The watercolours paintings that documented Earth
A new website is digitising millions of watercolours, to make instantly available a wealth of incredible historic images.
Watercolour World is the brainchild of former diplomat Fred Hohler, who embarked on a tour of Britain’s public collections and realised quite how much there was to do on watercolour alone: Norwich Castle Museum held about 4,500 paintings by a single artist and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew had somewhere between 200,000-300,000 watercolours in its drawers.
The value of this project is that it views these historic paintings as documents, not aesthetic objects: visual records of the world in colour, spanning a full 150 years before photography took over as our primary documentary choice.
A Tibetan Weaver, 1895, by William Simpson from Watercolour World. Photograph: Private collection.
Nowadays it is difficult to imagine a world without photography. Of every event, story or even simple daily life we are all faithful reporters with our smartphones or cameras.
But how was visual documentation produced only 150 years ago?
Photography was just born, and cameras rarely reached places far from the major European or US centers.
Between the invention of the spool camera around 1900 and the advent of mass commercial colour photography in the 1950s, we lost practically half a century of colour.
A widespread method everywhere was watercolor painting, which served to document great ceremonies, coronations but also scenes of common life, such as a sunset or the passage of a caravan.
Old and New London Bridges, 1828, by Gideon Yates Bishopsgate Institute from Watercolour World. Photograph: Bishopsgate Institute.
Those watercolors tell the world of centuries ago, and are a visual documentation of exceptional importance for the knowledge of history.
Watercolour World has launched with about 80,000 works, focuses on pre-1900 documentary paintings, online for free, a wealth of images from the past available in digital format.
Some of the artists were professional painters, others military draughtsmen, official expedition watercolourists, botanists, surveyors, as well as the untold numbers of amateurs probably unpaid for their time and skill, who picked up a paintbrush to record the world around them.
The website has started with already digitised pieces from public collections like the Rijksmuseum, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Orléans.
Private view of the Royal Academy, 1858, by William Payne from Watercolour World. Photograph: Bernie C Staggers/Yale Center for British Art.
The collection is encyclopedic and presents simple works, watercolors of flora or fauna, architecture or landscapes, up to travel and event documentation. The documentation of past centuries is fundamental for scientists, who can study the changes in the natural world (climatic ones, for example), but also for historians, who can see great ceremonies or unknown details from the past, and for all enthusiasts who thinking about a world that no longer exists. These watercolours serve as an invaluable reference to understand today, from coastal erosion and ice-cap melt to loss of fauna and flora, not to mention direct human destruction (of Palmyra in Syria, by Islamic State, or the Seti tomb in Luxor).
While official draughtsmen used the best archival paper, amateurs worked on whatever they could find: this is an added incentive to the digitisation, and many of these paintings have, in fact, a shelf life.
The site offers a series of suggested contents, while the search functions are available by keyword or by location, helping scholars and curious to organize images in an orderly way.
Below, the presentation video of Watercolor World: