The Watercolour World

By SUE WILD

On 31 January 2019, an ambitious project was launched, a project that makes available to the public three centuries of documentary watercolours from around the world – available free, online. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has contributed 1000 paintings. Te Papa also has its own Online Collections site.

Most of us carry a camera and video camera with us everywhere we go, as part of a mobile phone. Our images are stored digitally to flick through on a device at any time or share via ‘cyberspace’. We are surrounded by photography and film in the form of internet, print media and cameras. Cameras are so common, they’re now just “cams” - webcams, security cams, dashcams, action cams. Images can be manipulated, right there on your mobile phone or even projected on to a large building. We have recently learned that laser surveying technology has been used to scan Notre Dame Cathedral and the record will give the rebuild design team accurate knowledge of its burnt structure.

The earliest surviving photograph made in a camera, was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 in France. In 1839 Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, photographs made on a silver-coated plate and photography was born. That was just six months before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Photography arrived in New Zealand soon after the colonists and by the 1870s and 80s, photographers such as William Meluish, Daniel Mundy, James Bragge, Alfred Barker and the Burton and Tyree brothers were documenting the colony’s progress. At about 1900 the Kodak Brownie appeared, making photography much more accessible to the general public, but, one hundred years ago, in 1919, a family was privileged if it owned a camera.

Photography recorded New Zealand life and scenery, but only in monotone – black and white or sepia. Colour was a necessity for sharing and advertising the full beauty of the New Zealand landscape. Colour was the preserve of artists and their paintings.

Watercolour was the medium for artists and surveyors documenting the countryside, chosen for its portability by Charles Heaphy, C.D. Barraud, John Gully, J.C. Hoyte and others. Their paintings were shipped to England and made into lithographic prints for media distribution, advertising the “land of perpetual summer” to prospective immigrants.


The recording of the Pink and White terraces illustrates the comparative value of photography and watercolour as media for capturing the landscape in pre-1900 New Zealand. Several photographers documented the terraces, but it is the paintings that portray the beautiful delicate colours.

The large body of historical watercolours is extremely valuable as documentation of the history of New Zealand and, indeed, of the world. These works on paper are vulnerable. Many were, and still are, framed with non-archival quality materials. Many were, and still are, stored where light and temperature slowly damages them. We have all seen old watercolours with foxing and fading. Digitizing technology allows them to be copied with no damage to the original, stored for posterity and shared internationally.

The Watercolour World organisation

A group in England has recognized the value of watercolour paintings as a record of landscape and life in the pre-photographic era.

Here is their statement:

“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 Founder and Chairman of the project is Fred Hohler; the Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall are patrons.

Sources of paintings

The watercolours on the website come from a wide variety of sources, generally grouped into the following categories:
• Public collections held by libraries, archives and museums across
the globe
• Private owners with paintings that may never have been displayed
in public, who are happy to share the works safely and even anonymously
• Open source collections: increasingly public collections are making
their images open access, free of charge and without copyright
restrictions

Selection of images

The Watercolour World team are developing expertise in selecting images. There is a challenge in understanding whether an image is “documentary” – a true-life painting of a scene, building, person – or whether it is recalled, invented or imaginary. “We try to select images that have a clear connection to a real person, place or event, that the artist could plausibly have known first-hand. A painting of a battle that happened years before the artist was born would not be included, but an artist’s satirical painting of Londoners in a pub would stay.”

Decisions have to be made about the inclusion of copies and prints. Some watercolours were made specifically to be turned into prints and the original has been lost. No black and white prints are included. Volunteers assist the professional team, currently working in a London office.

The digitising process

TWW offers a free digitisation service. PFU, a Fujitsu company, has provided a portable scanner. The team visit owners of watercolours to scan works. The scanners are simple to set up and use. They do not come into direct contact with the watercolour, using LED technology to create a detailed digital image, even through glass, but without emitting harmful heat or ultra-violet light. All available information on each work is catalogued along with the image.

The website search facility

An incoming selected image is “tagged” with descriptive words such as “boat, coast, fishing, people” and a location (pin-point, approximate or unknown). Viewers and users are asked to help improve information. Each page has a “Report” button which allows you to offer advice or comments.

Searching the website can be done by key words or by location. The location facility is impressive. A map allows you to see what paintings are available from what location, popping up a useful thumbnail image to assist your search. Type in the name of a rural New Zealand town, Patea and a few clicks will take you to an 1887 watercolour by a little-known artist.

A “Features” page has fascinating stories about how 19th century watercolours are informing the world of 2019. Scientists studying coastal erosion in Britain are using paintings to help chart the long term effects of climate change.

The Watercolour World was launched on 31 January 2019. It is immensely ambitious. Public collections are vast and the intention is also to collate private collections including those of descendants of 18th- and 19th-century amateurs. This could take the total number of images into the millions.

A peek at this website will lead you to hours of absorbed watercolour wanderings. Thanks to member Sally Banks for alerting us to this treasure trove.

Website: www.watercolourworld.org


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