Scientists Pinpoint Monet's London Balcony Claude Monet painted a famous series of images of London around the turn of the last century. Now, scientists have used solar geometry and weather data to figure out exactly where he was standing as he painted Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge.
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Scientists Pinpoint Monet's London Balcony

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Scientists Pinpoint Monet's London Balcony

Scientists Pinpoint Monet's London Balcony

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GUY RAZ, host:

Not too far from where the Queen's official birthday was held once stood the French impressionist Claude Monet. Between 1899 and 1901, he spent about six months in London painting 95 images of the city, including Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges.

We know Monet painted these bridges from the balcony outside his room at the Savoy Hotel. But somewhere down the line, the precise location was lost, that is until now.

John Thornes, an applied meteorologist at Birmingham University, was able to pinpoint the exact spot where Monet painted by looking at the sunlight in his images. And John Thornes joins me from Birmingham.


Professor JOHN THORNES (Applied Meteorology, Birmingham University): Hello there.

RAZ: So how did you figure out where Monet was standing when he painted these bridges?

Prof. THORNES: Well, it's really all to do with what we call solar geometry. So it's a case of working back from where the sun is in the actual images and sort of working backwards to work out where Monet actually stood.

RAZ: And you're using sort of the sunlight as well to kind of triangulate? Is that sort of how you do it?

Prof. THORNES: That's right. There are two words that we use. One is to work out what we call the azimuth, which is this sort of compass direction between the Savoy and the sun. And then the second angle is the angle of elevation, how high the sun is above the horizon. And from those two angles, we can work out exactly the date and time that Monet actually introduced the sun into his paintings.

So we know that Monet, in the mornings, used to work on the sun rising over Waterloo Bridge and then by midday, the sun was shining almost along the Thames looking to the south, looking over Charing Cross Bridge. And then he would go to St. Thomas' Hospital in the afternoon and watch the sun setting over the Houses of Parliament.

RAZ: So what room was Monet in?

Prof. THORNES: Well, the room numbers have all changed now. So if you went to the Savoy, you wouldn't recognize them at all. But it was the suite composed of a bedroom and a sitting room in those days and it was 510 and 511 that he stayed in in 1900 and 1901. And it was 610 and 611 in 1899. Now, the Savoy Hotel actually alphabetized the Monet suite, which they sell to the public before - actually, it's closed for renovation at the moment.

And they, in fact, use the suite, which was further down from where Monet actually was.

RAZ: Wait. So the hotel is advertising the Monet suite and people presumably are paying a lot to stay there but that's not the room?

Prof. THORNES: Indeed. They're paying thousands of pounds just (unintelligible).

RAZ: Oh, no. Are they offering refunds?

Prof. THORNES: I don't think so. No. But they have assured us that when they reopen the Savoy in September this year that they will have restored the Monet Suite to the correct rooms.

RAZ: Fair enough.

Prof. THORNES: Partly as a result of our calculations, yes.

RAZ: And I've read that these images - actually by Monet - actually give us a pretty accurate portrait not just of the weather in London at that time but the air quality as well.

Prof. THORNES: Exactly, yes. That's one of the things we're very interested in is how the air quality has improved since those days, because obviously, the levels of smoke and sulfur dioxide, particularly from coal burning then. So Monet's London series is a sort of visual colored record of the London pea-soupers, as we now call them, and that's before the days of observation.

So, we're hoping - actually the study is continuing now. We're hoping to sort of work backwards and work out what the actual smoke levels were to give the visibilities in Monet's painting.

RAZ: What is the location from where he chose to paint these paintings tell us about his tile or his sort of method?

Prof. THORNES: Well, it's really quite fascinating that Monet would spend so much time, almost six months of his life, actually, at the Savoy Hotel standing out in these terrible pea-souper fogs, which obviously affected his health eventually. But he was just so fascinated by the atmosphere and how the atmosphere changes every minute, almost, of the day.

And this is what he called the envelope between, which he meant the atmosphere, between him and the actual scenery of the House of Parliament, the bridges and so on.

RAZ: So are you looking at any other paintings now to try to figure out, you know, where they're painted from?

Prof. THORNES: Well, yes. The next one to do, of course, is Monet's famous Impression Sunrise, which has the image of the sun rising in La Havre. And that, of course, gave name to the whole impressionist movement. But no one has actually looked at that to actually date that exactly, so that's our next target at the moment.

RAZ: Will you get to spend some time in France?

Prof. THORNES: I hope so. Yes. We'll have to go over there and this hard work is (unintelligible)...

RAZ: That's a hardship assignment.

Prof. THORNES: Yes, definitely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's John Thornes. He's a professor of applied meteorology at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom.

Professor Thornes, thanks so much.

Prof. THORNES: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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