Victorian Instagram: Watercolour World Reveals London Before The Camera

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By M@
Victorian Instagram: Watercolour World Reveals London Before The Camera
1861: View of Westminster and Hungerford Bridge from Savoy Wharf. By John Wykeham Archer. © Trustees of the British Museum | Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Cows in Hyde Park. A hill of dust in King's Cross. The Houses of Parliament on Fire. These and many other paintings are now searchable on The Watercolour World website.

The new site brings together 80,000 images from around the world, including thousands from London. Below, we've selected a handful showing familiar parts of the capital as you've probably never seen them before.

1785: Tyburn (now Marble Arch) with a view across Hyde Park. This apparently rural, pleasant scene belies a sinister undertone. The shadow to the right is cast by a viewing platform for the Tyburn gallows. By William Capon. © Trustees of the British Museum | Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
1814: St Luke's church and Old Street from the north-west, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. © Trustees of the British Museum | Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Houses of Parliament burn down. Jeez, that looks bad.
1834: The old Houses of Parliament burn down. The view was captured by many artists — this one is unknown. © Trustees of the British Museum | Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
1840: Hungerford Market, where Charing Cross station now stands, by James Fahey. © Trustees of the British Museum | Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
1840: King's Cross was once home to a series of vast dust heaps. This one, viewed from what is now York Way, stood on the site of the station. By E Dixon. © Trustees of the British Museum | Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
1850-51. Construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. At first sight, we assumed this was a picture of the charred remains of the palace, following it's destruction by fire in 1936. In fact, it's a rare record of its construction. By George Gregor Delotz. © Trustees of the British Museum | Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The Watercolour World brings together images from private and public collections. According to the charity which runs the site:

Before the invention of the portable camera, most accurate visual records of the world were made in watercolour. While a huge number of these images still exist, they are fragile, inaccessible, and are increasingly being lost. There is an urgent need to save them and to make them available to a wider public.

And they've done a good job. This vast motherlode of little-seen images has been expertly tamed. The search engine is excellent, most images are geolocated, and annotations are expertly researched. We could browse this thing all day.

Have a play, and let us know in the comments if you make any surprising discoveries.


Note to pedants: Yes, we know that not all of these images are 'Victorian'. But, you know, '18th and 19th century Instagram' doesn't make for a pleasing headline.

Last Updated 12 February 2019