As anecdotal evidence of past climate change goes, some of the most pleasant to contemplate involve paintings of supposedly typical events that involve the weather. Given the flourishing of secular themes in European art from the Renaissance on, most of this art comes from the 16th to 19th centuries. As readers here will know, this coincides (in the public mind at least) with the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ and somewhat inevitably this canon of work has been combed over with a fine tooth comb for evidence of particularly cold conditions.
The image that brought this issue to mind was seeing ‘Washington crossing the Delaware’ at the Met the other day and seeing the iceberg-like ice it was imagined (75 years after the event) that the rebels had had to row through in 1776. The first thing I noticed was that the ice is completely wrong for a river (which is just one of the errors associated with this picture apparently). River ice is almost always of the ‘pancake’ variety (as this photo from the Hudson river shows), and doesn’t form ‘growlers’. However, the confusion of artistic license with climatology appears to be a bit of a theme in other oft-cited works as well….
The most often shown images in this context are some of the winter landscapes painted by Pieter Breughel the Elder around 1565 and by subsequent followers of fashion (the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has a particularly fine collection if you are looking for something to do at EGU next month). The “Census in Bethlehem” (1566) is a snowy fantasy scene that ended up on the front cover of Brian Fagan’s book “The Little Ice Age”, but the one that pops up most frequently is ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565); another fantasy picture (who knew there were Alps in Belgium?). This painting was actually part of a series of 6 or 12 monthly or seasonal paintings. Of the five that survive, the one corresponding to September (‘The Harvesters’, 1565) shows some very pleasant weather indeed. No-one appears to be using that to argue for warm 16th century summers though….
The winter of 1564-1565 was however particularly cold in Europe and was one of the few occasions when a ‘frost fair’ was set up on the frozen River Thames in London. Other freezings of the river that far down the estuary were recorded in 923, 1063, 1076, 1410 (record freezing), 1536, 1608, 1683-4, 1715-6, 1739-40, Dec 1788, 1794-1795 and 1814 (only 4 days) (various sources, including here and here*). The fair in 1814 was the last one ever, mainly due to the demolition of the old London Bridge in 1831 and the increasing embankment of the river over the Victorian period, such that the river became much narrower and faster flowing, making it more difficult for ice to build up behind the bridges. It is often said that the frost fairs are indicative of the ‘Little Ice Age’ in the UK but the dates show quite a spread over periods that were thought to be generally warm as well as cold, and so is more likely indicative of simple weather variability. A brief examination of the Central England Temperature record (available from 1659), shows that in particular the winter of 1962-1963 (and potentially, 1878-1879) was easily as cold as some of the earlier frost fair years (which otherwise line up very nicely). However, in 1963 the Thames only froze down to Teddington (significantly up river from London), clearly showing that something other than climate was responsible for the recent lack of winter mid-river frolicking….
One of the most useful applications of art to climate though, are the realistic historical depictions of mountain glaciers particularly in the Alps, but also further afield. Glaciers have much longer timescales than weather events, and so a picture of a glacier is intergrating more climatic information than a snow-clad Flemish village scene. One of the most famous sets of images, of course, is the Argentiere glacier at Chamonix which was first used by Le Roy Ladurie in the 1960’s to demonstrate the changes in the modern period. This example certainly isn’t unique, but it is quite dramatic:
(Pictures 1 and 3 are from an encyclopedia article on the Little Ice Age . More examples of old glacier art can be seen here, and there are some more descriptions of the art of climate discussed in two articles in Weather magazine, Burroughs (1981) looked at this in a little more depth, as did Peter Robinson (2005) – apparently both are worth reading).
Anyway, all this to show that while art may imitate life, its imitation of climate needs to be considered quite carefully….
*Update: Phil Jones kindly pointed me to Table App. V. 6/7 in Lamb’s (1977) book where a fuller accounting of the Thames freeze-overs can be found: the full list of confirmed freezings in London from 1400 on is; 1408, 1435, 1506, 1514, 1537, 1565, 1595, 1608, 1621, 1635, 1649, 1655, 1663, 1666, 1677, 1684, 1695, 1709, 1716, 1740, 1776, 1795 and 1814. There are also a couple of possible reports for 1768 and 1785. I have not found any definitive listing for pre-1400 occasions other than those linked to above.