News story

First watercolour of Niagara Falls under threat of leaving UK

Temporary export bar placed on first portrait of Niagara Falls

Watercolour of Niagara Falls

An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara

The very first eyewitness representation of Niagara Falls, a 1762 topographical watercolour by Thomas Davies, is at risk of being exported from the UK unless a buyer can be found to match the £151,800 asking price.

In order to provide a last chance to keep it in the UK, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has placed a temporary export bar on the watercolour by Captain Thomas Davies, An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara.

The topographical watercolour of Niagara Falls by Captain Thomas Davies provides the very first accurate portrait of this iconic landscape, which has become one of the most recognisable views in the world. It was also the earliest inclusion of Niagara’s ever-present rainbow. Captain Thomas Davies was highly regarded as a military artist and collector, and this watercolour and Davies’ career was testament to Britain’s global role in the eighteenth century.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said:

“This watercolour painting not only provides us with the first glimpse of Niagara Falls, but it also sheds light on Britain’s achievements in 18th century exploration, military and topographical art. I hope that the temporary export bar I have put in place will result in a UK buyer coming forward and that the watercolour will be available for all to better understand Britain’s global role in the 18th century.”

While there are many examples of military artwork in the 18th century, military artist drawings of North America during this century are rare. Davies was the first military artists to record Niagara falls, and this particular watercolour is important in the study of the history of British military, topographical art and exploration. The watercolour previously belonged to Peter Winkworth, who had built an extensive collection of artwork of Canadian scenes.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey took the decision to defer granting an export licence for the watercolour following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England. The RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds of it’s close association with our history and national life, and its significance for the study of Britain’s history in the fields of 18 century exploration, scientific and military endeavour.

RCEWA Member Christopher Wright said:

“The significance of the work of the draughtsmen produced by the Military Academy at Woolwich has only come to be fully appreciated by a non­specialist audience in the last few decades. That Captain Thomas Davies should have produced the first scientifically and topographically accurate portrayal of the greatest natural wonder of North America at the very moment that Wolfe’s victory at Quebec had brought the whole of the continent’s eastern landmass under British control at once gives him a pre-eminent place in the Woolwich tradition. However, most of his work has already left these shores. Davies produced three views of Niagara. ‘An East View’ of the Falls, arguably the most important of the three, is the only one now remaining in this country.”

The decision on the export licence application for the watercolour will be deferred for a period ending on 18 November 2015 inclusive. This period may be extended until 18 February 2016 inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the watercolour is made at the recommended price of £151,800 (inclusive of VAT).

An image of the watercolour can be downloaded here

Further Information

  • Organisations or individuals interested in purchasing the painting should contact RCEWA on 0845 300 6200.

  • Detail of the painting are as follows:
    • Thomas Davies (1737 – 1812)
    • An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara
    • Topographical watercolour, 34.3 x 50.2cm
    • Painted 1762
  • The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by Arts Council England, which advises the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria.

  • Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2015 and 2018, we plan to invest £1.1 billion of public money from government and an estimated £700 million from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.
Published 19 August 2015