Western Palestine, live in colour!

By Nne-Amaka Nwokocha

There is a collection of watercolour paintings, and a few pencil and ink sketches, created during a key project, the Survey of the Western Palestine, which was run by the PEF from 1871-1878. This project involved mapping, describing and recording the whole region of the southern Levant west of the River Jordan, from Beirut and Damascus in the north to Beersheba in the south. This project produced 26 sheets of maps and 13 volumes of written records describing the Western Palestine, useful information for the goals of the PEF. Lieutenant Claude R. Conder, R.E., an officer in the Royal Engineers, was the leader of the project and is the author of this collection. Lt. Conder was deeply involved in the scholarship of the region, contributing much to the development of the study of its past as the leader of the Survey; and these paintings are an example of such. Included in this collection is his rough sketch of a surveyor with a theodolite and umbrella (PEF/PI/258) which became the basis for the PEF’s logo still used today.


These paintings are refreshingly bright with saturated colours. There is no ‘dusty haze’ filter over the images as one would see in modern visual representations of this region, like in films. It’s all technicolour. The rich hues of blues and greens catches the eye in several of the paintings, like that of the Jordan Valley in spring (PEF/PI/103). These paintings are in stark contrast to the black and white photos of the region at the time and open a window to the colours that live there in the people, weather, vegetation and animals. The colour and the focus on landscape, not monuments, gives a livelier and brighter perception of the Levant. Excitingly, the people, including women, are also a subject of the paintings like that of the Bedouin charcoal burners (PEF/PI/96), adding a bit of anthropological information on how they dressed and lived. It was a good surprise to see the bright blue clothes on specifically the women. This would not have been known by looking at a photo from the same time because not only is there no colour but women would also have been hard to picture in Bedouin societies.


When looking at the paintings, one would not consider them as sources for academic research, but they were. Prior to the development of photography, watercolour was a primary means of recording for scientific purposes and surveyors like Conder were trained in the paint medium. It was a quick medium with portable equipment and facilitated accurate recording as visual references. In a painting around the Sea of Galilee (PEF/PI/104), the actual black basalt and orange lichen of the place are well represented in the foreground. The colour in the paintings can help to indicate details such as vegetation or weather, adding to the understanding of the region. Visual representations of the time like Bedford’s photo album of the Prince of Wales’ 1862 tour, often focused on the monuments such as Mar Saba monastery and Dome of the Rock. Landscapes were not always a focus in such photographic collections nor were they particularly useful scientifically. The academic and conservative interest of the project required a form of visual representation that aimed to communicate detailed information about the region, especially from the landscape. The PEF’s watercolours, including Conder’s are available to view online at The Watercolour World, a project that brings together watercolours from collections worldwide which were produced for these aims. (https://www.watercolourworld.org/)


The sketches and paintings reflect a partnership between art and science. This exploration group went to the rural, rarely visited parts of Western Palestine for this project, recording and mapping details about them; and Lt. Conder maintained accuracy in his paintings. He painted, and sketched, three different views from Mount Ebal of the Nablus Valley, noting the surrounding peaks (PEF/PI/247). The painting exhibits artistic and geographic skill as he would have paid attention to distance and position and labelled every geographical marker in view. What he paints comes from a background of surveying the region; but he still holds to aesthetic values, producing works of art still pleasing to the eye. Paintings like that of Carmel Ridge under an autumn thunderstorm (PEF/PI/119) can be a reference of weather patterns but still portray the natural beauty of the Levant.