A family of artists’ spectacular paintings of the North East over two centuries have been loaned to Durham County Record Office.

Almost 400 artworks, mainly by solicitor William Watson senior, barrister Innes Watson and Durham Light Infantry commander William Innes Watson, chart life in Teesdale from the early 1800s to the 1980s, as well as family interests and travels.

Principal archivist Gill Parkes said: “The Watsons lived in Spring Lodge, opposite the Bowes Museum, and we already hold the archives of the family, their solicitors’ practice, and the military records of William Innes Watson and his father who served as colonels in the DLI.

“Several generations of the family were keen artists and this art collection includes many early watercolour views of Teesdale that pre-date the age of photography, giving a fascinating insight into the landscape that also inspired Sir Walter Scott, JMW Turner and John Sells Cotman.

Who were the Watsons?

The Watsons had a solicitor’s practice in Barnard Castle from 1817 to 1985.

It was founded by William Watson senior (1794-1883), who built the family’s home in the Newgate area of the town in the mid-1820s.

Many of the family played a very active role in the social, political and cultural life of the South West Durham town.

William Snr was secretary and treasurer of Barnard Castle Agricultural Society for 48 years. He was also Steward of the Manors of Raby, Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale.

Innes Watson (1851-1931) was the youngest of William Snr’s four children and after university at Oxford he became a barrister for a few years.

After giving up law, he occupied himself with outdoor and artistic pursuits.

William Innes Watson (1906-1988) was eldest son of Harry Crawford Watson (1864-1934) and his wife, Lila Watson, née Haslewood, (died 1952).

The great-grandson of William Watson, he was educated at Aysgarth and Charterhouse Schools, joined the 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry in 1926, qualified as a solicitor in 1929 and then joined the family firm.

At the start of Second World War he was posted to Darlington, where he was attached to the 50th Northumbrian Division, then to France in 1940 – but he was invalided home with pneumonia.

He rejoined his battalion and saw action in North Africa, where he was to emulate his father by being appointed 6 DLI’s commanding officer.

He then saw action in Sicily, then left his battalion to become commander of the Middle East School of Infantry.

In 1947 he reformed the battalion and was its commander until 1960.

William also served, at various times, as clerk to Startforth Rural District Council, president of the Friends of the Bowes Museum, Deputy Lieutenant of County Durham, and as a member of Barnard Castle Urban District Council for 12 years.

He continued to work as a solicitor with the family firm until his retirement, aged 79, in 1985.

What will happen to the artwork?

Now that the 388 pieces of art are being preserved in Durham County Record Office staff and volunteers will catalogue and digitise the collection, but that will take some time.

Gill said: “People won’t be able to access the collection straight away, but by next year we would hope to have all the information and images available through our online catalogue.

“We would also like to, in the future, be able, to let people enjoy the artwork for themselves and work is already underway to explore the possibility of a high quality digital exhibition.”

For more information about Durham County Record Office, becoming a volunteer, or to search its catalogue of tens of thousands of records, visit www.durhamrecordoffice.org.uk

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