The Watercolour World

Museum of the Order of St John

In 2017 the Museum of the Order of St John, with public and private collections around the world, was invited to contribute to a new online resource of watercolours from before 1900. ThWatercolour World would create a visual history of the world from the period before photography was widespread. 

The chance to be involved in this project was exciting for the Museum for many reasons.  

One of the most exciting aspects of having our collection on The Watercolour World is that it would open our collections to an international audience, allowing people from all over the world to discover the Museum for the first time. The physical Museum is based in Clerkenwell, however, our collections document many parts of the world, and the history we preserve and tell extends far beyond London. 

We currently do not have our own online collections database, so projects like The Watercolour World are an invaluable way of preserving and sharing our collections. This is particularly relevant for works on paper, which can be displayed for limited periods of time due to the sensitive nature of the materials. For many works in the collection, this is conceivably the only way they will be seen by anyone other than members of staff, in order to ensure their preservation.  

And finally, with a collection of 60,000 items, and rather a lot of work to do to improve documentation across the collection, it is exciting and satisfying to have a prompt to address a particular part of the collection, with the outcome being greatly improved accessibility. This is ultimately what we are aiming for with all parts of our collection, but are not always in a position to achieve. 

In order to get our works online, the Museum team first had to audit our collections, to determine how many items were relevant to this project, and what we already knew about them. The Museum’s electronic Collections Management System had very simple records for works on paper, however, by spending a great deal of time locating each item, and enhancing records, we discovered that in most cases, we had significantly more information than previously believed. This even included seemingly basic information such as dates, given titles and artistswhich we would always hope, but not always expect, to know.  

Alongside improving the Museum’s documentation, a template spreadsheet from The Watercolour World was completed, including priority fields for the website and guidance on the formatting of this information, in order to ensure consistency between collections. 

Digitisation of the relevant items was planned in two parts, with a team from The Watercolour World coming to site twice with the equipment and expertise needed. Staff from the Museum were on hand to prepare items for digitisation. A tabletop book scanner was used, with the added benefit of enabling the digitisation of glazed framed works, without having to remove them from their frames. The experience of The Watercolour World team also enabled them to accurately capture large scale works through multiple scans. The beautiful example below is ‘Panorama of Valletta’, 1800-1850, Unknown Artist, from the Museum’s Collection as digitised by The Watercolour World.

A long landscape watercolour in pale beige hues showing the view of the coast of Valetta as seen from across the water.


It is now possible to view 220 works on paper from the Museum’s collection on the website. This includes topographical watercolours, but also watercolours of costumes, and hand coloured prints and maps. The 220 items include all of our original watercolours pre 1900, but are not the full extent of all relevant collections. It is a selection to give an idea of the breadth of what we care for. In the future, we hope to add relevant illustrations from books to the website. 

If you have enjoyed seeing more of our collections on The Watercolour World, you may also enjoy viewing our collection of oil paintings on ArtUK, and our medieval collections at The Bearers of the Cross. 

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