You can now discover over 250 images from the Royal Society’s collections through The Watercolour World, a new geographically indexed website that allows you to explore the world’s history in watercolours via an interactive map. The ambitious aim of the project is to bring together over 80,000 watercolours documenting the world before the invention of the camera, to form an online research archive. Searching your favourite locations will keep you occupied for hours!

The history of science is perhaps not an obvious thing to search for on a geographical website. However, the Royal Society has always sought international knowledge from its very beginnings – the original title of our Philosophical Transactions journal, first published in 1665, promises ‘some accompt of the present undertakings, studies, and labours of the ingenious in many considerable parts of the world’. This led to the Society amassing a collection of letters and papers on a wide range of topics, sent from all over the globe and often illustrated with beautiful paintings to enhance understanding.

The scope of the project has allowed for the inclusion of documentary images which depict places, people, events and the natural world. Drawing on our existing Picture Library, the Society has been able to contribute illustrations of landscapes showing geological or meteorological phenomena, zoological studies and beautiful botanical illustrations.


‘Some account of the termites, which are found in Africa and other hot climates’. L&P/7/188; published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol.71 part 1 1781 pp.139-192. (RS.8497 © The Royal Society)


A personal favourite is a termite hill picture by Henry Smeathman FRS, created from his observations during his time in Sierra Leone, on an expedition sponsored by Fellows of the Royal Society to study the natural history of the region. I like to think that this illustration, of structures made by insects with sophisticated building skills, would have been a remarkable sight to Fellows in the late eighteenth century, and it also shows how figures in scientific papers are so important for understanding the observations of others and communicating knowledge.

The inclusion of a human figure helps to give an idea of the huge scale of the termite hills, which might otherwise seem unbelievable to the viewer. The colour of the orange earth against the green of the surrounding foliage creates a complementary colour palette and gives a unique sense of place; it will be interesting to see how this compares to watercolours in other collections from this region.

One of the key features of the website is the facility to view, in a gallery format, watercolours from the same location created at different times. This ultimately allows for a better understanding of how the world around us has changed, and is already being used, for example, to study the long-term effects of climate change on coastal erosion.

I encourage you to explore and deepen your understanding of the world through watercolours…


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