Art and climate

The_HarvestersHunters in the Snow (1565)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….

Winter Central England Temperature and Frost FairsFrost Fair 1814The 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….

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