The watercolours that illustrate a vanishing natural world

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

We’re used to seeing watercolours hanging on our walls at home 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 (WatercolourWorld.org) 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.”

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 testimony to 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 diamond among 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 it to 1570. It is estimated to be worth at least £750,000.

“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.


Auctions

Going…

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 between 1970 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 on 20 June.

Gone…

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 price by far was the 1967 red-finish Gibson Flying V, played by Downing. It sold for a total of £150,000.

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