The scene from Richmond Hill near London, by J M W Turner. Scientists analysed hundreds of paintings completed between 1500 and 2000.

London - He was one of Britain’s greatest ever painters, his works lauded for their atmosphere and visual mastery.

Scientists, however, have found another reason to marvel at the pictures of J.M.W. Turner – they believe they will help them to assess how polluted the world once was. They say landscapes by artists such as Turner accurately recorded the chemicals in the air.

The key, according to the atmospheric physicists, is in the colour of the sunsets they depicted.

Scientists analysed hundreds of paintings completed between 1500 and 2000, a period covering more than 50 major volcanic eruptions around the globe. The results, published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, reveal that when the Tambora volcano in Indonesia erupted in 1815, painters could see the colours of the sky changing.

The gas and dust from the eruption resulted in bright red and orange sunsets for years, even in Turner’s Britain. His celebrated work The Lake, painted at Petworth near Chichester in 1829, is a clear demonstration of the effect the scientists were looking for.

They paid particular attention to the relative amount of red and green along the horizon of each painting, which provides information on the volume of aerosols in the atmosphere.

Dr Christos Zerefos of the Academy of Athens, said: “We found that red-to-green ratios measured in the sunsets of paintings by great masters correlate well with the amount of volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere, regardless of the painters and of the school of painting.” Skies more polluted by volcanic ash scatter sunlight more, so they appear redder. Similar effects are seen in modern works as a result of man-made aerosols. - Daily Mail