Recording the World Before Photography

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By Dr Fred Hohler
All interested in the work of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum should be aware of the existence of The Watercolour World (TWW) project. TWW was set up in 2019 by Fred Hohler, whose earlier project was the Public Catalogue Foundation that successfully photographed and catalogued over a quarter of a million publicly-owned oil paintings in the UK (now available online as ArtUK). TWW is a UK-registered charity that is delighted to have been awarded the joint patronage of both the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.

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We are a global project. Our mission is to bring together onto a single geographically-indexed website (www.watercolourworld.org), all documentary watercolours covering the period 1750 to 1900, wherever they are now to be found, and whatever part of the world they record. Importantly, we give very great emphasis to the inclusion of private collections as well as public ones. The period 1750-1900 begins, roughly, with the formal decision in 1746 of the Duke of Cumberland and others, post Culloden, to set up a school of military drawing at Stirling Castle. This decision made the watercolour the official means of making a visual record of events and places in Georgian and later Victorian Britain for the 150 years to 1900.

By then, its role had been overtaken by the arrival of the pocket camera. This period coincides with the expansion of the British and other empires across the globe, the end of the agrarian era in the West, and the whole of the first Industrial Revolution. Its formal military origins led to widespread popularity for watercolour painting and to the training of non-military professional and amateur artists, particularly women, all competent and mindful of the need to record what they saw accurately and to note the date and location on their painting. As a result of the combination of these two developments, there was created, and there still exists in public and (most importantly) private collections around the world today, a vast visual record of the world before photography.

This record is unique, irreplaceable and invaluable as it can provide us today with accurate and reliable visual information essential for the informed conservation and restoration of our natural and man-made environments – quite apart from its many other values to us all, socially and historically.

To encourage the (anonymous, if desired) participation of private collections, here in the UK we offer, in exchange for participation, a free digitisation service. We digitise in high resolution, on site, all watercolour paintings in a collection, edit them, and provide free of charge a complete set of digital images for owners to use as they wish. We use portable scanners that emit no heat or UV and can scan through glass. Images glued into albums can be scanned safely, without straining their bindings. We disclaim any copyright arising out of this work and the TWW website is completely unmonetised. If you believe we might be able to help you in your endeavours in this area, please visit our website: www.watercolourworld.org) or contact Fred Hohler at fred@fredericksplace.org.uk

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