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A cold and windy evening last Thursday did not deter good numbers from turning out to hear a talk by Professor John Thornes about the rainbow in John Constable’s wonderful Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. And the questions from the floor at the end – from who it was that discovered the colours of the rainbow (Newton) to why the rainbow isn’t reflected in the river (they don’t reflect apparently) – confirmed the fascination of the audience in what Professor Thornes had to say.

Salisbury from the Meadows_0

It is pretty well known that the rainbow was added sometime after the original painting was declared complete, and that the rainbow ends, in the painting, at Leadenhall, the home of Constable’s great friend, Fisher. It is also well known that it was likely added to the painting to mark his friend’s death. What most of us didn’t know, and it literally had the audience catching its breath, was that the height and position of the rainbow is such that it was accurately depicted by Constable as how a rainbow would have appeared on the afternoon of the day of Fisher’s death in August 1832. Which is why it didn’t look right in the context of the painting to John Thornes, who is Emeritus Professor, Birmingham University School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Is the position of the rainbow just coincidence? Or more?

It transpires that Constable was something of a scientist as well as an artist and had spent the early 1820s painting nothing but clouds and recording the weather on the back of many such paintings. He also had friends who were developing the science of meteorology and it is likely that he was able to work out what sort of rainbow ( height, position, etc ) would have appeared on the day of his friend’s death. Because a rainbow is created from the position of the sun on the rain in front of the viewer, any depiction of a rainbow can be dated (by those who understand the solar geometry!).

If you want to know more, you might try tracking down Prof Thorne’s book, John Constable’s Skies, published in 1999… Fascinating. And I shall be going in to the museum to look at that painting again!