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Preserving our history through art: What can be done?

Preserving our history through art has never been more important.

We often forget it was only in the late 1800s that photographic film was first pioneered and, prior to this, visual history was documented solely through paintings.

Indeed, many of us look to the infamous works of Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt to study art history.

While oil paints have been a highly popular medium across centuries, noted for their vibrant and textured colours, it is watercolour that dates back to the Palaeolithic ages.

Watercolour uses natural pigments that we have seen painted onto cave walls in prehistoric times, onto papyrus in the Egyptian era, onto walls and objects in traditional Chinese culture and eventually onto paper and canvas.

It offers a unique insight into our national and global history through artwork, presenting an opportunity to learn and reflect.

However, as we move into an increasingly digital world, we must question what place watercolour will have in the future and what we can do to ensure it does not disappear.

Watercolours are fragile documents, and without proper care and preservation they will fade over time because of exposure to light, humidity and temperature changes.

With the threat of watercolours being indefinitely hidden away for their own protection, or being irreparably damaged, it is imperative we actively work to preserve and protect our history.

UK charity Watercolour World has vowed to digitise thousands of centuries-old watercolour paintings.

To quote philosopher George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In many ways, that succinctly summarises why protecting these historic artworks is so important to us as a society.

Studying our history enables us to develop a better understanding of the world we live in, and we must ensure future generations have the same priceless materials to learn from.

After all, watercolour artwork tells the story of our history in a unique, vivid, and visceral manner that written materials cannot replicate.

To date, around 80,000 watercolour images have been digitised by Watercolour World to preserve such important insights into the past.

The team there works in conjunction with PFU, a Fujitsu company, to visit owners of important historical watercolours and record works in their collections.

The more watercolour works that we can preserve, the more materials we will have in the future to explore the past, understanding how people lived, how the world has developed and the decisions that led to where we are now.

The world is an ever-changing place, from technological breakthroughs to our global climate, and as we rapidly advance into the future it is key that we look to the past.

As stated by founder of Watercolour World Fred Hohler: “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.”

Part of the beauty of watercolours is their accessibility for both professionals and amateurs as well as their ease of use.

The materials used to paint watercolours are minimal, and can be carried around easily.

As such, beautiful and versatile paintings have been produced across the centuries of forgotten people, places and landscapes that no longer exist.

Our predecessors have travelled to far corners of the globe, recording their findings using the delicacy of watercolour to produce works that have become valuable parts of our history.

Whether they were intrepid explorers stationed in a new country with the army, or simply capturing their everyday surroundings to pass the time, each piece tells a unique story as complex and valuable as any written works.

Without these watercolour pieces, which contain such rich colours and intricate details, we risk losing hidden gems forever.

It is futile to indefinitely work to preserve and protect watercolour works from bygone eras if it requires them never to see the light of day and be viewed perhaps by only a handful of people.

By working to digitise watercolours, organisations such as Watercolour World are helping to not only save our history but also allow current and future generations to view, learn from, and ultimately enjoy these pieces.

We have accepted that watercolour artworks, at least in their original state, will not last forever.

They are susceptible to damage, whether it be from heat or water, being lost, or destroyed.

However, with each piece we lose, we do not simply bereave an aesthetic work but also an integral and irreplaceable piece of our past.

Each colour, shade, texture, and detail that the painter recorded so long ago, and all the information and insight it provided into the past, is gone.

Digitising as many watercolour works as possible is the best way to ensure we protect and preserve this information for future generations.

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