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Rendering the poetry of the rainbow  

21 December 2017

Artists and scientists have long interacted positively and imaginatively with religion, says Roger Wagner

© Tate Britain

Over-arching: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, exhibited by John Constable in 1831

Over-arching: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, exhibited by John Constable in 1831

NEXT Thursday marks the 200th anniversary of a dinner party held in the London studio of the painter Benjamin Haydon. This mildly riot­ous party, which included Keats, Wordsworth, and the writer Charles Lamb, has been remembered be­­­cause it defined a strange kind of negative relationship between art, religion, and science.

Standing in front of Haydon’s painting of Christ’s entry into Jeru­salem, Lamb abused the painter for including a portrait of Newton, “a fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as three sides of a tri­angle”. Keats and Lamb agreed that Newton “had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to prismatic colours . . . and we all drank ‘Newton’s health and con­fusion to mathematics.’”

Two years later, Keats wrote:

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine —
Unweave a rainbow

How seriously Keats (who was, after all, a medical student) in­­tended this is hard to know, but the idea was al­ready in the air.

Some 25 years earlier, a series of dinner parties had taken place in the book­seller Johnson’s little room at 72 St Paul’s Church­yard, which included the radical thinkers Wil­liam Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Tom Paine, as well as the artists Henry Fuseli and William Blake. Among the orthodox, Blake could appear as a heretic, but “here am­ong the infidels”, as his bio­grapher Alex­ander Gilchrist put it, “he was a saint and staunchly de­­fended Chris­­tianity.”

For Paine, Newton was the symbol of a scientific rationalism that should replace revealed religion (he might have agreed with Saint-Simon, who, a few years later, argued that churches should be replaced by “temples of Newton”). It was immediately after Paine’s hurried departure for France that Blake drew his famous image of Newton holding a pair of dividers, illustrating the text “He who sees the ratio sees only himself,” and, a few years later, wrote to his friend Thomas Butts: “May God keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep.”

© Tate BritainScientific approach: John Constable’s rainbow diagram c.1832–36, recto of sheet A, from the Tate Archive


WHEN, as a young artist (some 30 years ago), much influenced by Blake’s religious images, I set up my studio on the top floor of a house occupied by Andrew Briggs, Ox­­­ford’s first Professor of Nano­materials, I suppose I might have ex­­pected some continuation of this kind of antagonistic dialogue. In fact, our conversations led in an entirely different direction.

As, over the years, we together investigated the historical interac­tions of science and religion, we discovered, in every culture we looked at, that, as the subtitle of the book we published last year put it, “science swims in the slipstream of ultimate questions.”

Although this conclusion might seem likely to cause controversy, it is overwhelmingly supported by the data. As one academic review put it, “Wagner and Briggs are themselves swimming in the slipstream of a huge amount of patient scholarly work undertaken at an exponenti­ally accelerating rate.”

Although attempts to weaponise science in a battle for intellectual credibility have, on occasion, produced the kind of negative reaction evidenced by Blake, the positive interaction with science of two of his younger contemporaries has often been more typical.

On 12 February 1832, 15 years after the “immortal dinner”, John Constable records that, at an Academy dinner, he and Turner found a separate table and dined “snugly — alone”. History does not record what they talked about, but it might have been science.

As James Hamilton’s book Turner and the Scientists made clear, Turner was friendly with scient­ists, including Michael Faraday, with whom he shared an interest in storms. Con­stable’s fas­cina­­­tion with Luke How­ard’s classi­fication of clouds is well known, and the meteorolog­ist John Thornes has demonstrated the extent of Constable’s interest in rainbow forma­tion. In a series of diagrams (which he may have got his chil­dren’s maths tutor to help him with), Constable works his way through the geometry of primary and secondary bow formation, as ex­­­plained by Newton and his suc­­cessors.Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock PhotoMathematician: William Blake’s Newton, c 1804-05


FAR from destroying “the poetry of the rainbow”, however, these studies enabled him to render it more power­fully. For Constable, the “mild arch of promise”, as he de­­­scribed it, remained full of meaning.

Professor Thornes has recently argued that the rainbow in the View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, which falls on the house of Constable’s closest friend, Arch­deacon John Fisher, was added to the painting by Constable on 25 August 1832: the day of Fisher’s death.


Roger Wagner is an artist, and author, with Andrew Briggs, of The Pen­ultimate Curiosity (OUP, £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50) (Books, 7 October 2016).

A documentary film of the book will be available on www.curiositystream.com in early 2018.

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