Why watercolours should be preserved

Watercolour works of art can be traced back throughout human history, used for documentation, decoration and more. The medium as we know it today was first established during the Renaissance as artists sought out a more romantic and liberating form of expression. As such, many great watercolours from the 15th century onwards are now fighting the endless battle against time with artists, curators and collectors alike all working to preserve these vital parts of history.

Thankfully, the tireless efforts of many in the art world have meant that many historic watercolours have survived throughout the years. This, however, has come at a cost, and it is now standard practice globally for watercolours to not be on permanent display and to be kept in controlled conditions. The works shown to the public are only on display for a short period every few years, with famous watercolourist Albrecht Durer’s works last available to the public in 2020.

When these works are displayed, they are always under strict environmental conditions with set lighting and temperature controls to ensure no lasting damage. Even so, works such as Durer’s can only be displayed for no more than a few months before being archived.

Many historical watercolours are preserved in dark archival spaces in specially designed casings called solander boxes to protect their aesthetic and structural integrity. These boxes help protect them from any damaging pollutants, and they are covered with acid-free tissue paper. Once there, they are very rarely handled to ensure no harm is caused by mishandling or the natural oils on human skin.

The ideal conditions to showcase watercolours to the public are so precise and difficult to achieve, it is so rarely attempted with older works of art. Instead, the priority has become to protect the integrity of the artwork at all costs meaning they are only ever viewed by a handful of people. Naturally, historical watercolours need to be preserved as they are a vital part of our collective world history. However, this endeavour is futile if the public can never view these works, which is why the organisation Watercolour World has developed a more modern, long term solution.

This UK based charity is committed to preserving, protecting and, more importantly, reviving the art of watercolour. Since 2016 they have curated a collection of over 80,000 historical watercolour works from public and private collections worldwide. Each piece is carefully digitised, and a high-resolution image is then uploaded to their free online database, allowing anyone to search for different artists, topics, countries and more.

Works that are too fragile to display are now preserved in the digital space forever so that generations present and future can learn and reflect on important pieces of visual history. Art tells the story of our world in a way that the written word never could, and without these priceless pieces of documentation, we would lose sight of our collective heritage.

We cannot indefinitely protect the original works of art, but we can preserve their legacy, ensuring that they take their rightful place in the digital realm. If you would like to know more about the work of Watercolour World or would like to explore their ever-growing online database, you can visit their website here.

Andrew Mcaffrey
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