After what, for England, had been a unusual number of weeks without rain, here were the clouds again. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed them. I've never before been so aware of the sky as a "vault" as I have since living out here in the open, rolling hills -- and never so conscious of clouds. A bland, unvaried blue for a while is pleasant, no doubt, but its happy ampleness does tend towards a sort of emptiness in the end. The great building-up of clouds, though, that vast, silent accumulation, is eloquence made visible. Its scale is marvellously immeasurable, but, unlike merely azure space , it is all the time, changingly, setting up contrasts -- of brilliance and silhouette, of the gigantic and the belittled, of immense height and widest extent. The nearest clouds are as unreachable as the farthest; in fact "near" and "far" are often intriguingly lost in spatial ambiguity.
Clouds are a painter's dream. Constable made studies of them alone. He verbally described the sky -- and he certainly thought of it as cloud-filled and not as some white, plain backdrop -- as "the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment" in any landscape painting. Turner, even more, sw how analogous could be the processess of forming a painting on paper or canvas and of clouds being formed in the sky. Ocean, mountain, lake, even buildings and boats, are liberated in his pictures into a painterly realm as vaporous as clouds. Turner's sky and earth merge almost indistinguishably in a kind of sublime vortex. After all, the world is in the sky.m
Clouds suggest weather in the paintings of Hobbema and Ruysdael. In Vermeer's famous view of Delft, they do more than that. What would his picture be without those clouds? They set its tonal truthfulness and dominate its atmosphere, which is strange when you consider how undramatic they are. Far more dramatic is El Greco's extraordinary vision of their sky-language in hism famous view of Toledo. Here is a symphonic agitation of surging thunderclouds which entirely oppress the hillscape, giving it ominous weight and awe.
You feel that if any subject is native to the wielder of brush and paint, it is cloudscape.
The French Impressionists are unsurpassed for their delight in cheerful summer skies, elated with floating, scudding clouds, brilliantly illumind from the back. It is impossible to gaze at the sky without being conscious of this history of painters who have been inspired by it. Yet none of them come much closer than a hint of the sky itself -- its breath-giving, arm-stretching, open-eyed expanse, and its slowly, forever altering wonders.
One time when I had some friends visiting, the evening sky put on what I can only describe as a performance. We the audience stood on the top of the outside stone steps at the studio door. It seemed as though the normal pace of the cloudscape's change had been suddenly speeded up. No threat was involved, no approaching storm or black lowering, no rain, and where we stood, no wind. But the whole sky, particularly to the west, was bursting with silent activity. It was one boundless display of light, of sweeping clouds, amassing, dispersing, whirling, floating, wisping, unfurling, rushing, approaching, retreating, flowing, sinking. It was like some universal entertainment. It was a most exalted sense of playfulness. All we could say was, "Look!" and watch, dumbfounded.
If any words come near that experience for me, they must be Hopkins' ecstasy in "Hurrahing in Harvest":
". . . up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilfulwavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?"