The watercolours that illustrate a vanishing natural world

Watercolours offer a glimpse of the world before film, says Chris Carter.


Watercolours offer a glimpse of the world before film, says Chris Carter

We're used to seeing watercolours hanging on our walls athome or in galleries. We're perhaps less used to seeing them as historical records of a world before film. But for many of those painted before the 20th century, that is what they are. Yet watercolour paintings are liable to fade over time and for that reason many are shut away out of sight. A new online initiative launched last Thursday with the support of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall has set out to change that.

A colourful past

The Watercolour World ( project invites museums, galleries and the public to identify watercolours painted before 1900. Using a special portable scanner, the paintings are then digitalised and stored online for the future. "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," says 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."

Advertisement - Article continues below
Advertisement - Article continues below

The project is also expected to shine a light on female artists. After all, "there were enormous numbers of well-trained women, who, while their husbands were off shooting tigers, were actually doing something useful", Hohler tells The Daily Telegraph. By chance, the York Art Gallery's Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud: Watercolours and Drawings exhibition, which opens on

29 March, proves the point, notes Naomi Rea on Artnet News. The exhibition showcases the work of Emma Stibbon, a British artist who last year retraced Turner's steps to photograph the Alpine scenery that he, and later John Ruskin, painted. "Juxtaposed with the watercolours, Stibbon's new images provide powerful testimonyto the damages wreaked by glacial retreat," says Rea.The exhibition runs until 23 June.

Uncommon birds

Rare books offer an alternative source of early records of the natural world. John James Audubon's The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838, is one of the most prized. A first edition sold for $9.65m last June. Another fine example is the copy of A Natural History of Uncommon Birds that is going up for auction with Christie's in Paris on 20 February. (An image from the book is pictured.) Published in 1743 by the "father of British ornithology", George Edwards, the book offers "a brief and general idea of drawing and painting in watercolours exhibited in 210 copper-plates" of "uncommon birds and some other rare and undescribed animals, quadrupedes, fishes, reptiles and insects". It is expected to sell for between €30,000 and €40,000.

A diamondamong miniatures

A rare miniature portrait of King Henri III, who ruled France from 1574 to 1589, by celebrated English artist Nicholas Hilliard, is to appear at the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, from 21 February to 19 May in London. The


tiny painting had been catalogued as being from the "19th century" when it was auctioned in France in 2013. However, miniatures expert Emma Rutherford dated itto 1570. It is estimated to be worth at least £750,000.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Advertisement - Article continues below

"In terms of miniatures, it's like unearthing the biggest diamond you've ever seen," she told the Evening Standard last week. "You cannot believe this has been hidden, not commented upon, not ever before exposed as the wonderful Renaissance portrait that it is."

It's just as well that the painting (pictured) was so well hidden as many images of the unpopular king were destroyed after his assassination and possessing any picture of a monarch during the French Revolution would have landed you in trouble. "So it's survived two great iconoclastic times in France," says Rutherford. "We call these miniatures jewel-like. This is the epitome of that. It's Hilliard at his finest absolutely glorious." While the painting's provenance is a mystery, one theory (and an explanation for its survival) is that it is "the picture of the frenche Kinge in a rounde case of tinne", recorded at Leicester House in London around 1578. The miniature today forms part of the Djanogly Collection.




Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour's iconic 1969 black Fender Stratocaster is to go under the hammer with Christie's in New York. The "Black Strat" (pictured) was Gilmour's primary performance and recording guitar between1970 and 1986, "and was key to the development of the Pink Floyd sound", says the auction house. Gilmour played the guitar when recording such albums as The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979). It is expected to fetch $100,000-$150,000 as part of The David Gilmour Guitar Collection on20 June.


In December, a cream-coloured Fender Stratocaster was sold at Bonhams in London on behalf of the Rainbow Children's Hospice. It had been signed by numerous music legends, such as Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy, Bill Wyman (The Rolling Stones), Pete Townshend (The Who), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Eric Clapton (Cream), Brian May (Queen), Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), Don Mclean and Alice Cooper, among others. It made £8,750 on the day, including buyer's premium. A number of guitars played by Judas Priest's KK Downing were also part of the entertainment memorabilia sale. The one that fetched the highest priceby far was the 1967 red-finish Gibson Flying V, played by Downing. It sold for a total of £150,000.



Share tips

Alternative investments: three hidden gems beyond stocks and bonds

Alternative investments such as private equity or commodities are one of the oldest forms of investment, says professional investor Alex Barr. Here. h…
16 Sep 2019
Alternative investments

The art world goes online with virtual auctions

The pandemic has presented new challenges for auction houses, says Chris Carter
12 Jun 2020
Alternative investments

New ways to profit from a love of whisky

Chris Carter looks at the latest online developments for whisky lovers.
29 May 2020
Alternative investments

Wine-lovers sniff opportunity online

The lockdown has seen wine lovers rush online, says Chris Carter.
29 May 2020

Most Popular


House price crash: UK property prices are falling – so where next?

With UK property prices falling for the first time in eight years, are we about to see a house price crash? John Stepek looks at what’s behind the sli…
2 Jul 2020

The end of the bond bull market and the return of inflation

Central bank stimulus, surging post-lockdown demand and the end of the 40-year bond bull market. It all points to inflation, says John Stepek. Here’s …
30 Jun 2020

How can markets hit new record highs when the economy is in such a mess?

Despite the world being in the midst of a global pandemic, America's Nasdaq stock index just hit an all-time high. And it's not the only index on a bu…
3 Jul 2020