Offered with a £40,000-60,000 estimate at the sale of the Peter Winkworth collection in April, the watercolour by British soldier Thomas Davies (1737-1812) was knocked down at £120,000 - not bad for a picture that the Canadian collector had apparently kept in his downstairs loo.
Older visual records of Niagara do exist but none were by artists who had actually seen the great falls. Based on written accounts, most were wildly inaccurate.
Having sold to an overseas buyer at the auction, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has now deferred granting an export licence for the watercolour until November 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. Any interested party in the UK would have to match the £151,800 price paid by the buyer (including the auctioneer's premium and VAT).
Davies' topographical picture provided the first accurate portrayal of the Niagara landscape which has become one of the most recognisable views in the world.
The 13½ x 19¾in (34 x 50cm) watercolour entitled An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara was signed and dated 1762. It was one of three sketches of the scene made by Davis who a captain in the Royal Artillery and took part in the campaign to take Montreal in 1760. He had trained as a draughtsmen at the Military Academy at Woolwich and, although Davies was familiar with making drawings as a military surveyor, this picture clearly had a poetic dimension.
The picture shows two Iroquoian figures in the lower right who appear struck by the rainbow arching over the waterfalls. These rainbows appear regularly at Niagara in the late afternoon when sunshine reflects off the mist from the falls.
In Iroquoian folklore, the Niagara Falls appeared after a conflict between the sky and the earth - represented by the Thunderer and the Great Snake Monster.
The picture was also first image to show the autumn colours of the Ontario forests.
Topographical works by Davies are extremely rare on the market. Christie's had sold a view of New York by the same artist for £110,000 back in June 1985, but nothing comparable had emerged at auction since.
According to a press release from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, the RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds of its significance for the study of Britain's history in the fields of 18th century exploration, scientific and military endeavour.
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."
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 until November 18 and this period may be extended until February if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the watercolour is made.
For a full report of the Winkworth collection sale, see ATG issue no 2188.