On This Day in 1816: Introducing ‘The Year Without a Summer’ Part I

We are very pleased to welcome Eleanor Fitzsimons (winner of the 2013 Keats-Shelley Prize and author of Wilde’s Women) to the BARS blog. This post, part of the ‘On This Day’ series, presents Part I of her essay ‘Every Cloud: How Art and Literature Benefited from a Year Without Summer’. Eleanor’s essay looks at 1816 as the year of no summer and examines the impact that catastrophic weather patterns had on the work of writers and painters such as Turner, Austen and the Shelleys. Part II is to follow.

We think you’ll all agree that this is a great way to introduce 1816 in 2016, a year in which we will be celebrating the bicentenaries of many important Romantic events. If you want to contribute to the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer (anna.mercer@york.ac.uk). 



JMW Turner. Weathercote Cave, near Ingleton, when half-filled with Water and the Entrance Impassable, a watercolour. British Museum

JMW Turner. Weathercote Cave, near Ingleton, when half-filled with Water and the Entrance Impassable, a watercolour. British Museum

Often, an artist must go to great lengths to get the aspect he desires. In 1808, English Romantic landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner scrambled to the bottom of Weathercote Cave, a misnamed pothole situated close to the hamlet of Chapel-le-Dale in North Yorkshire. On reaching a plateau, thirty-three meters below ground level, he unpacked his kit and produced a characteristically vibrant watercolor that captured the wild torrent of water as it tumbled from a cavity situated two-thirds up before terminating in a violent whirlpool at the base of towering rocks. Barely discernible at the foot of the canvas is a tiny figure that appears to represent the artist himself. Turner’s somewhat dramatized representation, which he presented to his great friend and patron Walter Fawkes, is titled simply Weathercote Cave, Yorkshire and can be seen in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery.

Turner loved to paint the Northern English landscape and experimented with dramatic light and weather effects in his compositions. In recognition of his deep appreciation for the untamed beauty of the region, Longman & Co. commissioned him to produce one-hundred-and-twenty watercolours for incorporation into an illustrated history of Yorkshire, the accompanying text to be supplied by the Reverend Dr. Thomas Dunham Whitaker, the highly respected author of a well-received series of scholarly histories. Although artist and author had worked together on Whitaker’s The History of Whalley (1801) and his The History of Craven (1812), this would be by far their most ambitious collaboration and Turner’s fee of three thousand guineas was the highest paid to a British artist at the time.

On July 12, 1816, Turner left London and travelled north to Farnley Hall near Otley, the home of Walter Fawkes, who was to accompany him on this lucrative tour. Regrettably, the undertaking proved to be far from pleasurable. Although the entire Fawkes family set out with the artist on a series of excursions to local beauty spots, the company disbanded at the end of a week of almost constant rain that culminated in a thorough soaking as they traversed the moors that led to the towering cliffs of Gordale Scar. In order to complete the sketches that would form the basis of his finished watercolours, Turner had no option but to negotiate his way around the vast county of Yorkshire, a distance of more than five hundred miles, alone on horseback in torrential rain. At some point, a capricious wind must have snatched his little sketchbook from his hands, since one page is coated in mud to this day. As he went, he recorded how his progress was hampered by the frightful weather that blighted the summer of 1816: ‘Weather miserably wet. I shall be web-footed like a drake…but I must proceed northwards. Adieu’, he lamented in a letter to watercolorist James Holworthy, dated July 31, 1816

Turner returned to Weathercote cave that summer with the intention of sketching it for inclusion in his book, but days of incessant rain had left it submerged and completely inaccessible; ‘Weathercote full’, he scribbled on the pencil study he made that day. His finished painting, the cumbersomely titled Weathercote Cave, near Ingleton, when half-filled with Water and the Entrance Impassable, a watercolour, is on view in the British Museum; this time the perspective is from above. Days later, the route Turner followed took him across the treacherous Lancaster Sands, a low tide shortcut that intersected Morecombe Bay and was particularly dangerous after heavy rainfall. As he went, he sketched a sodden band of horsemen huddling together in the lee of the Lancaster coach while ferocious rain crashed down from an angry sky. His dramatic Lancaster Sands is housed in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

JMW Turner. Lancaster Sands. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

JMW Turner. Lancaster Sands. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

After all his efforts, Turner must have been disappointed when spiralling costs ensured that the project was scaled down significantly and just one of the proposed seven volumes was published. He had been desperately unfortunate in his timing. The apocalyptic weather that blighted the summer of 1816 was truly exceptional and had its origins in an event that occurred fifteen months earlier and many thousands of miles from England. On the evening of April 10, 1815, the tiny island of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago was rocked when Mount Tambora, the highest mountain in the region and a volcano that was long believed to be extinct, produced its largest eruption for ten thousand years. The outcome was catastrophic. Eyewitness accounts describe how the summit disintegrated, leaving behind a crater measuring three miles wide and half a mile deep. Horrified locals watched open-mouthed as three towering columns of rock-laden fire shot thirty miles skywards and a pyrocastic flow of incandescent ash surged down the mountainside at a speed of in excess of one hundred miles an hour, scouring everything in its path. On reaching the coast, twenty-five miles from its point of origin, this boiling mass cascaded into the sea, destroying aquatic life for miles and forming vast platforms of pumice that blockaded vital ports and inlets.

Ten times the quantity of debris that had buried Pompeii two millennia earlier rained down on Sumbawa and its neighboring islands during what remains to this day the largest recorded eruption in history. On Sumbawa, the cool air that was sucked into the vacuum left by the inexorable rise of superheated air formed a ferocious whirlwind that moved across the ravaged landscape, destroying everything before it. The tiny villages of Tambora and Sanggar, which had clung safely to the slopes of Mount Tambora for generations, were wiped out entirely and an estimated ten thousand people died in an instant. Fresh water sources were contaminated and crops withered in the fields, resulting in the death by starvation of a further eighty thousand inhabitants of the region. For days, the archipelago was battered by towering tsunamis and such was the extent of the devastation and loss of life that the indigenous Tambora language was eradicated forever.

On the northern shore of Eastern Java, three hundred miles away, residents of the city of Surabaya reported that the ground shook beneath their feet. On hearing a series of thunderous roars, startled inhabitants of the island of Sumatra, which lay one thousand miles northwest of Sumbawa, concluded that they had come under attack from some deadly enemy force, although they couldn’t be sure if it were human or supernatural. Within days, the entire region was enveloped in an ash cloud so fine that tiny particles suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere blocked adequate sunlight from filtering through. The entire East Indies, as the region was known, was plunged into an oppressive and unnatural darkness. Within three months an aerosol cloud of sulphide gas compounds had encircled the Earth from pole to pole. Volcanic dust entered the high stratosphere, supplementing debris deposited there by two earlier volcanic eruptions: La Soufrière on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in 1812, and Mount Mayon on the island of Luzon in the Philippines in 1814. Although he had not witnessed the spectacular eruption of La Soufrière, Turner had painted it, basing his vivid oil painting on a sketch made by Hugh Perry Keane, a barrister and sugar plantation owner who was present that day. Keane wrote an account of the eruption in his diary:

Thurs 30: … in the afternoon the roaring of the mountain increased & at 7 o’clock the Flames burst forth, and the dreadful Eruption began. All night watching it – between 2 & 5 o’clock in the morning, showers of Stones & Earthquakes threatened our immediate Destruction …Wed 6 May: … The Volcano again blazed away from 7 till ½ past 8. Thurs 7: Rose at 7. Drawing the eruption.

Turner’s painting, The Eruption of the Soufrière Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, 1815, can be viewed at the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool.

JMW Turner. The Eruption of the Soufrière Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, 1815. Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool

JMW Turner. The Eruption of the Soufrière Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, 1815. Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool

All this volcanic activity had a disastrous impact on the weather, and nowhere on Earth escaped the consequences of this latest cataclysm. Across the globe, average temperatures plummeted by five degrees Fahrenheit as weather patterns were thrown into absolute chaos. In time, 1816 would be dubbed ‘the year without summer’. In Asia, unseasonably cold weather coupled with unprecedented early monsoons caused catastrophic floods that destroyed the rice crop and wiped out valuable livestock. Famine gripped China, killing many thousands of her citizens, while India was devastated by a cholera epidemic that swept through the subcontinent. In North America, accumulating snow was observed in the Catskill Mountains as late as June 1816, and it snowed on Independence Day in the southern state of Virginia.

Unprecedented quantities of weirdly-hued, ash-laden snow fell all over Europe and it was still snowing in London as late as July 1816. By the following September, the Thames had frozen and abnormally large hailstones were flattening the wheat and barley crops as they ripened in the fields. In neighboring Ireland, eight weeks of incessant rain resulted in the failure of both the potato crop and the corn harvest, triggering a widespread famine that provided a foretaste of what was to come three decades later. Starvation was followed inexorably by disease. Typhus erupted throughout the British Isles before fanning outwards across Europe and killing tens of thousands of her citizens.


(To be continued…)


About the author: 

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer and journalist specialising in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize with her essay ‘The Shelleys in Ireland’ and she is a contributor to the Romanticism Blog. Her work has been published in a range of newspapers and journals including The Irish Times, the Guardian, History Ireland and History Today. She is a regular radio and television contributor. Her book, Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew was published by Duckworth Overlook on 16 October 2015. She tweets as @EleanorFitz.