It’s said the British never stop remarking on their weather. How will they cope in decades to come, when life is all weather, all the time? The country ran a brief test a few weeks ago: in mid- to late February the sun blazed, spring surprised itself, and the temperature in London, where I live, reached over 20°C (68°F). Boon or portent? Meteorological holiday or climate-change hell? Beautiful or sublime? Britons could not agree. It’s now mid-March, and I was awoken at five this morning by rattling windows and the rising shriek of a storm called Gareth (not the direst of names). Abruptly, spring is canceled, and London’s squares are littered with the corpses of premature blossoms.
As the wind died in the morning, I wandered around to Finsbury Circus, on the north side of which the London Institution once stood. It was here, on February 4 and February 11, 1884, that the essayist and art critic John Ruskin (who was born two hundred years ago last month) delivered “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century”: a pair of apocalyptic lectures on modern weather. Ruskin was days away from his sixty-sixth birthday when he rose to address a skeptical audience on the subject of “a series of cloud phenomena, which, so far as I can weight existing evidence, are peculiar to our own times.” His powers as writer and orator were not yet depleted; such masterpieces as Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice were behind him, but the autobiographical Praeterita, his last great work, remained to be written. Still, Ruskin’s psychic weather was on the turn. In 1878 he suffered the first of several breakdowns, and was unwell enough, later that year, to miss the infamous libel case that James McNeill Whistler brought against him after Ruskin accused the artist in print of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Read More