so you can see what I said first time around…]

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 John Constable 1776-1837

How can I be so sure? Well, it comes down to the geography of the church, which is, as churches should be, orientated: the altar faces the East (POTD 38). The North Transept sticks out to the left of the building – where we see the lightning strike – and the façade of the Cathedral that is so clearly visible (Constable was a master at manipulating light) is at the West End. The rainbow forms an arc of a circle (following the science of optics it cannot do otherwise), which appears to stretch from Northeast to Southwest, given that it cuts across the Cathedral on a diagonal. I don’t know if you know this, but you only get a rainbow when it is both rainy and sunny, and if you are looking at a rainbow, then the sun must be behind you. The sunlight travels over your head into the rain, and the light reflects back from the back of the raindrops. As it enters and leaves each raindrop it is refracted, each wavelength of light being refracted by a different amount, thus splitting white light into a rainbow. The light then comes back towards you, and makes it look as if the rainbow is in front of you. Here’s a diagram, thanks to the Met Office:

So, if we are looking at the rainbow as Constable has painted it, the sun must be behind us, i.e. in the Northwest. But Salisbury, and indeed, the whole of Europe, is in the Northern hemisphere, and so the sun never gets anywhere that is not South. It is impossible to see a rainbow in this position. But that doesn’t matter. This isn’t science, this isn’t a photograph, this is art – and the rainbow expresses hope. After all, the spire of the Cathedral passes in front of the darkest area of cloud and then up into the light. Again, this is a symbol of optimism.

Nowadays Salisbury Cathedral has gained something of a reputation as the must-see building for any self-respecting Russian spy, and they are not wrong – it is a fantastic building. The spire is the tallest in the country, and the cloister and cathedral close are also the largest in the land. The main body of the church is remarkably coherent stylistically, having been completed in a mere 38 years – not long for a building of this size that was started 800 years ago. It is well worth the visit, and, once we can travel again, I would recommend that you go. We are all “under a cloud” at the moment, but like Noah, like Constable – and like Salisbury Cathedral – we will get through it. 

By the way, Constable was not being careless when he chose to paint the rainbow here. It’s worthwhile remembering that other myth about rainbows – that there is a pot of gold at its end. Even if this is, in itself, unscientific (were there no ground in the way a rainbow would form a complete circle, and so it wouldn’t have an ‘end’) there isn’t gold at the end of this rainbow, but lead. Or rather, a house, called Leadenhall. Which is precisely where Archdeacon John Fisher lived. I’ve said it before: art is alchemy, turning base metal into gold. Constable is not only showing us his gratitude to Fisher, he is also reminding us where true value lies. The gold at the end of the rainbow is friendship.

OK – so that’s what I said back in April 2020. But compare and contrast the following:

When I set up these blogs I see the images in a certain way, but I know that sometimes they shift: I do hope you are seeing them side by side. I am incredibly grateful to Brian Plummer – a resident of Salisbury and one of the trustees of the Salisbury Museum – who both took and sent me the photograph on the right. Clearly Salisbury has changed a bit in the last two centuries, but this is the cathedral seen, if not from exactly the same place, at least from exactly the same angle. To the right of the lamppost, and just above the trees, you should be able to see the very tops of the pinnacles of the façade, which is in the same relationship to the spire as it is in the painting… and a rainbow can be seen very clearly arcing around them. I still can’t entirely explain how this is possible! The physics are right (in case you didn’t know, I was an entrance scholar in physics when I went to university…), and the Met Office diagram confirms the fact: if you are looking at a rainbow then the sun must be behind you. Or rather, if you are looking at the centre of a rainbow while facing it flat on, the sun must be behind you. But you could then turn away from it, and still look over your shoulder to see it… the sun wouldn’t be behind you then. That’s not a very good explanation, but it must be something like that. We humans don’t exist as infinitesimal points in space, after all, and we also have a tendency to move around and look all around us as we go. It doesn’t get away from the fact that Constable would never have stood outside painting one of his ‘six footers’ in the rain, nor does it take away from the idea that the rainbow in his painting is primarily a symbol. He may well have seen a rainbow here, or hereabouts, and then adjusted it to curve so beautiful around the other forms in the composition to land on Fisher’s house…

As it happens, this painting doesn’t make it to the Late Constable exhibition, although a sketch of it does. I am looking forward to talking about it on Monday. And I’m looking forward to going back to Salisbury (I still haven’t made it since the lockdowns) to try and work out precisely how this is possible.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

7 thoughts on “Return to the Rainbow

  1. “I still can’t entirely explain how this is possible!” – isn’t it simply that the sun sets at around 310 degrees around the summer solstice, so a low sun (the rainbow appears ‘tall’) would be in the right place to form this rainbow? It seems that viewpoint cannot be farther north than NW (315 degrees) given that the west face of the (square) tower appears wider than the north face in the painting.

    PS. Really enjoyed your Stories of Art modules for NG last year – thank you. They were definitely the highlights of the series.


  2. “I still can’t entirely explain how this is possible!” – isn’t it simply that the sun sets at around 310 degrees around the summer solstice, so a low sun (the rainbow appears ‘tall’) would be in the right place to form this rainbow? It seems that viewpoint cannot be farther north than NW (315 degrees) given that the west face of the (square) tower appears wider than the north face in the painting.

    PS. Really enjoyed your Stories of Art modules for NG last year – thank you. They were definitely the highlights of the series.


    1. Dear Stephen – thank you! It’s so obvious really. I was looking at the photo thinking ‘but the light on the tower does appear to be coming from the north west…’ and not clicking. My problem is geography – I never coped with it at school (and only recently was corrected when I said something was east rather than west…). That and astronomy. Having learnt as a child that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, even though I know about it, I never take the earth’s declination, and so the change in the sun’s journey at times other than the equinoxes… So, as I say, thank you! I can stop worrying about it now – and probably delete half the post!!! I’ll let it wait for another 18 months, though, maybe, or another painted rainbow!


  3. Just when I thought Constable couldn’t be more loveable…You are perhaps his ideal interpreter: Pathetic Fallacy and meteorological observation, physics and art. I wonder what you think about his rainbow and anguished skies over Hampstead Heath, intimate studies of grief that one scarcely dares intrude upon.


  4. Thank you – although my geography and astronomy are very questionable (see Stephen’s comment above)! And yes, the sky studies are wonderful – small, but among my favourite works.


  5. Hi Richard

    I’m not sure that Stephen’s explanation does solve the problem, since the sun isn’t directly behind the observer but seems to be illuminating the west face and west side of the tower. In fact there is too much shadow altogether on the cathedral for there to be a rainbow at all, as comparison with the photo makes clear. I’m afraid we must regards Constable’s rainbow as strictly metaphorical!


    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Yes – it is a metaphor, or symbol, as this is a painting, not a photo – but my initial conviction that it was completely impossible to have any sort of rainbow here is wrong. It is possible, even if Constable didn’t see it quite like he painted it. Anyway, a recent theory – which I hadn’t come across when I wrote the original blog, or when I added to it, even if the theory does pre-date both – is that the rainbow wasn’t added until a year after the painting was first exhibited: nobody back then commented on the rainbow! It may have been added after Fisher died in 1832…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: