phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017
Image Credit: Detail from 'Cloud Study Hampstead/ Tree' at Right, 11 September 1821, oil on paper laid on board, Given by Isabel Constable, 1888 Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo credit/ © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer / John Hammon

Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017

2 July 2017 | Laura Garmeson

All that is solid melts into air in this ambitious new exhibition, which sets itself the lofty task of giving artistic form to this most immaterial of substances. Spanning over four centuries of British art, the expansive collection of works now on display at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol takes a freewheeling, multifarious approach to air and atmosphere, from flight, breath, clouds, wind, pollution, to hot-air balloons.

‘What is the sky without clouds?’ In the catalogue accompanying Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017, Exhibitions Curator Gemma Brace ventures an answer: ‘without clouds there is no sense of space or time to the vastness above us.’ If the stated aim of this new exhibition, occupying a suitably airy series of high-ceilinged rooms at the RWA, is to ‘visualise the invisible’, capturing clouds seems like a good place to start.


Image Credit: L. S. Lowry, A Manufacturing Town (1922), oil on panel, 43.2 x 53.3 cm. British Council Collection. Photo © Art Image Library LTD. © The Estate of L.S Lowry. 

It was John Constable who encapsulated the Romantic era’s predilection for gazing heavenward with his concept of ‘skying’, the act of looking up at the clouds in a state of artistic meditation. The roving, ethereal nature of the sky provided a source of endless inspiration for many artists of the time. In 1821-2 Constable made a series of sky studies in oil, keeping notes of the time of day and weather conditions in a visual cloud diary, complete with jottings like: ‘morning under the sun – clouds silvery grey, on warm ground sultry’. He even had a favourite type of cloud: the frothy cumuli.

J. M. W. Turner was another great painter of clouds, preferring swirling washes of watercolour over oil. In his unfinished work The Thames above Waterloo Bridge (1830-5), the space of the sky is dominated by the dark plumes of smoke emerging from two funnels of a steam boat, with smoky factories against the city shrouded in mist in the background. This was a time when visitors to London frequently commented on the low-hanging smog of soot and smoke over the city. Further paintings highlight this growing industrial nature of London, like the towers of Lowry’s A Manufacturing Town (1922). 


Image Credit: Capacity, Anne Cattrell

Of course, the act of inhaling marks the point of communion between air and body; the point at which air becomes breath. Various artworks address this here, notably in Annie Cattrell’s exquisite glass sculpture Capacity (2007), which used the pressure of exhaling breath to map the tiny bronchioles of a pair of lungs. This fragile, beautiful artwork shows the human organ in all its glittering frailty. Meanwhile Neville Gabie’s Collective Breath (2014) used a drum-like contraption to collect the breath of 1,111 people and use it to play a single note over the Atlantic Ocean for 49 minutes.


Image Credit: Collective Breath, 2014, steel, wood, billboard, plexiglass photograph and sound installation, courtesy of the artist and Danielle Arnauld, commissioned by Womad Festival at Charlton Park, 2014, Neville Gabie © The Artist. Photograph Stuart Ward

Another distinctive element of our relationship with air is flight. In Christopher Nevinson’s Battlefields of Britain (1942) the Official War Artist painted the English fields from the pilot’s perspective above the clouds. Balloons take on a sinister symbolism in The Balloon Apron (1918) by Frank Dobson, where the bright blue of the sky is studded with barrage balloons designed to force enemy aircraft to fly higher, thus protecting towns and factories from bombing. More modern works by Bridget McCrum include fluid sculptures and drawings of curved birds in flight, wings outstretched.


Image Credit: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump ,1768, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. © The National Gallery.

The opening of this exhibition coincided with the first ever National Clean Air Day on 15 June, and the awareness of air quality and our dependence upon it are referred to repeatedly in the exhibition. The first Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, after the great London smog of 1952 which lasted for five days solid. With works of such beauty and variety on display, we should wake up to our fragility in the face of this turbulent atmosphere and pay homage to this air that we live and breathe.
 
Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art 1768-2017 is on display at the Royal West of England Academy until 3 September.

Tell us what you think

You may also like

Madonnas & Miracles at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Madonnas & Miracles at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In the early morning of 24 August 2016 the Nunnery of Santa Camilla Battista da Varano suffered a catastrophe. A series of earthquakes measuring 6.2…

Brighton’s Must See Gigs this November

Brighton’s Must See Gigs this November

November is a bit of a nothing month really. Sure, you’ve got Bonfire Night, but apart from that what else is going on? Gigs, that’s what!…

Top 5 Churches to Visit in Oxford

Top 5 Churches to Visit in Oxford

Oxford is famous for its spires and we’ve come up with a few suggestions for those looking to explore the dizzying architectural heights of this richly…

An Interview with Filmmaker and Photographer Qiu Yang

An Interview with Filmmaker and Photographer Qiu Yang

Though only young, Qiu Yang is quickly becoming a talent to watch. Born and raised in Changzhou, China, he went to Australia to study film-directing.…

A Guide to the Bristol Refugee Festival 2017

A Guide to the Bristol Refugee Festival 2017

In this month-long festival of arts, culture and educational events, Bristol pays homage to the extensive contributions made to the city by asylum seekers and…

The Best Cycle Paths in Bristol

The Best Cycle Paths in Bristol

As one of the UK’s greenest cities, Bristol and its citizens are well versed in cycling lore. The city and its surroundings are criss-crossed with well-maintained…

Kazem Hakimi: Portraits from a Chip Shop

Kazem Hakimi: Portraits from a Chip Shop

Modern Art Oxford and the Old Fire Station have come together to put on one of the best photography exhibitions of the year so far,…

A Gin Lovers Guide to the UK

A Gin Lovers Guide to the UK

With sales of the spirit reaching an all-time high in recent years, it’s safe to say that we are living through a gin revival – a…

An Art Lover’s Guide to British Gardens

An Art Lover’s Guide to British Gardens

Nature and the artist have always been familiar bedfellows. From the waterlily paintings of Monet to Matisse’s infamous 19th century paper cut-outs, gardens have borne the…

Half-Term Activities in the West Midlands

Half-Term Activities in the West Midlands

It feels like the Christmas holidays were only yesterday, but already half-term is nearly upon us. From the 17 – 26 February, school’s out – but how…

Most popular

On Record: An Interview with Sophie Willan

On Record: An Interview with Sophie Willan

We talk to Sophie Willan about her experiences of social care and mental health, and her sell out comedy show.
Top 5 Roasts in Dorset

Top 5 Roasts in Dorset

After a long walk across the Jurassic coast, we can't think of much better than roasted food covered in warm thick gravy. Here are our top picks of where to find that in Dorset.
Top 5 Comedy Venues in the UK

Top 5 Comedy Venues in the UK

Our pick of the best places to get your giggle on, any night of the week, wherever you are.
Win a Pair of Tickets to a Screening of Hot Fuzz in a Police Cell!

Bristol Film Festival - Win a Pair of Tickets to a Screening of Hot Fuzz in a Police Cell!

Win a pair of tickets to see a screening of Bronson in a prison cell as part of Bristol Film Festival!
Win a Pair of Tickets to a Screening of Bronson in a Police Cell!

Bristol Film Festival - Win a Pair of Tickets to a Screening of Bronson in a Police Cell!

Win a pair of tickets to see a screening of Bronson in a prison cell as part of Bristol Film Festival!
Win tickets to a screening of This is Spinal Tap!

Bristol Film Festival - Win tickets to a screening of This is Spinal Tap!

Catch the cult classic at this year's Bristol Film Festival!
Inside Dog and Scone - Newcastle’s First Dog Café

Inside Dog and Scone - Newcastle’s First Dog Café

You've heard of cat cafe's, now try Newcastle's very first dog cafe - the perfect opportunity to cuddle over a coffee.
National Sticky Bun Day: Top 5 Sticky Buns in the UK

National Sticky Bun Day: Top 5 Sticky Buns in the UK

Knowing that that 21 Feb is dedicated to Sticky Buns and their excellence cheers us on our darkest days. Here's our pick of where to go on Sticky Bun Day.
An Interview with Tez Ilyas

An Interview with Tez Ilyas

We chat to comedian Tez Ilyas ahead of his upcoming tour.
A Guide to Nightlife in York

A Guide to Nightlife in York

Our pick of the best places places to dance the night away in in York

Your inbox deserves a little culture!