The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge marks its 200th anniversary this year, and has a small exhibition of prints connected by that date: some from Turner’s print series Liber Studiorum, of British and European landscapes, some from Goya’s bullfighting series La tauromaquia, and Peter Cornelius’ Faust series.

1816 was also “the year without a summer”, following the vast volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year. According to the curators’ notes for the exhibition, written by Elenor Ling and Amy Marquis,

swathes of volcanic gas were thrust 40km skywards into the stratosphere, far above any rainclouds that could have sped up their dispersal. These gases and particles circled the planet and played havoc with the world’s weather systems.

Some parts of the world, notably parts of central Europe and some of North America and Asia,

were ” devastated by ‘uncommonly violent’ storms, heavy and incessant rainfall … bitterly cold temperatures or periods of extended drought.

The conceit of the exhibition is that in some way these three series, by artists from very different schools, somehow shed light on that terrible year. This isn’t really the case, although a couple of the Turners have a slightly apocalyptic feel (such as “Solway Moss,” above), and there is some evidence that they were made, or remade, during 1816. Turner (and other artists) also noted, and painted, the lurid red sunsets generated by the volcanic dust.

The Goya series seems more influenced by the re-introduction of bullfighting in Spain after a period between 1805 and 1814 when it was outlawed, which was a bit of history I didn’t know. And the Cornelius prints, probably the best set here, full of light and detail, seems to have been made because Goethe had recently published Faust.

The year without a summer

Which isn’t to dismiss the seriousness of the summer of 1816. “The year without a summer” sounds now like a tabloid headline on a slow news day, but when most people lived off the land, it was devastating.

In his book on Tambura, Gillen D’Arcy Wood spells out the impact.

For three years following Tambora’s explosion, to be alive, almost anywhere in the world, meant to be hungry. … Across the globe, harvests perished in frost and drought or were washed away by flooding rains. Villagers in Vermont survived on hedgehogs and boiled nettles, while the peasants of Yunnan in China sucked on white clay. Summer tourists traveling in France mistook beggars crowding the roads for armies on the march.

In Europe in the aftermath of the 12-year Napoleonic wars, which had ended the previous summer, taxes and food prices ran high, as did unemployment. In Ely, and parts of Norfolk, labourers with banners that read “Bread or Blood” held magistrates hostage and fought the militias.

‘A meal was bought with blood’

The crisis was worse in Germany and Switzerland. “Poor harvests led quickly to mass starvation,” note Ling and Marquis. In German, the word for the period is Das Hungerjahr. The extreme weather and its consequences extended until 1818.

The work that resonates most deeply with the experience of “the year without a summer”—as the curators’ leaflet notes—was “Darkness,” a poem by Byron. He spent the summer of 1816 in a rented villa near Geneva with Shelley and Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin, who were to marry later in the year, where the intense thunderstorms also shaped her writing of Frankenstein.

Here’s an extract from Byron’s poem:

And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought—and that was death
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails.

The obvious conclusion is the connection between extreme weather and our food and other systems and networks. Global markets and a huge increase in infrastructure, and their related technologies (containerisation, refrigeration, etc), means that our food systems take longer to collapse these days than they did then. But as Hurricane Sandy showed, when they do collapse, everything stops working, and far more quickly than in 1816.

The image shows ‘Solway Moss’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner, engraved by Thomas Lupton, from Part 11 of the Liber Studiorum, 1816.