Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia aims to take historical watercolour paintings into present

Watercolour paintings in Nova Scotia may become part of an international effort to preserve watercolours showing the history of the British Empire.

'We're hoping to get glimpses of these lost pasts of daily life,' says Nova Scotia Museum curator of history

A watercolour painting of Walton Cottage, then the Andrew Downs property that housed a zoo in Halifax, circa 1867. (Nova Scotia Museum History Collection)

A curator at the Nova Scotia Museum wants people to dig out 18th and 19th-century watercolour paintings from their homes as part of an effort to digitize the paintings and learn more about the province's past.

Before cameras, watercolour paintings played an important role in recording details of daily life, but the paper is delicate and images fade.

"Despite the best conservation efforts of museums and galleries, they're one of the more fragile art forms," Martin Hubley, curator of history at the Nova Scotia Museum, told CBC's Information Morning.

A U.K.-based charity began a worldwide effort to preserve and digitize watercolour paintings. The main driving force behind the Watercolour World project is former diplomat Fred Hohler, who visited the Nova Scotia Museum in early July to look at its collection.

"It was fantastic.… He's very excited at the potential for what's here in Nova Scotia for watercolours from the 18th and 19th centuries," said Hubley.

Watercolour paints were cheap and portable by the mid-1800s. Hubley said because of this, the diversity of watercolour paintings is "staggering."

Anyone from a farmhand to a ship captain could express the world they saw around them, said Hubley.

"We have views from ship captains in log books that were travelling along the coast of Nova Scotia through the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Newfoundland, Quebec and everywhere they went," he said.

How the watercolour project is helping scientists

Scientists have also taken note.

Hubley said a geologist and art historian used watercolour landscapes to track climate change along the British coastline.

"Imagine if we had a report like that for Nova Scotia or for Atlantic Canada," he said. 

Asking the public

Since watercolour painting was widespread in Nova Scotia, Hubley thinks there are many pieces in private collections.

"If you know that Great-Aunt Martha has a watercolour hanging over the mantelpiece or in her papers up in the attic, and you haven't looked at it in years, let us know about it," said Hubley. 

The Nova Scotia Museum and Watercolour World haven't finalized anything yet, but Hubley said he wants to spread the word about the project to the public.

"We're hoping to get glimpses of these lost pasts of daily life that might not be represented in our collections," he said.

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