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The Watercolour World Documents the Planet Before Photography

The initiative has already digitized 80,000 images, categorized and made searchable to the public.

Henry Joseph Moule, “Bat’s Hole,” (Undated) (Dorset County Museum, image © Dorset County Museum)

As a polar vortex overtakes the US Midwest with below-freezing temperatures, and a record-breaking heatwave scorches Australia, the extremities of climate change’s effects on Earth’s landscape seem more apparent than ever. In the midst of these severe elements, a new digital initiative, The Watercolour World, launched on January 31 to preserve a view of the world predating photography, by collecting watercolors painted prior to 1900 and digitizing them for free to the public.

William Simpson, “A Tibetan Weaver” (1895) (Private Collection, image © Private collection)

“Before the invention of the portable camera, most accurate visual records of the world were made in watercolour. While a huge number of these images still exist, they are fragile, inaccessible, and are increasingly being lost. There is an urgent need to save them and to make them available to a wider public,” the project’s press release states. “The Watercolour World will allow everyone to see these important images together for the first time, and even use them to help solve many of the challenges we face today, from combating climate change to helping rebuild heritage sites destroyed in war.”

Maria Sibylla Merian, “Untitled (Toucan)” (c.1701–1705), from an album entitled Merian’s Drawings of Surinam Insects (© Trustees of the British Museum)

The Watercolour World has already compiled 80,000 images, categorized and made searchable to the public by location or subject, including topography, botany, zoology, historic events, and human achievements.

“The Watercolour World will offer an extraordinary journey into the world in earlier times, to encounter our predecessors, and to observe how they lived, loved and played,” said Fred Hohler, founder of The Watercolour World. “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. 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.”

Maria Sibylla Merian, “Metamorphosis of a Frog and Blue Flower” (c.1700–1702) (image courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Hohler, a former British diplomat, was also the founder of the Public Catalogue Foundation in 2002, which was the first initiative to photograph and publish over 200,000 oil paintings in public ownership in Britain.

Andra Fitzherbert has joined The Watercolour World as chief executive, and the Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall have joined the effort as royal patrons. The Watercolour World is funded by London-based charity The Marandi Foundation, and British entrepreneurs and philanthropists Javad and Narmina Marandi.

PFU, a Fujitsu company, has provided state-of-the-art scanning equipment for the digitization project. They ask that anyone across the world in possession of pre-1900 watercolors contribute to the digitization project.

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