In Focus: The vast trove of watercolours documenting the world as it looked before photography

The explosion in watercolour painting in the 18th century came not from artists' studios but rather from the unbeatable practicality of this medium prior to the birth of portable cameras. Mary Miers explains how these pictures are now being put to use once more.

Today, we think of watercolour as a branch of painting. Yet it wasn’t always this way: there was a time when this particular discipline was a matter of practical necessity rather than one of self-expression.

The skill of the medium developed not in artists’ studios but rather in the hands of soldiers and surveyors, scientists and antiquaries, travellers and spies, who used watercolour draughtsmanship to document their exploration. Canvas and oils weren’t always available, but paper and paints were much easier to rely upon. The 1750s heralded a golden age, when the availability of good paper and portable blocks of paint saw artists – notably the English – excel at watercolour.

The result is that thousands of watercolours were painted of places, plants and events as they were recorded in watercolour, long before black-and-white photography took over as the principal means of visual documentation.

For many years these have pictures have been largely overlooked, but now a new project has realised the great value they hold for seeing the world as it was 250 years ago – contributing, for example, to a recent survey of British coastal erosion.

Bats Hole in Dorset from the archive.

Recommended videos for you

This ambitious new initiative comes in the form of a free website – that allows us to navigate the world as it appeared between 1750 and 1900 has been launched. Already, more than 80,000 geotagged images can be accessed by zooming in on a map or searching by subject, artist, date or place.

The scale of this online archive is potentially vast, as there are untold numbers of watercolours in public and private collections globally, the majority uncatalogued and too fragile to display. Now, they can be digitised and their colourful detail rediscovered and preserved.

‘With the world at risk from climate change, rising sea levels and worse, the project will provide scientists and environmentalists with an accurate visual account of much of the natural world as it used to be,’ explains Watercolour World founder Fred Hohler.

‘And to conservationists and historians, it will provide the evidence to conserve and rebuild structures, to find lost places and to see the roots of human progress.’

See for more information