Watercolour World: watercolors as the pre-20th century photography

How can we know what something or some location looked like 200 or 300 years ago?

If some master painter depicted someone or something and it hung in a museum, gallery, or collection, that would be one means. Usually, these works were done in oil and took much time and training to complete. Consequently, they are relatively rare.

A much more commonly used medium was watercolor, and for every oil painting that made it to a museum wall, there are thousands of watercolors — completed often by amateurs and hobbyists — that were stuck in boxes and drawers and attics. These paintings often depict scenes and places with great accuracy, and while many have been discarded and destroyed, many still exist and remain undiscovered.

That’s where WatercolourWorld.org comes in.

This website is treating 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century watercolors at the equivalent of the photography of that day, and it is trying to collect, digitize, and present as many watercolors — many heretofore unknown — as it can find. The site describes itself in this way:

Before the invention of the camera, people used watercolours to document the world. Over the centuries, painters – both professional and amateur – created hundreds of thousands of images recording life as they witnessed it. Every one of these paintings has a story to tell, but many are hidden away in archives, albums and store rooms, too fragile to display. The Watercolour World exists to bring them back into view.

We are creating a free online database of documentary watercolours painted before 1900. For the first time, you can explore these fascinating visual records on a world map, search for topics that are important to you, and compare watercolours from multiple collections in one place. We hope that this project will not simply preserve the watercolour record but revive it, sparking new conversations and revelations. By making history visible to more people, we can deepen our understanding of the world.

We are a UK-based charity, but the project is truly global. We work with private and public collections from around the world to locate and publish their images, many of which have never been photographed before.There are thousands of watercolours still to add. If you think you can contribute, let us know.

The site is beautiful and fascinating. It is searchable in many ways, and you can easily find yourself going from one topic or place or another, seeing what those of a previous century saw. Just out of curiosity, I did a search of Knoxville, Tennessee, and found this beautiful 1871 painting by Harry Fenn that I had never seen before.

Above: Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Thomas Shotter Boys, 1831-1845

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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